Written by Zoe Schaver
Photos by Cole McCauley
Video by Danielle Wallace
Infographic by Tess Allen
GRAHAM, N.C. — The sun is setting and amber light filters through the bare winter trees as Mellissie Davis-Smith, wearing leggings and a T-shirt, steers a tractor to push dry brush into a towering pile.
Later, Davis-Smith and Matt Ballard, the farm manager, will burn the pile, then restack it, then burn it again to clear this field.
It’s a warm day for early February, and the staff at Benevolence Farm are taking the rare chance to do necessary work outdoors to prepare for the planting season.
Davis-Smith, who goes by Missy, has been at Benevolence since mid-December — a little more than a month. She’s the first person to live on the farm since it became more than an empty plot of land. Prior to moving here, she was in prison at Swannanoa Correctional Center outside of Asheville, and before that, she was in Central Prison.
Benevolence Farm, located on 13 acres of land in Graham about an hour’s drive northwest of Raleigh, is a nonprofit organization whose aim is to help women leaving prison transition smoothly to an environment without locked doors, strict work schedules and other limitations on their freedom.
The organization has been in development since 2007 when Tanya Jisa, a social worker and activist who had recently moved to Carrboro, fell in love with the town’s emphasis on sustainable, local food, but was surprised to find through her research that there were very few post-incarceration programs specifically for women.
Jisa met with women who had been incarcerated and began networking with local farmers, eventually forming a board of directors and receiving the project’s first grant of $20,000 in 2009, then a donation of 11 acres of land in 2012.
The Snyder Family Charitable Foundation also bought and donated a house to Benevonlence that had just gone up for sale on a 2-acre plot next to the land the organization already owned. The house has three bedrooms, with two beds to a room and two bathrooms, and is the home where Davis-Smith now lives and works.
Wilkes used to be a major textile and furniture manufacturing town but has suffered since most of those jobs moved overseas, with a fifth of the county population now living below the poverty line and a per capita annual income of $18,319. The New York Times featured the county in an article about rising poverty levels in Appalachia.
Missy’s family life was complicated growing up. Her father is a truck driver and has always spent most of his time away from home, and her mother lived in Indiana, so Missy and her brother were raised by her grandparents.
By the time Missy was 13, her grandparents had passed away, so she moved to Utah with her father. Because his job kept him on the road most of the time, Missy was taken in by a couple — whom she now calls her adoptive parents — and lived with them and their children.
Birds and books are Missy’s two lifelong loves. Her favorite bird is the white and black magpie; some friends even call her “Bird.” When Missy was little, she said she read so much that she was eventually only allowed an hour a day to read, because otherwise she would never come out of her room. As a teenager in Utah, when she misbehaved, her dad would ground her from her books.
“I would never do my homework unless it was, like, my English homework,” she said.
When Missy was 17, she became pregnant and her life began to take some unpredictable turns. At 22, she became addicted to drugs and was homeless for many years, sleeping on friends’ couches. She said she spent a lot of time getting high and not doing much else. Over the eight years her addiction was active, Missy lost the trust of many of her friends and family, she said.
“I’m not really in contact with anybody after everything I’ve been through and the active addiction,” she said. “I guess I’ve gotta gain that trust back.”
Missy eventually had three biological children, now ages 8, 10 and 13, but the three live apart from her.
One day, when Missy was 27 and still without a permanent place to stay, she grew frustrated with having only one outfit.
“Being homeless, you get tired of wearing the same thing day after day after day, so I was just ready for a change of clothes,” she said.
Missy was caught trying to steal an outfit from a thrift store. She had warrants out for her arrest due to unpaid child support, so she gave her sister’s name to the police. That resulted in a charge of felony identity theft and a 15-month prison sentence, which began in June 2013.
“A lot of people are locked up for pretty much the same thing,” Missy said. “Especially when you live in a small town and they don’t have any resources, where are you supposed to get clothes? I can’t just go stand in a laundromat naked for a couple hours while I wash my clothes.”
From that point on, Missy had three stints in prison. She got out twice on good behavior but was sent back for drug-related parole violations both times.
“I just kept screwing up, so they kept just throwing me back in,” she said.
Before going to Swannanoa, Missy participated in a 90-day drug rehabilitation program, but with no career help from the program, she moved back home to Wilkes and fell into old habits. The first time she was sent back to prison, her girlfriend, who she’d been living with, died of a drug-related illness while Missy was incarcerated.
“That could’ve been me,” she said.
Missy said she was glad, by that time, that she was being sent back to prison, where she couldn’t fall deeper into the hole of poverty and addiction where many of her friends were. She was finally released to go to Benevolence in December 2016. She arrived at the house on Dec. 13 to a sign on the door that read “Welcome home, Missy!”
These days, Missy, now 31, is still recovering from her addiction and fully committed to staying sober and sticking with her career goals while she’s at Benevolence. She hopes to go back to school and finish her accounting degree, but her ultimate goal is to get a degree in auto mechanics and open her own garage.
When Benevolence Farm was getting off the ground, the farm’s neighbors were wary, and some protested the farm’s construction. It was a neighborhood where folks left their doors unlocked, and residents were afraid having recently incarcerated women nearby would eliminate that sense of safety.
But in the years since, Benevolence has made a direct effort to reach out to neighbors and answer any questions or concerns. Now, neighbors drop by to cook and hang out with Missy and the rest of the staff.
“It is far less of an issue than it was initially,” said Emma Mankin, Benevolence Farm’s outreach coordinator and an Americorps Vista volunteer. “I think the community has really grown to learn what Benevolence Farm really is — because I think more than anything, it was just miscommunication and misunderstanding and not necessarily lack of empathy.”
In 2014, after years of fundraising and preparing for Benevolence Farm to become a reality, Jisa held a blessing ceremony on the land, beginning the long process of building what would become the farm’s infrastructure. Students from the North Carolina State University School of Architecture designed and built a modern barn structure with a skylight.
“Tanya [Jisa] consulted with previously incarcerated women, and one of the things the women said they missed most while they were in prison was the night sky — that’s proved true for Missy,” Mankin said.
‘It’s beautiful out here at night — all the different constellations,” Missy said. “I love it. It’s a good place to be at night — it’s a good place to be all the time, but definitely at night.”
Ballard, the farm manager, is the only staff member who has been at the farm since the land was cleared and the barn built. He lives in Alamance County with his wife and 2-year-old son.
Before coming to Benevolence Farm, he graduated from UNC’s School of Social Work and first worked on an organic farm in Alamance County before working for Housing for New Hope in Durham, a transitional shelter for people who have been homeless due to serious mental health and substance abuse issues.
Those jobs prepared him for the significant work of managing Benevolence Farm.
“The narrative around post-incarceration, around re-entry, around people with criminal records — there’s just a narrative of otherness,” he said. “We have to make sure that people understand the circumstances, the context, the personal relationships that need to be there so that when people are coming out of prison, they have that support network.”
Elly Goetz, Benevolence Farm’s executive director, said the organization already has enough applications to fill the house but wants to make sure the women who come to Benevolence are the right fit.
“We want to give these first women a really good experience,” Goetz said. “We’re trying to accept people slowly and one at a time.”
The women who live at Benevolence will work several hours per week, though Goetz declined to give a specific number because the organization is still in its trial stage, she said.
A portion of that money will go toward their room and board, but they can save the money that is left over. After the two years the women live on the farm, their savings will be used to establish their new lives when they leave Benevolence.
Goetz said Benevolence is funded mostly by individual donors and small charitable foundations. The farm’s annual budget in 2016 was about $200,000, she said, but increased to $322,000 in 2017 with the addition of new staff and programs.
In the month since Missy has been living on the farm, she has cleared and set up the greenhouse, where she has seeded kale, broccoli, beets, thyme, rosemary and many other plants that will later be transferred to the soil or sold at a seedling sale in April. When she arrived, the farm had a fence to keep out deer, but Benevolence staff decided it could induce traumatic memories in the farm’s residents, so Missy took it down.
Missy said she also spends a lot of time reading and studying books like the Market Gardener and one about various types of flowers. Her favorite books to read, though, are biographies and historical fiction. In her downtime, Missy consumes book after book in the house’s library and resource room or watches the fish and salamanders from the wood bridge over the creek near the house.
From the moment she arrived on Dec. 13, she said, Missy had a daily schedule where neighbors and members of the farm’s board would sign up to bring her food or come to the farm and cook a meal with her.
Missy started farmwork in January, but she spends Tuesdays going to appointments, grocery shopping and taking Zumba classes, and on Saturdays, people from the community still come over to hang out. Benevolence also enrolled Missy in a career management course at the Women’s Resource Center of Alamance County, comprising six three-hour sessions on networking, job interviews, resumé building and personal branding. Soon, Missy will start an African drum class at the local library.
“I’ve been so spoiled — so absolutely spoiled,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when all this new-ness wears off and I’m not spoiled anymore!”
The next few months will be a hectic time for the farm, where staff are still developing programming and initiating several new projects.
One of those projects is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which allows community members to pay a set price and receive a produce package from the farm each month.
The farm is also partnering with the Company Shops Market in Burlington, where shoppers can opt to round up their grocery payment to the nearest dollar; that extra money will go directly to Benevolence.
On the farm itself, Mankin is working with the Epsilon Eta environmental fraternity at UNC-Chapel Hill to build an “egg-mobile” — a mobile chicken coop to produce eggs for sale.
Mankin and other staff are also developing a tool share program with local farmers, who will pay the farm a bi-annual or annual rate to rent equipment housed on its grounds. Benevolence received a $50,000 grant from an organization called Impact Alamance to purchase the tools.
And that’s not all — other projects in the works include growing blueberry bushes, which take three years to produce fruit; setting up beehives on the farm; burning wood to clear more farmland, since only about two and a half acres are cleared for agriculture; increasing the fertility of the soil on the farm; and eventually, 10 to 15 years down the line, building a second residency to accommodate more women.
As the farm grows and develops, it’s not only the staff driving the changes. Missy herself, and other women once they arrive, will work with staff to guide how the farm will operate.
“As the women arrive, Benevolence will grow along with the community it serves,” Mankin said.
Goetz said the farm’s mission is built on three pillars: leadership, sustainable livelihood and structural change and advocacy.
Among the program’s facets are identifying residents’ shared goals, teaching them financial literacy skills like managing a budget and balancing a checkbook, planning for their future careers, offering them self-reflection and a chance to discuss healthy relationships, and connecting them to the wider community so they can share their stories.
But all of these elements Benevolence Farm offers were imaginary and hypothetical for years — until Missy moved in.
“It’s been really exciting, actually, just to see the farm come alive,” Goetz said. “To come to work every day and see there’s actually a reason you’re here.”