Tag Archives: vermiculture

UW & Prison Study Soil Health

Inmates at the WSRU Vermiculture program partner with the University of Washington to test the ability of soil health to influence human health

By Nick, Teaching Assistant for University Beyond Bars, Monroe Correctional Complex
Photos courtesy of Joel Strom, University Beyond Bars

Ms. Landefeld harvests from the plots with the help of a composting technician.

With the goal of improving how we grow food, Washington State Reformatory (WSRU) vermiculture technicians and scientists from the University of Washington (UW) are studying soil health at the prison. The incarcerated technicians are assisting with scientific trials of different types of soils to see if they can produce vegetables containing higher levels of key elements that have been shown to improve human health.

Earlier this year the vermiculture program was approached by Dr. Sally Brown, a professor at the UW Ecosystem Science Division, College of Forest Resources, to assist in this project.  Dr. Brown had become familiar with the vermiculture program when she co-authored an article with one of the inmate technicians about some of the composting techniques employed at the facility. Dr. Brown had been working with graduate student Sally Landefeld on a series of trials to grow vegetables in several different types of soil to test for relationships between soil health and antioxidants and other important disease-fighting nutrients. On a tour of the facility, Dr. Brown noticed a unique opportunity in the gardens adjacent to the worm farm:  the soil there had been treated with composting by-products for several years, some areas with Bokashi-treated (fermented) compost and others with vermicompost (worm castings).

A trial plot is ready for planting; Washington State Reformatory Unit (WSRU) at Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC). Photo courtesy of Joel Strom, University Beyond Bars (UBB).

In April, Dr. Brown and Ms. Landefeld met with vermiculture technicians and set out three separate plots that would be used for the trials:

  1. No soil treatments with soil amendments
  2. Several treatments of Bokashi composted food waste over several years
  3. Heavily treated with worm castings and vermicompost.

One of the vermiculture technicians was asked to be the project lead. He and his peers prepared and marked the plots for planting.

Dr. Brown and Ms. Landefeld returned in May and planted broccoli, carrots and onions in all three plots.  Despite an ongoing battle with rabbits throughout the spring, by June the crops in all three plots were growing well.

Ms. Landefeld returned to the vermiculture program in mid-June to deliver an instructional presentation on how she decided on the path for her doctorate and what she was hoping to accomplish with the prison-hosted study. The WSRU vermiculture program offers a 1,000 hour SPP certification in collaboration with Tilth Alliance, and guest lecture are part of the curriculum. In this presentation, Ms. Landefelt said:

“We are just starting to understand the intricate relationship between soil health and public health. Healthy soil contains plenty of organic matter, which provides nutrients to plants, fosters microbial life, and improves soil physical properties including water holding ability and tilth.  If we deplete soil organic matter, we may reduce the soil’s ability to produce high yielding crops that are also rich in nutrients.  This project aims to (i) characterize soil health by analyzing soil properties including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, organic matter, soil structure and microbial content, and to (ii) quantify both quantity and quality of the vegetables grown on the control and high organic matter plots.  In addition to plant yield, we will test the vegetables for nutrients, vitamin B6 (pyroxidal) and phytochemicals including sulforaphane, beta-carotene (provitamin A), and quercetin.”

Broccoli growing in the vermicompost plot.

By mid-July, the broccoli was ready to be harvested and Dr. Brown and Ms. Landefeld worked with the technicians to harvest from all three plots.

As the project progresses they will return to the prison periodically to harvest other vegetables and take soil samples.  The vitamins and phytochemicals will be tested using a technique called liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) in order to relate the phytochemical content of common garden crops with soil health.

This project is a great example of SPP’s vision to create a collaborative, intellectually stimulating environment in which incarcerated men and women play key roles in conservation and advancing scientific knowledge and has been a win-win for the vermiculture program as well as the University.

Dr. Brown and a vermiculture technician harvest from a trial plot.

Recognizing a world-class program

Text includes excerpts from speeches by: Certified Vermiculture and Composting Specialists Juan Hernandez, Rudy Madrigal, and Nick Hacheney, with introduction by Kelli Bush, SPP Director for The Evergreen State College
Photos by Kelli Bush and Bethany Shepler, SPP Green Track Coordinator

Certified Vermiculture and Composting Specialists Juan Hernandez practices his speech before the graduation ceremony.

Monroe Correctional Complex – WA State Reformatory Unit (MCC-WSRU) recently graduated it’s first class of certified Vermiculture and Composting Specialists. Reaching this milestone is the result of a truly collaborative process, with contributions from incarcerated program participants and education instructor, WA Corrections staff, Tilth AllianceUniversity Beyond Bars, and Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) staff at The Evergreen State College. The success of this diverse and mutually-invested team is a model for collaborative work; the shared accomplishment offers an abundance of hope for tackling other social justice and environmental challenges.

Tilth Alliance Program Coordinator, Justin Maltry (left) worked with partners to develop the certification. Corrections Officer Swan (pictured behind Justin, wearing a hat) was also critical to success effort.

The composting program at MCC-WSR was started by Nick Hacheney and corrections staff member Art King in 2009. Since that time, it has grown from a few hundred worms to a world-class program using multiple, innovative composting techniques. Not only does the program help significantly reduce food waste at the facility, but also provides participants extensive education, training, and opportunities to research and practice innovative composting techniques. Along the way, incarcerated participants have recruited input and assistance from professors, practitioners, and organizations around the country, and have found ways to improve on and fine tune their composting systems. Program protocols developed by incarcerated participants have been shared to start similar programs in other prisons and with non-profit organizations doing environmental and humanitarian work around the world. All of this work is done with tremendous support from corrections staff from MCC.

The graduation event was well-attended and included excellent speeches from graduates. Excerpts from their speeches follow.

Certificate development partners from WA Department of Corrections (CPM Anne Williams & Officer Jeff Swan), Tilth Alliance (Justin Maltry), and SPP (Kelli Bush) congratulate Juan Hernandez on his achievement.

Juan Hernandez

“I know for me it’s been a long journey to be standing here in front of everyone today, but I wouldn’t change a thing, because along the way I have grown as a man and human being and I’ve learned so much. Today marks the day in which we can officially declare that we finished one of our biggest goals–completing the vermiculture and composting specialist certification. We have been working on this for about a year and getting to this moment has certainly been quite a journey through blood, sweat, tears, and stress.

This certification has not only enriched my life here, but I believe that it will truly give me opportunities when I get released to find employment and follow a career in sustainability. So today I stand in front of you a man with a dream but not only that; here stands a man with a dream and the skill-set to follow that dream and make it a reality. I started my journey of sustainability after my journey for bettering my life had already started. I now see that my two journeys are closely intertwined.

This program and programs like this are not only important but essential to guys in here in regaining their humanity and getting them ready for reentry into society.

I believe that not only do we recycle food waste, but we also recycle people. And so, with that, I leave you saying this: please don’t judge a person by their mistakes, but judge them by how they learn from their mistakes.

Juan Hernandez talking with Rudy Madrigal and Tilth Alliance Program Coordinator, Justin Maltry, about the Black Soldier Fly composting program.

Rudy Madrigal

“About a year and a half ago my friend Nick told me that they really needed some workers at the worm farm and he asked if I would consider working back there. I’m not going to lie; I was dodging him for a while. But finally he got me to commit and I went out for an interview.

I’m not going to confirm or deny that I may have come for the promise of desserts. What Nick did try to convince me of was that I was going to be helping the environment, that this program would grow and become what we wanted it to be, that I would be given the right tools to succeed both in here and on the outside, and that in the end I would be recognized for all my hard work. Well everything my friend told me that day was true, and it happened! And that makes this day such a special day for me.

Thank you Nick for being a great friend and mentor, for challenging me, for always holding me accountable, telling me the truth, even if it hurt a little bit, for changing the view I had on the world and helping me realize the impact that I have on it, and for trusting me with the black soldier fly program.”

At the worm castings sifting table, Rudy Madrigal shakes hands with Sgt. LaMunyon.

Nick Hacheney

“Days like today don’t happen often in prison and it really means a great deal to us that you have decided to spend this time here.

First, we would like to thank all the DOC officials in the room. These types of programs would not happen if it wasn’t for the vision and courage of prison officials. Administrators take risks to make programs like this happen. They have to find money in ever-shrinking budgets and they have to bravely promote a narrative that prisoners are capable of great things and worth making an investment in.

We had the right ingredients here in staff willing to work with us, support from community partners and men who got busy making a difference in their world. So thank you to all.

It will surprise most people to learn that prisoners actually care about big issues like global warming and water quality. But these guys are more than prisoners – they are fathers who care about the world their children are growing up in; they are environmentalists who care about the planet; and they are advocates who understand the needs of a growing world population.

Nick Hacheney helped found the composting program at MCC and develop program education materials and vermicomposting certificate.

Composting Technicians talk with Sgt. LaMunyon as they sift worm castings.