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Planting Seeds for Growth: Former UN Agricultural Expert Teaches Incarcerated Individuals Gardening, Life Skills

July 28, 2021

By Rachel Friederich

Communications Office

Man pointing at plants

Benri Deanon shows off some plants incarcerated individuals have grown in the greenhouse at Washington Corrections Center. (Rachel Friederich, Communications Office)

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SHELTON – Benri Deanon credits his parents for igniting his passion for agriculture. One of his favorite childhood memories was climbing up 100-foot mango trees with his siblings to feast on the luscious, hanging fruit. Deanon’s father was an agricultural professor at University of the Philippines in Los Baños. His mother loved to plant various fruit trees and vegetables from the university at their farmhouse.

“My mom was an amazing woman and influenced me to go into agriculture because she loved to plant,” Deanon said. “She used to plant everything. Every inch of the house with fruit trees. We would climb up those trees all day long.”

Now a grounds and nursery services specialist at Washington Corrections Center (WCC) in Shelton, Washington, Deanon never dreamed that his love for land cultivation and raising crops would lead to a career spanning more than four decades in six countries.

“I Wanted to Explore the World”

Deanon attended the same university his father taught and earned a Master of Science degree in agriculture production and plant physiology in 1983. His first job in agriculture was as a research associate at the university’s Institute of Plant Breeding.

Deanon screened vegetables and legumes for shade tolerance. Filipino coconut farmers face the problem of not being able to optimize farm production. The soil type required for coconuts-- combined with regional pests, diseases, environmental factors and limited access to irrigation-- make it difficult for coconut farmers to grow other crops.

The Philippines agricultural industry has historically faced challenges resulting in low farm incomes, low rural employment, lack of food security, and meager agricultural competitiveness.

Researchers like Deanon had to figure out what types of crops could be grown alongside the coconuts so farmers could supplement their incomes. This process is known as “intercropping.” Through Deanon’s work, researchers determined certain varieties of tomato, eggplant, legumes, and corn could be intercropped with coconut trees.

Deanon said helping farmers improve their socio-economic status while feeding communities is one of the most rewarding parts of working in agriculture. He soon developed a desire to use his agricultural knowledge to help people on a global scale.

The opportunity came through the United Nations. Since 1971, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has partnered with the United Nations Volunteers program to combat food insecurity and global hunger. Volunteers work on humanitarian projects around the globe to support the FAO mission to eliminate hunger, fight poverty and ensure global and national food agriculture systems are environmentally sustainable.

“I took the job with the UN so I would be travelling from one country to another helping farmers which was the most rewarding of all,” Deanon said. “I wanted to explore the world and promote organic and sustainable farming.”

A Worldwide Journey

For the next few years, Deanon worked on agricultural projects in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Maldives. He even spent some time managing Orchards and Grounds at three palaces for the Sultanate of Oman.

Over the course of his travels, Deanon established more than 100 greenhouses in Mersa Matruh, Egypt. He helped the establishment of a fruit nursery and planted more than 1,000 seedlings of vegetables and fruit trees on the islands of the Maldives. He spent his time promoting organic and sustainable farming and led several projects expanding banana and papaya production as an added source of income for the islanders.

Each country in which Deanon worked presented different challenges. For example, arid, desert environments like Saudi Arabia and Egypt made growing any kind of produce difficult because of the scarcity of fresh water and the high presence of salt water.

Deanon had to help educate farmers on ways to collect and conserve water through methods like collecting rainwater, storing it in underground cisterns, pumping it out to the plants and utilizing drip irrigation.

Deanon says to succeed in agriculture, you need to be aware of your surroundings to anticipate challenges, which are constantly changing.

“Everything changes in the way you plan, what kinds/varieties of plants you need to grow in the field. You have to pay attention to the weather every day,” Deanon said. “Research is a tool to help farmers understand their environment, plant varieties and how these varieties respond to (the environment). You find several varieties that grow well and then insects and diseases are another problem that makes farming so complicated and challenging. It’s a never-ending process.”

Moving to America and Overcoming Tough Times

By 1997, Deanon had five school age children and wanted to settle down in one place to prevent his kids’ education from being disrupted. The UN gave a referral letter to Deanon and US Embassy issued his whole family a 10-year visa for the United States. After obtaining their visa, Deanon’s family moved to Georgia.

From 2001 to 2012, Deanon worked at three dairy farms, as a crops man and maintenance mechanic. He performed feeding activities for dairy cows and beef cattle, operated large farm equipment, maintained irrigation systems. He also worked at Tyson as a live haul supervisor and managed 15 employees hauling livestock chickens.

It was around this time the farm he was working at downsized and he was laid off. His wife, who had been working at an early head start office, closed its doors and she lost her job as well. Deanon scoured job listings around the country looking for work. He finally landed a job at Montana State University’s Central Agricultural Research Center as a research associate. However, Deanon said it was difficult to get tenure at the university, so he continued his job search.

What he now calls his “best job,” came from an unexpected place: prison.

Planting Seeds for Change

In 2014, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) hired Deanon as a grounds and nursery services specialist.

Deanon is still planting seeds, but of a different type. Seeds for change.

Deanon supervises incarcerated individuals who work in the facility’s gardens and greenhouse. He teaches them how to grow produce and operate farm equipment safely.

Deanon says the first time he meets incarcerated people on the grounds crew, they don’t often see the value of agriculture work. He says they often don’t have a lot of honest work experience and don’t see working in the garden as an opportunity to grow professionally. Deanon helps them see how they can connect those skills to career paths so they can become competitive job searchers upon reentry.

“A lot of these guys haven’t been exposed to actual work,” Deanon says. “If you give them a shovel, they don’t know how to hold and use it. I’ve taught guys to operate a tractor, so they can work in a farm or with government public works departments. Once they have learned to operate a tractor, they can learn the other heavy equipment. Once they develop a skill, no one can steal that skill from them. From there they can learn other skills. I tell them ‘Every time go out there. You’ll discover new things.’”

During his time at WCC, Deanon has found ways to make work more efficient and meaningful for his incarcerated crew.

For example, the prison previously used sprinkler system to water its gardens. This resulted in the consumption of more than a million gallons of water per year. Deanon persuaded prison officials to switch to a drip system which cut down on water use by 50%.

Giving Back to the Community

The facility works closely with Harvest Now, an organization that provides seeds for prison gardens. Incarcerated individuals manage the gardens and donate produce to local food banks.

The practice has had an impact during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, the pandemic caused record unemployment numbers and drove more people into food insecurity, Deanon led crews to develop WCC’s Hope Gardens. Facilities across the state created Hope Gardens in 2020---additional produce growing space to raise fresh vegetables and fruits to donate to community food banks. Including more than 13,000 pounds of produce from WCC, the correctional Hope Gardens project donated more than 37 tons of produce to local food banks in 2020.

“I like working for the DOC because I am able to help the incarcerated individual change their behavior and give them opportunity,” Deanon said. “It’s a change in their thinking to do something better for the community.”

Incarcerated Individual Charles B. says, Deanon has positively impacted his life. Charles says he doesn’t feel like he’s in prison when he’s in the garden.

Charles wants to join the Sustainability In Prisons Project’s beekeeping program and earn a beekeeper apprenticeship certification and work for a commercial beekeeping company one day. The Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) is a partnership between the DOC and the Evergreen State College that gives opportunities for incarcerated individuals to lead science and environmental sustainability projects in correctional facilities. SPP has partnered with the Washington State Beekeepers Association to offer a beekeeping certification program in several state prisons.

“Benri is driven,” said Charles. “He treats you like a human. He’s a perpetual motion machine. I want to be ready for release and he’s helped me with that.”

It’s rare to find out how successful someone becomes after they leave prison. After they complete community supervision, they are no longer required to check in with DOC or provide progress reports.

But if not returning to prison is an indication of success, Deanon says in the seven years he’s worked at WCC, he’s never had anyone who has left his crew return.

“A lot of them are happy on their last day before they get out,” Deanon says. “They say to me ‘Hey Boss, thank you for everything. I have learned a lot. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to be trained in this type of work.’ I hope they’ll be successful, whatever their plans are. I’m hopeful they can do something good for themselves.”