US (NC): Wilmington's 1st indoor farm to grow 365 days with the help of former convicts

A lot of things have had to come together in order to make Second Chances Farm, founded by entrepreneur and TEDxWilmington organizer Ajit George, a reality.

As an Opportunity Zone project, there were applications and approvals; a reentry program was established with a Delaware Department of Corrections contractor; a location on Bowers Street in Northeast Wilmington was secured.

"We can produce locally grown food without the carbon footprint, without pesticide and herbicide" said Ajit George, founder of Second Chances Farm. “There’s no soil used, just water,” said Evan Bartle, chief growing officer for Second Chances Farm, lifting a panel of basil plants to show the roots. What looks like soil at the base of the plants is actually rockwool — “rock that has been spun out like cotton candy,” Bartle said. The reusable medium, a standard in commercial hydroponics, is used to support the plants above the water. 

The process was illegal in Wilmington until Wednesday, when Mayor Mike Purzycki signed a law allowing these kinds of farms with a prototype nearby of the indoor farm that's currently growing lettuce.

"It's just extraordinarily exciting, and to see that we were able to change the city zoning to make this happen, and it looks like it's really going to become reality," said George, whose envisioned the farm about three years ago.

From 2011 to 2018, George was an organizer of Wilmington's TEDx talks. Three years ago, he first heard about urban, vertical farming, and separately, about the value of second chances for ex-offenders.

"Seventy percent of the people released [from prison] within three years are arrested, so we have a revolving door," he said.  

The farm will employ only ex-offenders, who will be paid a starting wage of $15 per hour.

"This whole idea by only working with people who come out of prison, we are not discriminating against them, and we're trying to give them a chance to break this cycle," said George.

When the farm officially opens on Bowers Street, in a building conveniently named The Opportunity Center, it will provide jobs for returning citizens with the goal of reducing recidivism in Wilmington, while providing locally grown, chemical-free produce to businesses in the region.

Sources: Wdel (Amy Cherry) and Delaware (Holly Quinn)

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