By Ron Alfrejd
As long as there have been prisons, there have been prisoners who want better food and prison administrators who want to save money. The prisons here in Michigan are no exception. That is why many have some type of Garden Club, Community Garden and/or Horticulture program.
The Community Garden here at West Shoreline Correctional Facility was something that our Deputy Warden, Rick Smith, wanted for a long time, so when the Garden Club expanded to a new area in the spring of 2000, the thirty 12xl6 plots left behind were designated as the Community Garden.
The Community Garden is funded out of the Deputy Warden's Budget and is probably better described as a kitchen garden. All the food is turned over to our chow hall to help save on the cost of feeding 960 prisoners and staff. We do save the state money on produce, but also provide a variety of vegetables and herbs that increase the quality and flavor of the chow here. Of course all the vegetables we grow are superior in flavor and quality to the mass-produced stuff we usually get, and we grow food that normally would not be purchased, like basil, garlic and cucumbers. Our main crops are tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and carrots. We also grow onions, cabbage and cauliflower, zucchini and lettuce. New this year are sage, parsley and oregano.
The Community Garden is only part of the agricultural scene here. The Garden Club is a group of 171 individual gardeners tending 84 - 18xl6 plots. The Inmate Benefit Fund (IBF), which is established by the profits from purchases made by prisoners at the prisoner store, purchases the garden's seeds and supplies. The store sells cosmetics, snack foods and tobacco. All of the produce the Garden Club members grow is theirs to eat. We can grow almost anything we want. Most take the vegetables back to their housing units to cook up in microwaves provided by the IBF.
Another part of the scene here is our "Tree Farm". The Tree Farm started with 1200 donated seedlings of 400 each hard maple, tulip tree, Scotch pine and spruce. The seedlings were potted and planted two years ago. This spring they are being dug up and donated to Habitat For Humanity.
Also, last year, a second shift Community Garden crew was added and established new garden areas around the existing tree farm. They grew potatoes, carrots, melons and pumpkins. The giant pumpkins were donated to Every Woman's Place [a domestic violence shelter and support group], here in Muskegon. The chow hall used the rest of the vegetables. This year the second shift garden crew will expand into the space previously occupied by the tree farm. Their main crops will be potatoes, carrots and melons.
Gardening not only gives us something to do, it also educates us about nature and nature's cycles. Gardening teaches life skills like nurturing and patience while rewarding us with the literal fruit of our labors. It is rehabilitative in its effect, as anyone who has ever had his or her hands in the soil knows. Seeing the results of our labor from seed to harvest gives a soul-cleansing sense of accomplishment, peace and purpose. Being outside with nature can be eye-opening, teaching a lot about life to some who never really had one.
Interaction with all the squirrels, birds, mice and insects, being a part of their everyday life gives me and others that connected feeling a lot of gardeners feel and come to appreciate as the real reward of gardening. |
Ron is described in a prison newsletter as "the nerve center of the whole project," though he is the first to say that he could not do it without the fine help from his colleagues.
The Three R's (at West Shoreline Correctional Facility)
Reduce, reuse, recycle sound to me like good advice for any successful venture. [We] recycle cardboard, bi-metal cans and office paper in the garden we recycle old sheets for plant ties. Clear trash bags are reused to warm the soil and to make mini-greenhouses. Old pillowcases become sand bags to hold the poly on our low tunnels open or closed. Cotton ties on laundry bundles can be tied together to make long lines for trellises or to mark rows. Plastic pails and tubs are reused as planters, pots, basins or cut up for edging and tags. Old broom handles become tools to mark rows or stakes for plants and birdhouse gourds. Plastic milk crates are used for harvesting, transporting and storage and plastic bread racks for drying and curing. The three R's make good sense for us! --R.A.
Productivity Plus (at West Shoreline Correctional Facility)
These guys can really grow veggies! The 17,150 square foot garden produces from 9- to 10,000 pounds of vegetables; in addition, a 1,585 square foot trial garden is used to try out new techniques and varieties. Ornamental gourds and pumpkins growing on the curing compost piles are not in the weight estimates, either, but according to Ron â€œthey certainly contribute to the garden's success. I don't know what it is about alien looking gourds and especially pumpkins, but whenever someone tours the garden their attention is always drawn towards the Pumpkin Patch; no matter the nice rows of red tomatoes, it's always "look at the pumpkins! How big are they going to get?'"
The gardens are tended with only hand tools. Low poly tunnels provide a jump on the season. Much of the seed is saved from year to year, and some varieties have been grown by Garden Club members for 10 or more years; "some has been crossed and is unique to this compound," according to Ron.
The only pesticide used is Bt, and compost (along with some chemical fertilizer) is the basis of fertility, rounded out with cover crops and compost tea. "Officers bring us clean grass clipping[that] we use to mulch with, then turn under." The only barrier to 100% organic is the lack of a nearby source of manure or leaf mold.
As a dedicated home brewer, I have been interested in organic brew for some time. So when I saw â€œOrganic Homebrew Retailerâ€ in the March 2003 Acres USA it got my attention. They report on Seven Bridges Cooperative in California (800/768-4409), which now offers a line of organic ingredients. But it turns out that my favorite malt, Briess (made in Wisconsin) is the supplier of their organic malt extract and other grains, and any retailer that carries products from Briess Malting Company can order them. [I only just learned that they have been at this for 10 years!] Visit their website at http://www.briess.com/, go into the Briess Malting Company website, then click on the homebrew link (left side, bottom link). Click on the 'where to buy briess' button and find listings by state. Or call them at (920) 849-7711.
With the USDA Organic certification process fully implemented, controversy has not ended. Many formerly certified and prospective organic farmers have decided not to certify under the National Organic Program (NOP). Under the USDA rules, it is no longer legal to use the 'organic' label for produce that is not certified (with some exceptions for sales under 5,000). So what do you call it? This has been the subject of many conversations. Two new labels are available to farmers.
The New York chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA-NY) recently implemented the Farmer’s Pledge for Ecologically Grown Crops. The Pledge is a commitment to a broad set of principles that go beyond the NOP by addressing labor issues, community values and marketing in addition to production practices. This is not a certification, with third party confirmation and peer-reviewed paper records to confirm compliance. Rather it is a pledge that can serve small organic farmers who will not be participating in the NOP and certified organic farmers who wish to say more to their customers about how they farm. The Pledge is currently only available to New York farmers, though other NOFA chapters are reviewing it. And when asked if other agencies may copy or adapt the Pledge, one of the many farmers who collaborated on it told me that others 'are welcome to steal it with both hands.'
Certified Naturally Grown™ (CNG) will begin with the 2003 growing season. While there is no connection between the USDA Organic Program and CNG, farmers are held to the same standards. It is described as “a grassroots alternative to the USDA's National Organic Program meant primarily for small farmers distributing through local channels.” Farms are inspected by fellow farmers to establish compliance. |
For More Information:
Farmer's Pledge: NOFA-NY, PO Box 880, Cobleskill, NY 12043-0880, tel. 518/734-5495, email mailto:email@example.com view the Pledge and background information at http://nofany.org/farmerspledge.htm
Certified Naturally Grown™: call 845-256-0686 or email mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org. Information at http://www.naturallygrown.org
Plus, in this issue, information on Communications, Smart Irrigation, book reviews and more