New Vertical Farm Helps Former Inmates Cultivate a New Chance at Life

Second Chances Farm founders Ajit George (left) and Jon Brilliant (right) with chief growing officer Evan Bartle (middle)

Tasty, farm-fresh green leaf lettuce and fragrant Genovese basil are growing without soil, sunlight, bugs or pesticides inside a small room in an unassuming office building in Wilmington — the initial crops produced from what growers hope will be the first large scale indoor vertical farming initiative in the state.

The first seed of Second Chances Farm has officially taken root. A for-profit venture, Second Chances hopes to combine a growing interest in pesticide-free, organic farming with the goal of putting ex-offenders back to work.  

 

Kale, other leafy greens, even strawberries are among the produce that the farm intends to grow hydroponically year-round once they move into a 50,000-square-foot warehouse in Wilmington’s Riverside Community sometime this fall.

Second Chances cleared a significant hurdle this past week, when the Wilmington City Council unanimously passed an amendment to the city zoning code which will allow indoor commercial growing operations.

Cool temperature LED lighting helps to rapidly grow the vertical vegetation

Founders Ajit George and Jon Brilliant now need to finalize plans regarding their letter of intent to purchase 3030 Bowers Street, the former Opportunity Center. They are seeking to raise $3 million in investments that would benefit from Opportunity Zone tax benefits. Opportunity Zones are unique to Delaware – an economic development tool providing tax benefits to investors to spur revitalization programs in economically-distressed communities in the state.

While Second Chances Farm will be in the business of generating a profit, George calls his initiative “compassionate capitalism,” saying his business model will help uplift a community.

 

The hydroponic growing method requires no dirt or natural sunlight. Instead, greens sprout and develop under the glow of cool temperature LED lighting and a continuous flow of water through multiple growing racks. (Cool temperature lighting consumes less electricity than fluorescent and traditional lights.)

Produce seeds are nestled into a cotton candy-like substance called rockwood, made up of spun out volcanic rock. “It’s a very neutral substance that easily keeps the roots aerated and allows air in while also soaking up moisture,” said Second Chances Farm chief growing officer Evan Bartle. 

The neutral substance that seeds are placed in contains no soil or pesticides. With continuous flowing water through the bed of each shelf, roots quickly establish.

Once the seeds begin to sprout, they are transferred to a bright white vegetation unit, where plants are placed next to each other in panels above a water bed. Each panel contains 108 budding plants, and one vegetation unit typically stacks eight panels.

Second Chances Farm intends to grow warehouses full of produce using these same means. In the first phase, they will have the potential to grow 373,000 plants on any given day. These plants will be harvested in 4 weekly cycles with over 90,000 plants harvested weekly. 

“All of these plants are not only pesticide and herbicide free, but they will also significantly reduce the carbon footprint that would otherwise have resulted in transporting these plants from California or Mexico to Delaware because they are grown locally 365 days a year regardless of the weather,” said George.

Bartle checks the temperature of the water in the reservoir which supplies a continuous flow throughout the vegetation unit

The farm will sell mostly to local restaurants and grocery stores and eventually expand to the mid-Atlantic region as they expand their enterprise to additional vacant properties.

Second Chances will also seek to establish a ‘corporate’ community shared agriculture (CSA) program – weekly deliveries of fresh produce that will be available for employees. For each purchased, one order will be donated to a food desert, the local urban communities that are considered to have limited access to affordable, quality fresh food. 

George and Brilliant are proud of the farm’s selective hiring process – all former state and federal inmates.

George produced 32 TedX Wilmington events spanning multiple topics between 2012 and 2018. Two ideas that some of his speakers addressed were recidivism and correctional funding as well as hydroponic farming.

“Those unrelated subjects I thought I could maybe tie together and find a solution to recidivism, through Second Chances,” George said.

Inspiration struck in May 2015 at the Baylor Women’s Correctional Facility, at an event George had organized called “Breaking Bread Behind Bars.” Guests sat alongside the inmates, feasting on the mouth-watering meals prisoners had prepared in their culinary program. At the lunch, Prison Warden Wendy Caple mentioned her hope to one day have a greenhouse within the facility, giving her prison population year-round access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Currently, Delaware has a 70% recidivism rate, and it costs an average of $43,000 annually to house an inmate. Second Chances Farm plans to put 10 ex-offenders to work for each 10,0000 square feet of vertical vegetation.

Former Delaware Department of Corrections counselor Patricia May will manage the ex-offender training program for Second Chance Farm

George and Brilliant have brought on former Delaware Department of Corrections counselor Patricia May to serve as Restorative Justice Program Coordinator. She will oversee the hiring and training of each recently released inmate.

The former prisoners will earn $15 an hour working for Second Chances, with the opportunity to earn equity stake in the farm. George calls them ‘agri-preneurs.’

During their employment, the men and women will attend weekly trainings, not only in hydroponics, but business, economics, and social services. “We don’t want to just give them a job,” George said, “We want to have entrepreneurs in residence.”

May knows well the ex-prison population that will essentially become farmers. She served 40 years in the field of corrections before she was taken hostage for nearly 20 hours in the 2017 prison riot at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna. May retired a year later but is eager to get back into mentoring. “This is my second chance too,” she said.

 

One the dozens of rehabilitative programs she administered included the prisoner re-entry program. She says ex-offenders face enormous barriers to entering the workforce and several obstacles to independent living. So she says it is essential that former prisoners have a professional help with their transition.

The warehouse is an ideal location, George said, as a $100 million deal was just announced called Reach Riverside, seeking to revitalize the neighborhood by providing affordable housing. “We want to be transforming neighborhoods,” George said. He aims to be selling the plants and produce from the Riverside location by January. 

But Second Chances Farm will not begin and end in Riverside. He and Brilliant hope to establish 10 farms in the mid-Atlantic region within the next three years. Additionally, they hope that their business model will go beyond just local farming.

“We’re trying to make a holistic approach and set an example that we hope others will emulate,” Brilliant said.

While not everyone will step out of prison aspiring to pursue farming, the men hope that similar business models will be pursued in different sectors, to service others and with the potential to effect positive change for dozens of lives.

 


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About the Contributor

Ellie Watson

Ellie Watson

Ellie Watson is a sophomore at the University of Richmond, majoring in journalism. She writes for her school paper, The Collegian, in addition to being a coordinator for her school’s chapter of Camp Kesem.