When Robert Pierce first decided to quit school and become an organic farmer, everyone told him he would never make a profit.

Now, over 30 years later, Pierce is not only the successful owner of Half the 40 Acres Organic Farm and director of the South Madison Farmers’ Market, he is currently undertaking a new project that will teach formerly incarcerated men how to create successful businesses in urban agriculture and build access to healthy food in their communities.

“Urban agriculture says if you grow enough food, why don’t you sell it to pay your bills? I’m teaching people how to sustain and that’s why we’re teaching these guys how to grow food,” Pierce said.

In partnership with Anthony Cooper, director of reentry services for the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, Growing Power, Inc. Milwaukee, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Pierce will provide an underemployed group of men with the skills to create a business feeding an under served population.

“Some of these guys have a hard time finding employment,” said Cooper, who works directly with the men. “Through this opportunity, with our connection with the UW, and also Robert Pierce as well as Growing Power, we can just say, ‘Okay, let’s start growing.’”

Associate professor Alfonso Morales and doctoral student Dadit Hidayat will be teaching an environmental studies course this fall that will involve UW students in the project. It’s the fourth environmental studies class that has collaborated with Pierce and his farmers’ market since fall 2013.

In an effort to bring together classroom and community, past courses have helped Pierce address issues like low vendor participation and low market sales. Hidayat has been a part of every course and helped Pierce and Cooper come up with their recent project.

To increase the number of vendors and encourage the community to buy organic by educating them on the importance of access to fresh and healthy food and urban agriculture, the team looked into the Nehemiah Center and their reentry program.

“We thought, ‘What if we grow our own vendors and our own farmers from the South Madison community?’” Hidayat said.

This spring, the project received a two-year grant through the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment. Beginning in September, students in the course will attend Nehemiah’s Man Up meetings, a weekly support group for men who have been incarcerated. The meetings are led by Cooper.

Pierce has also attended meetings over the last few months and has spoken with the men about the possibility of urban agriculture.

“Most of the guys are from bigger cities and some know a little bit more about farming than others, but at the same time it sounds weird, it sounds a little crazy, but they’re willing to give it a shot,” Cooper said.

“Farming is not a glamorous job, but it’s important,” Pierce said.

Both men and students from Hidayat’s course will choose two or three men from the Man Up program to go through an 8-month training period in urban agriculture.

During the training, the men will work with Pierce learning how to harvest and plant while using only organic farming methods. Twice a month they will attend workshops in Milwaukee with Growing Power, Inc., a national nonprofit that helps people grow, process, market and distribute food.

The workshop, titled Commercial Urban Agriculture, will provide the men with the tools necessary to explore several avenues of income through organic farming.

“We’re going to teach them all the different aspects of this business. Maybe somebody wants to be able just to sell to restaurants. We’re going to fix them up with all the different aspects to make money growing food,” Pierce said.

The group hopes the effort will continue, and the men who participate go on to teach others what they’ve learned, helping to create a greater network of people bringing healthy food to South Madison. 

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