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Mission volunteers help keep prisoner-run farm alive during pandemic

Emma’s Acres stripped of entire workforce when local prison went into lockdown in March
Sherry Edmunds-Flett in her office holding up a picture of her late-husband Glenn Flett.

Mission hands, young and old, reach down into the soil pulling weeds from produce at Emma’s Acres. The rows upon rows of blooming vegetables are normally cared for by inmates, out on day passes from local prisons, attempting to rejoin society after decades of institutionalized life.

The staff of Emma’s Acres, two of whom are former prisoners themselves, say this grow season wouldn’t have been saved without the help of dedicated community volunteers flocking to the farm.

“Typically the prison system is super detached from the public consciousness,” said Shay Kish-Field, farm manager and a former prisoner himself. “We lost our workforce, and then these fabulous volunteers have been committed to come out everyday. They’ve stayed much later than four or five hours on harvest days.

“Without them we can’t get the work done.”

The farm, which runs programs under contract with Canadian Correctional Services, has been down 10 to 15 hands since local prisoners were trapped inside the COVID-19 lockdown in March.

In their stead are a group of seniors affectionately dubbed the “mighty ladies” by staff, transferred lifeguards from the District of Mission’s public pools, members of the Rotary Clubs of Mission, the Mission Folk Music Festival, paroled convicts, CSC staff (including a former warden and her husband) and victims of crime, all joined together to keep the program running.

“People really want to come here because we don’t hide who we are,” said farm co-founder, Sherry Edmunds-Flett. “You normally wouldn’t think that a bunch of people from the community would want to support something that’s run by prisoners and victims, but they do.”

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Connecting people from the opposite sides of crime, convicted offenders and victims, was the founding concept of Emma’s Acres creator, the recently-passed husband of Edmunds-Flett, Glenn Flett.

For years, incarcerated prisoners hoping to normalize their lives have worked side-by-side with people who have lost loved ones to violent crime. The latter can stop by the farm and receive free food at anytime.

“There’s not many opportunities for people who are doing time to give back, and they really want to,” Edmunds-Flett said. “You’re less likely to rob and steal in a community where you have a vested interest.”

The farm provides free vegetables to anyone with a family member who has been killed.

Flett was an ex-convict himself, serving 20 years inside for a second-degree murder charge and being paroled in 2006. One year later, he met the daughter of the man he killed in 1978. It reportedly changed his life.

When the eight-acre property was bought in 2013, it was completely forested land. Now it hosts multiple greenhouses, a chicken sanctuary, medicinal gardens and prisoner-carved totem poles with faces dedicated to victims of crimes.

Prisoners wanting to apply for the program must go through a long process with numerous checks and reviews before they’re allowed to join the farm’s team. The process can take over six months.

A convict needs to be interviewed by farm staff, have the support of their parole officer, get approved by the warden, get approved by the Parole Board of Canada and then get rubber stamped again by the warden, Edmunds-Flett said.

She said once they’re approved, there’s further step of supervision by correctional officers and community escorts, something she’s been doing since 1996.

Shay’s wife, Nicole, is another former prisoner on staff at the farm. Both transferred from Ontario’s prison system specifically for the program.

Nicole said work on the farm helps prisoners learn, interact and function within a community again.

“We get people who are so broken, and so disconnected,” she said. “By the time that we get them, they are on the end of their time in the prison system.

“This is a great space. Talking about food is the safest concept to start with.”

Flett passed away from cancer in October, 2019 – mere months before the pandemic hit B.C.

“He got sick really quickly,” Shay said. “We’ve just been trying to do out best without him … and then COVID happened.”

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Missionites’ drive and contribution to the project has increased the farm’s production by 30 per cent during the pandemic, according to Emma’s Acres staff.

Edmunds-Flett said that as many as 50 different volunteers have worked on the farm since the lock down.

“We’ve been really blessed, and really lucky,” she said. “It’s what you do when times are tough – if you can hold your own you can get through anything.”

Edmunds-Flett credits her staff, volunteers and the organization’s diversified funding base for the their stability in unstable times.

Staff on the farm have been able to plan out a new row-spacing system for their crops, and built a new irrigation system and cold storage unit during the pandemic, with the help of their volunteers

Sandra Agopsowicz is one of the “mighty ladies” who has been volunteering on the farm since the call was put out in March. This group of seniors has been coming Monday to Friday for months.

“As soon as I heard that they were losing their [workforce], I said, ‘Well they’ll have at least one.’” Agopsowicz said. “When the [prisoners] are back here this is where I want to put my volunteer time.

“I’m in it for the long haul … I’m a lifer.”

The farm has created multiple programs to help vulnerable and multi-barriered peoples during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 Response Veggie Box Program delivers a free box of non-spray, non-GMO vegetables every Tuesday to people; they have increased their provisions under the BC Farmers Market Association Coupons, giving 109 seniors and families coupons and handing out over 360 gift cards; and they have been putting on a half-price sale from 12:30 to 1 p.m. every Saturday at the Mission City Farmers Market.

“The COVID funding has helped,” Nicole said. “But it’s only sustainable because of our volunteers.

“It’s super therapeutic, that’s what they tell us.”

Another volunteer, Deborah Handley, normally runs the choir at St. Andrew’s Church where Edmunds-Flett is a congregation member.

No stranger to the farm, she participated in the bee keeping program with prisoners two years ago. She said she decided to help out because the farm was getting “to slammed and they knew it.”

“The farm takes some of the misconceptions about what, or who some of the inmates might be, and [changes that],” Handley said. “It’s not intimidating at all.”

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Edmunds-Flett said programs like the ones Emma’s Acres offer are vital to prisoner reintegration since funding cuts hit CSC programs eight years ago.

In 2012, the federal government’s deficit-reduction plan cut CSC’s budget by 10 per cent, around $295 million, and spending on re-integration programs was slashed.

Nicole said that most prisoners who graduate a program, or just come out to the farm prior to their release don’t go back to prison. She recounted an older prisoner who really struggled to adapt to life outside the prison after being institutionalized for so long, but he eventually came around.

“He was on a 60 day work release, and about on the 50th day, he started to be able to function,” Nicole said. “Our rate is very high for success.”

Staff at Emma’s Acres expect CSC may start up their gradual-release programs with limited passes in September, provided there’s not a resurgence within prisons. Many convict’s release plans have been reportedly disrupted by the pandemic.

Edmunds-Flett said they have maintained contact with many prisoners enrolled in their programs.

“People phone into us from all the sites, people write to us, we send them pictures – I print out pictures of how things are growing,” she said.

“I just know that my husband, he’s like our angel, I just know that he wouldn’t want me to give up.”

LEFT: The totem poles and directional poles (in the background) on the farm were carved by two inmates serving 20-year sentences over a single season. The faces are dedicated to the victims of violent crime, and ceremonies were held with Indigenous elders upon their completion.
A District of Mission lifeguard working in the farm’s greenhouse. The district transferred several of it’s lifeguards to the farm in April after public pools were closed. Patrick Penner / Mission Record.
Volunteer Deborah Handley pulling weeds from the produce rows. Patrick Penner / Mission Record.
Farm manager, Shay (left), with a second manager Zach and Nicole. Patrick Penner / Mission Record.