Thriving on the farm
Former drug dealer finds hope, belonging
At the age of 13, Rico Nelson of Leonardtown started selling drugs to pay the electric bill. As the second-youngest of five boys, he joined his parents in an unstable and unsuitable lifestyle for a child: his mother was an addict, his father an alcoholic.
“It wasn’t something I wanted to do. … It was a
way to provide,” Nelson said.
But now, with a grant from the very same system that was in charge of keeping him in jail multiple times for drug-related infrac- tions, Nelson is work- ing full time at Farming 4 Hunger at Serenity Farm in Benedict. The Maryland Department of Corrections has al- lotted him a $35,000 grant to be employed there for one year. He’s now one of two full-time employees at Farming 4 Hunger.
Bernie Fowler Jr., founder of Farming 4 Hunger, a nonprofit that grows fresh food for those in need, said he realized early on in the organization’s history that help was needed with harvesting, so he formed a relationship with the Department of Corrections and began having inmates at Southern Maryland Pre-Release in Char- lotte Hall come to the farm to help.
“Then I started realizing this is a man, a personality, whose needs aren’t being met, and relationships were formed,” Fowler said.
Those in the pre-release program could be several years out from finishing their sentences and the program is meant to make the transition from incarceration back into the world easier. But the reality is that when the farm initially in the pre-release program.
“We’ve created family, so they can call us,” Fowler said.
Nelson has now been out of prison for a year and a half. Originally from Charles County, his tumultuous childhood meant he went to five different elementary schools: two in St. Mary’s County and three in Charles.
“My mother was addicted real bad. She chose drugs over her kids,” Nelson said.
After multiple run-ins with the law and several stints in jail, Nelson would return to selling drugs. He said he could either go to jail for not paying child support or sell drugs to pay child support and risk going to jail again. In April 2015, while he was at Southern Maryland Pre-Release, he was given the opportunity to work at Serenity Farm.
At the farm, Nelson does a bit of everything, including greenhouse work. Fowler said he’s particularly handy with mechanical work.
“The first day I came here, it was love,” Nelson said, beaming. Instead of handshakes, there were hugs. He got to experience the love of family for the first time. He officially ended his time in pre-release Dec. 23 and now lives in Leonardtown while working on the farm full time.
“We’re numbers in there. … But here I became a man,” Nelson said. they’re released, the people are each given $50 and sent on their way, Fowler said.
For every 30 days those in the pre-release program work at Farm- ing 4 Hunger, their sentences are reduced by 10 days. At Farm- ing 4 Hunger, they get minimal pay, which is covered by the state. But it’s not just a job to pass the time. Farming 4 Hunger has turned it into a more comprehen- sive way to help those in the pre-release program better transition when their sentences are completed.
Since 2013, when Farming 4 Hunger first started its relationship with the Department of Corrections, 88 men have come to work at the farm. Only one has gone back to jail. While working on the farm, the men gain some transferable skills like being able to work the machinery, including lawnmowers.
In November, Farm- ing 4 Hunger started its Star Citizen Program, which is a three-day rotation for the men. Every three days, they rotate working the fields, working in the back end while loading trucks and such and seeing a professional life coach. The life coaching is especially important for the men to address past hurts. Leaving the past unaddressed can lead to recidivism, Fowler said.
Nelson said he got help with getting his driver’s license and more while working on
With the help of Farming 4 Hunger, Rico Nelson, a former drug dealer, has turned his life around and now works for the organization full time.