“I still think that urban agriculture is basically a way for some people to save their lives,” said Robert Pierce, who teaches farming skills to the formerly incarcerated.

Robert Pierce knows firsthand how powerful planting can be. He’s been farming in south Madison since the 1980s, and for much of that time, struggled with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service in Vietnam.

“If I’d get mad or pissed off or something, I’d go out to the field and I’d plant things in a straight line. And if it wasn’t a straight line, I’d take the whole thing out and do it over again,” Pierce said.

Later, a psychiatrist told him that likely saved his life.

“(She said) people who had PTSD as bad as I did were either dead, in an insane asylum or locked up in prisons. She wanted to know how I did it,” he said.

He’s been passing on his farming skills for years, teaching urban agriculture to at-risk youth and the formerly incarcerated. Now, in a partnership with Madison-area Urban Ministry, he’ll expand his work with the formerly incarcerated, bringing a class of five to the farm. They’ll be paid for their time, learn to grow their own food and benefit from the dignity of work.

“I still think that urban agriculture is basically a way for some people to save their lives,” he said.

Two years ago, Pierce started working with formerly incarcerated men from the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development mentoring program Man Up. That program partnered with Growing Power, Inc. Milwaukee and the UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental StudiesPierce also works with at-risk teens through the Program for Entrepreneurial and Agricultural Training (PEAT) .

Pierce’s still working with Nehemiah and the Nelson Institute, but he said trying to teach individuals about agriculture when they have so many other worries, like finding a place to live and earning enough money to stay afloat, isn’t easy.

“They’re so freshly out (of prison) it takes a very special person to come out of that program into this program,” he said. “It’s pretty hard when you have child support, you have court costs and probation fees. A little bit of money goes away fast.”

The new program for the formerly incarcerated is an answer to the city's Request For Proposals for long-term peer-support services, said James Hawk, a resource specialist at MUM, which involves partnerships with Pierce, Nehemiah and Anesis Therapy.

The program will start with a two-week trial program, to see if participants are a good fit. 

“They’ll know whether they want to do it or not, and I’ll know whether they want to do it,” he said.

But other than that, the program will look much as it has for the past two years: supplementing in-the-dirt experience with business and marketing classes so that participants can go on to be food entrepreneurs.

On day one, Pierce will teach his students to make organic compost so they won’t have to spend money on what he calls “poisons.” He’ll explain the different techniques to make compost more nitrogen or carbon-heavy, but “I don’t want to get all scientific with it, I just want to keep it nice and simple.”

Next will come making plant beds, planting and weeding. They’ll plant “everything,” Pierce said, “to get a feel for what it takes to grow” various vegetables.

Participants will also get a glimpse into how products are prepared and sold at farmers’ markets. By the end, they’ll have witnessed “every aspect of what we do, from planting to sale,” Pierce said.

Pierce’s farms sell produce at the South Madison Farmers’ Market, which Pierce directs, as well as to local businesses like the Regent Market Co-op. motels and restaurants. Chef Tory Miller, of recent “Iron Chef Showdown” fame, has used strawberries grown by the Pierce’s teen group.

The most challenging part of working with the formerly incarcerated, Pierce said, is working around their probation and parole.

If a probation officer says an ex-con has to check in instead of going to work, the ex-con is in a tough spot, Pierce said. Pierce understands the impossible choices — getting fired or getting punished for neglecting a parole appointment — and so he makes for a more forgiving foreman.

“The system’s really set against them so that they fail,” he said. “Have you ever seen the documentary called '13TH'? Well, it’s for real. When you have that label on you “felon, felon” … You can’t get a job, you can’t get loans, you can’t get anything. You’re just there till, by the grace of God, you get a break.”

Pierce is there to give them the break — and to set them up for entrepreneurship so they can carve out their own path to success.

It’s not a bad self-esteem booster, either. The most rewarding part of this work, he said, is seeing the men realize “there’s some self-worth in them.”

“(I) just wait for them to forget about all the other problems they have and put all that into the fields,” Pierce said.

It’s easy to tell when this happens, he said, laughing.

“When they first come into this, it’s like the doom and gloom, and then all of a sudden it’s like you see that they’re genuinely happy. And they show up, they’re ready to work,” he said.

If participants go through the program and decide that they want to continue on in agriculture, Pierce hopes to be able to provide them with a half acre of land. This group is just the beginning of his dreams for the re-entry model.

“This is something that can be done nationally, we don’t want to just label it just for south Madison,” he said. “We could do this anywhere.”

The program will begin in June, and Pierce’s anxious to get started.

“Everybody else in December is concerned about Christmas. And I’m looking through catalogs, looking at seeds. That’s Christmas,” he said, laughing.