Walter Barry stands outside the front gate of what once was a vacant lot, looking like a proud father, lacking only the big cigar.
He has every reason to be proud, as he and a group of other people from the Friends of the Lifers have created an industry where previously only weeds grew. He helped start a farm in the middle of one of the most urban parts of the nation, in fact in the heart of what was once was on the most dangerous streets in Jersey City – Martin Luther King Jr. Drive near Stegman Street.
“That corner over there,” said Freeholder Jeff Dublin pointing a block up from what has become a fixture in the neighborhood, “used to be all drug dealers. This part of town has turned around.”
While crediting the Urban Garden program – which is only two years old – might not be completely accurate, the garden and those who run it have become symbolic of a change of culture that is part of the revitalizing of the inner city.
This farm, which raises everything from beets to okra, is run by and has become a training facility for ex-offenders, and teaches them how to raise crops, can them, promote them, and market then. It is part of a network that gives another chance to the men and women coming out of jail after serving time for non-violent offenses.
How it started
“I’m an ex-offender,” Barry said. “I served time in Rahway State Prison. I used to grow food in the vacant areas when I was in prison.”
Barry came over from Essex County to help start a program in Hudson County similar to one he had started there. This is the second year for the program here, although it is the end of the season for this particular site. The program is seeking funding to construct a hydroponics green house here.
“We want to grow year-round,” Barry said.
Since June, when they started planting here, they have raised eggplant, basil, hot peppers, okra, cherry tomatoes, thyme, several types of collard greens and much more.
“A lot of it we grew as seedlings from different nurseries,” he said. “Some we started from seeds. But we started late. Most of the time when you start with seeds, you have to start in late March or early April.”
Barry serves as project director, and knew The Friends of Lifers founder Harvey George.
“We partnered with Friends of Lifers. We’re from a redirection program in Newark-East Orange, Prodigal Songs and Daughters,” Barry said. “We built a hydroponic greenhouse in Orange.”
Officials from Hudson County had heard about the project and came out to East Orange to see it, and then decided it would be something they wanted to help provide job opportunities for ex-offenders here.
“So we came down here last year and helped them start it,” Barry said.
Opening the gate, Barry led a tour through the garden which has more than 500 boxes filled with greens, the last crop before the end of the season. He talked about fertilizers and the modified hydroponics already being used, and how the greenhouse would duplicate growing conditions using nutrients and other means so that crops could be generated from this site all year round.
Barry paused in front a small area where there is a bench, calling it a Heritage Garden, a place where people with a rich history of family ties to the past in the Deep South can come and reflect. And then, he reached down and plucked a white tuft from what turned out to be a cotton plant.
“Jersey City cotton,” he said with a laugh.
Nearby were stalks of sugar cane. These are not part of the cash crop, but part of history, and local churches and schools bring their children here to talk about the family roots, just the way Barry talks about roots of plants.
“We teach them how to grow food, we teach them how to can food, we teach them how to market those products,” – Annette Joyner
Teaching ex-offenders skills
A graduate of Rutgers’ master gardener program, Barry knows his stuff.
As of early September, the program had six people working on it, but there were more trainees coming, who are brought in through the Friends of the Lifers program. All are ex-offenders, and training is paid for through a grant.
“This program teaches ex-offenders skills,” Barry said.
Residents spent the summer coming in to buy fresh produce, but the farm also sells to local markets and hopes to expand to restaurants.
“We’re open to the public and we let people come onto the grounds, but we do all the picking so that the plants are not damaged,” Barry said.
But there are rare instances when someone comes that makes for an exception, such as the woman raised in the south who brought her granddaughter here to show her how to pick okra.
“What could we do? We let her pick. She knew what she was doing,” Barry said.
He and the others also learn from people who come, such as an old timer who recognized an unusual variety of collard green.
“I thought the bag of seeds was mislabeled because when it started to grow it didn’t look like collard greens I knew,” he said.
“When someone comes out of jail, we provide housing, substance piece, and this provides job training,” said Dublin. “We need the green house here in order to provide job training year round.”
The cost to purchase and construct a permanent green house is about $37,000. While the program has a $50,000 grant, it is not likely to happen without extra funding. Ben Lopez, director of Hudson County Division of Family Services, said that while the project has a grant of $50,000, O’Dea said there are other needs, such as purchase of supplies, that the project must get beyond the scope of the grant. He hopes to get members of the building trades involved to help with construction.
Dublin and the freeholders are hoping someone else will step up and prove that they are willing to take a chance on these ex-offenders.
Bigger plans in the works
Annette Joyner, executive director of the Friends of Lifers, said she and the late Harvey George put together the program as part of an effort of turning the community around.
“When people come out of prison they need a start,” she said. “This could provide some of them with that.”
Along with programs that provide training for janitorial services and car washes, this program has the potential to teach ex-offenders an even broader range of services. Barry, who runs a landscaping business, said some of these ex-offenders even get training for those skills.
Along with some local supermarkets and the general public, Jersey City Medical Center also purchases vegetables here.
The program currently has three instructors and 10 trainees.
The state Department of Labor, through the county’s Division of Family Services, funded the garden for the first year, which allowed the program to purchase 500 earth boxes, and some of the equipment needed to get the program off the ground.
Joyner said by providing services year round, ex-offenders get training, and then later jobs, and the garden also provides services to the community, educating residents about healthy heating habits – when many rely on fast food and other unhealthy sources of food.
“A lot of people in this community do not know how to cook with herbs, they do not use paper. They don’t use cherry tomatoes and they don’t use eggplant. This is educating them on healthy eating.”
An outgrowth of the program would be workshops for the public to teach people around cooking, how to eat better, and how to use some of things grown here.
“We would like to start out with job projects for ex-offenders, creating our own company, our own businesses, so we can have our own jobs for this population,” she said.
Combined with a local facility that will house classrooms on the second floor and a café on the first, the program has the potential to become a significant employment and training opportunity for Hudson County ex-offenders, she said.
“We’re trying to teach people about food science,” Barry said. “We want them to be conscious of what they put into their bodies.”
The farm program is a kind of vocational school for ex-offenders, Barry said.
“They get good work and hands on training,” he said. “This is also a perfect green initiative,” he said. “If we’re trying to conserve energy, building buildings that are solar, making materials that hold heat better, what is better green initiative than what we put inside ourselves?”