The idea is to engage recently-released felons in urban agriculture to create economic opportunity for them and their families.
By Mike Ivey
Jan 31, 2019
“Growing food can change the perception of how people see themselves,” says Pierce, 67, executive director of the nonprofit Neighborhood Food Solutions. “We try to get them to shift their perspective from criminal thinking to giving back to society.”
Pierce, a Madison native, recalls picking berries as a kid in his grandmother’s backyard garden on Koster Street, behind the Alliant Energy Center, and selling to neighbors. He started farming in the mid-1980s. Since then he’s won awards and gained recognition as a leading voice for the local food movement.
Still, one problem has persisted over 30 years of tilling, planting and weeding: finding available land close to the south side. For a time, Pierce leased property behind the old Bowman Dairy on Fish Hatchery Road in Fitchburg. More recently he had access to a small area near the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage plant off Moorland Road that served another program aimed at teaching kids about the food business.
“We’ve had to move around a lot,” Pierce laments. “I’ve gained land, lost land, but never had any of my own.”
That’s where Groundswell Conservancy (formerly the Natural Heritage Land Trust) comes into the picture. The group’s executive director, Jim Welsh, had met Pierce at an Earth Day celebration several years ago. When the land on Goodland Park Road became available, he contacted Pierce to see if they could forge a partnership.
“What we can offer Robert is land security,” says Welsh. In December, Groundswell closed on the 36 acres, which was made available at a 20 percent discount by landowner Brian Pasley. Money for the purchase was provided by a combination of the Dane County Conservation Fund, Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, the estate of Marie Fraser, two anonymous donors and Groundswell.