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After incarceration, women find a place to make a fresh start at Benevolence Farm

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LaShauna Austria doesn’t know of anyone who feels more adrift than a woman leaving prison, and can’t think of a better way to help her feel grounded than planting her feet on a farm.

“I actually believe you can find healing from grief and trauma by working in the soil,” said Austria, who grew up on a farm in southern Alamance County and now runs Benevolence Farm, a nonprofit residential program for women who have been incarcerated.

The organization was founded about a decade ago, but it took until about three years ago to secure enough funding to launch. Then came the work of clearing rocks and trees from about two acres of a 13-acre tract near Graham to make room to plant.

The property includes a modest house, where up to six women can live, work, eat and learn together.

“It’s not for everybody,” Austria said, because there’s work to be done even when it’s hot and the flies are biting, and when it’s too cold even in the greenhouse.

Residents come to Benevolence Farm by choice. They hear about the program from prison or jail administrators before their sentences are completed, and if they’re interested, they ask to come. Austria and her staff review the requests to find women for whom the program looks like a good fit.

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Donna Brown, a participant at Benevolence Farm near Graham, washes greens Oct. 15, 2018. The farm is a nonprofit residential program for women who have been incarcerated and offers the women a six-month lease, which can be extended for up to two years. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Several of the clients so far have been women who had lived on farms — or always wanted to. Being satisfied to live in the country, a 10-minute ride from Graham, is a major consideration.

When they come, Austria said, women are asked to sign a six-month lease, which can be extended for up to two years.

“We ask them to identify some goals. Do they want to save up $500? Do they need to get a GED, or a driver’s license? We want them to have things they’re working toward.”

At the house, each of the women is expected to work about 24 hours a week, for which they get paid: sowing, tilling, weeding or harvesting, or doing other chores.

In addition to raising vegetables for the program’s own use and to sell, Benevolence began last year growing herbs and flowers with therapeutic qualities, which they process in small batches and put into personal-care products such as salves, lip balms and body creams.

Their manufacturing space in the basement is perfumed with lemon balm, chamomile, calendula, hibiscus, echinacia and lavender, all of which are grown and cut on the farm.

“We have a whole line,” Austria said, with all the items selected by residents, who also found recipes and learned how to prepare and package the goods.

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Benevolence Farm near Graham is a nonprofit residential program for women who have been incarcerated. The organization was founded about a decade ago, but it took until about three years ago to secure enough funding to launch. About two acres of a 13-acre tract have been cleared for planting. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Like other farm-to-consumer operations, Benevolence Farms has had to find its markets. It offers the beauty products online and also sells them alongside fresh produce at local farmers markets and festivals. Money from the sales goes for operations.

“We have a really good community of supporters,” said Austria.

The purpose of the program is to help women make a successful transition from incarceration to a life outside, with the help of substance-abuse counseling, job training and other services. Its success eventually will be measured by recidivism rates among participants.

“For now,” Austria said, “we’re focused on the impact, not the numbers. We believe this program can make a difference in women’s lives.”

Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.
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