Nathan Ryder and Bronwyn Aly

Instructors Nathan Ryder and Bronwyn Aly talk while students peruse study materials on the principles of agronomy.

VIENNA, Ill. — Corey Trainer and Mahendra Anderson hope to take what they learn in prison back to the streets — and the soil.

The Chicago natives are among about two dozen inmates at the Vienna Correctional Center taking a course in basic horticulture and small-farm management. The idea is to provide them with a skill set they can use once they’re released.

Neither has any background in agriculture, but each finds the subject matter fascinating.

“What appeals to me is being able to grow my own fruits and vegetables, and possibly bring the skills I learn here to my neighborhood in Chicago,” Trainer said. “I’d like to help improve the food selection.”

Anderson is equally on board.

“I get so much out of this class,” he said. “The city of Chicago has a program where it is investing in micro farming. It’s huge right now. This class gives me an opportunity to take advantage of that. I can pick up these skills, go back and start my own business.”

Vienna Correctional Center

Corey Trainer (left) looks on as Mahendra Anderson examines an insect through a magnifying glass. The inmates are enrolled in a course at Vienna Correctional Center that provides them with basic horticulture and farm management skills.

That’s what instructors Nathan Ryder and Bronwyn Aly like to hear.

The program, in its second year, combines a Master Gardener curriculum with a basic farm business component. The course, which runs the better part of a year at this prison near the southern tip of Illinois, was created through a USDA grant.

“With this, we hope to help reduce the recidivism rate,” said Aly, a University of Illinois Extension educator who garnered the grant. “If we can offer this, we are not only providing some entrepreneurial avenues once they’re released, but it may spark an interest and push them to seek out other ag-related programs. Ideally, if we can get a few of them to start some small farm business, that would be great.”

Gilbert Heck is a proud alumnus. The Mt Vernon, Illinois, native completed the program last year and is serving as a teacher’s aide this term. Unlike many of the students, he does have an agricultural background, having worked on a neighbor’s farm growing up.

“I’ve been interested in farming all my life,” Heck said. “I wanted to see how much I can learn here.”

He hopes to start a small produce farm when he gets out. His scheduled release date is in 2022.

Anticipation takes off during Christmas break. That’s when homework assignments call for each student to plot out his own 20-by-30-foot garden space. They have wide latitude on what to plant. Tomatoes and melons are common.

There are some restrictions. An obvious example would be tobacco. However, they also are not allowed to plant hot peppers, which could be weaponized.

“That’s something that is enticing to other inmates, and they could try to trade it,” Ryder said. “We’re just trying to cut that temptation.”

To simplify things a bit, the instructors have also reduced some of the choices. In the first year, the students had their pick of numerous varieties of tomatoes and other vegetables. Excited about the opportunity for experimentation, many chose unusual vegetable types, including many heirloom varieties.

“They were running us ragged as they went through seed catalogs,” Aly said. “We decided this year we would limit it. We would provide what they could choose from. They still have a pretty wide range of varieties to choose from.”

Some of the grant money is used for seeds and other supplies, though the program also receives donations. In the first year, a Home Depot store offered all its leftover seed from its garden center following the growing season.

Each student prepares his unique micro-farm as if he were starting a business. In addition to drawing up the 600-square-foot gardening plot on drafting paper, they determine what crops to plant and whether there will be succession plantings. The students each must name their farms, and come up with ideas for how they will present their business. It is all designed to instill in them the importance of planning and marketing, Aly said.

“We also have them project yields,” she said. “In the summertime, they can see how close they came.”

The harvested produce is used by the prison in meal preparation.

It’s all part of preparing the inmates for the realities of operating an agricultural enterprise. Anderson sees a real need in his hometown that he hopes to address.

“The reality of food deserts is a big issue. A lot of people have to travel a long distance to get fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said. “With micro farming, you can realistically start your own farm. It’s a win-win for the city. The business provides taxes and also helps solve the problem of the food desert. We really want to help solve the problem.”

The USDA feels the same way. The grant also calls for follow-up of prisoners who are released after completing the program, to determine its value.

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.