Growing Opportunities for Ex-Convicts in Urban Agriculture

Chicago Botanic Garden urban farm
Lettuce greens grow in a greenhouse outside of the Arturo Velasquez Institute in Little Village.

By Anna Boisseau

Antonio Henry only recently learned he likes lunchbox peppers. “They’re so sweet, you can just eat them straight,” he said of the multi-colored vegetables that he learned to grow last summer at a local urban farm.

Henry is a former member of Windy City Harvest Corps, a 14-week program through the Chicago Botanic Garden that provides job training in urban agriculture for ex-convicts.

“At first I just thought it was a paycheck,” said Henry, who came into the program apathetic about urban farming. But after weeks of hands-on learning in the fields, he learned he has an affinity for growing peppers.

According to Paul Krysik, Henry’s crew leader last summer, most Corps-members start the program knowing nothing about farming and often grow to love it after “literally seeing the fruits of their labor.” Some participants actually begin to feel ownership over specific crops after cultivating them on the farms. “He would be like ‘these are my peppers,’” he said of Henry’s newfound love for the plant.

Windy City Harvest Corps participants
Apprentices Antonio Henry and Tony Davis (left to right) show off the garden beds outside of the Arturo Velasquez Institute in Little Village.(Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)

Harvest Corps accepts referrals of non-violent offenders from partner organizations like Safer Foundation and Salvation Army. After a hiring process that includes an interview, a volunteer evaluation day to shadow the program, and a trial first week, participants begin learning the fundamentals of urban farming. For ex-offenders who face a difficult job market, the program provides more than just agricultural training.

“These are transferrable skills,” said Joan Hopkins, Harvest Corps coordinator. “Our goal is to support them in gaining full time employment.” She said the standards of Harvest Corps, like being on time for work and having a positive attitude, help prepare Corps-members for jobs after the program.

“Some people don’t want to do farming,” Hopkins said. “Some people just want to move through the program and use us as a reference, and that’s okay.”

The participants spend Monday through Thursday working on farms, and Fridays learning about the importance of urban agriculture. They are also given time to work on job applications and help building their resumes.

Chicago Botanic Garden's urban farms
Apprentices have prepared for the spring season by getting kale seedlings ready to plant. (Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)

“We are their support system to help them refine job search skills,” said Krysik.

Participant Tony Davis said he believes the standards of Harvest Corps would help him in any job after the program. However, Davis is one of the former Corps-participants like Henry who have chosen to continue on to Chicago Botanic Garden’s apprenticeship program.

Over nine months, apprentices study for a community college certificate in sustainable agriculture. Though the program is open to other participants, if they come from the Harvest Corps, the $2500 tuition for the program is paid by Chicago Botanic Garden.

“There’s nothing better I could be doing with my time, with the adversities I face as an ex-felon,” Davis said. “It made me know that I still had a shot.”

Windy City apprenticeship program through Chicago Botanic Garden
“I don’t even remember hearing the word compost,” said apprentice Antonio Henry of his lack of knowledge about urban farming before joining the Harvest Corps program. (Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)

Christopher Epps agreed. At 34, he said he was one of the oldest participants in his Corps program. “When I found out the average farmer was 54 years old, it shed new light, gave me hope.”

Apprentice Michael Smith never thought he would enjoy farming. After spending the day on work shadow, watching someone pull carrots, he said “I was like, I can’t do this.’” However, after showing up to work angry a few times, he realized that working on farms was soothing to him. “You can leave everything at the door,” he said.

The apprenticeship doesn’t start until February, and Corps participants either finish in June or September, so they spend the months in between programs participating in a paid work-study. By the time they start their apprenticeships, former Corps-members have had almost a full year of work in urban farming.

According to Hopkins, apprentices who come from the Corps program are often surprised to see how knowledgeable they have become about farming. Henry said since the apprenticeship started, non-Corps participants have been asking him questions in class. “I didn’t think people [would] be coming up to me asking things,” he said. “Now I have the answers.”

Hopkins said that she does sometimes hear of former participants who end up back in jail. But she added that she thinks that Corps-members always feel comfortable returning to the program. “I think that’s probably why I enjoy my job…because we’re giving them a fair shot,” said Hopkins.

Lettuce greens grow in a greenhouse outside of the Arturo Velasquez Institute in Little Village.(Anna Boisseau/MEDILL)