State seeks to milk prison dairy

Agricultural uses considered as replacement

By Warren Cornwall

Herald Writer

MONROE — In a cluster of cramped, rickety greenhouses, a few prison inmates and their watchers tend pots of dirt with sticks poking out of them.

Despite the modest setting, state prison officials think the work in those buildings may help revive a defunct, decades-old prison farm.

"We’re hoping that we can find a market and get it going," said civilian farm employee George Barnes, a truck driver turned part-time horticulturist.

Barnes and others have been carefully trying to coax twigs and seeds into becoming oak and dogwood saplings, rose bushes and grasses that other government agencies would buy for planting along roads or riverbanks.

The effort is one of several business ventures planned for the 300-acre farm south of Monroe.

After months of discussion, officials are settling on plans to turn the money-losing dairy into something they hope will break even and employ inmates from the nearby Monroe Correctional Complex.

Aside from growing native plants, inmates could wind up refurbishing computers for schools and growing a corn field and vegetable garden to feed fellow prisoners, said Howard Yarbrough, heard of correctional industries, part of the state Department of Corrections.

"We need to find something that will provide meaningful job skills to our offenders, and it has to cover the cost," he said.

The ideas are still so fresh that the greenhouse is the only outward sign of them. The department has yet to devise detailed estimates of how much money the new projects could earn or cost, he said.

Plans have proved to be as changeable as the weather.

Two weeks ago a composting operation was under consideration, then shelved after people advised them the market was crowded and government permits could be hard to get, Yarbrough said. A dry cleaning operation and recycling program were likely candidates. Those have been dropped, partly in response to criticism from nearby residents, he said.

While Yarbrough said the plant-growing operation would happen, another official cautioned it might not go forward if they cannot find customers.

"We haven’t yet found a market," said Linda Willenberg, assistant program administrator of correctional industries.

The farm’s future has drawn the attention of neighbors, state lawmakers and the farm’s civilian staff.

Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, had initially joined with the farm workers and lobbied for the dairy to remain open. Among other arguments, she said the closure means the state wasted money on a recently built $1.2 million manure lagoon.

Now, with the herd sold, Stevens said she has given up hope of saving the dairy. Instead, she wants to make sure the land is used chiefly for agricultural businesses and that the new projects don’t directly compete with private companies.

"How is this going to compete with private enterprise?" she asked of the plant nursery plan.

State-run prison industries can only sell their wares to government agencies and nonprofit organizations. That’s designed to ease conflicts with private industry, Willenberg said.

For more than seven decades, up to 100 inmates at a time manned the dairy day and night.

While prison officials touted it as a way to train people for life after prison, the farm was plagued by escapes. It also faced a worsening financial picture in recent years, according to the department.

The new programs would need fewer inmates and operate only during the day, Willenberg said. That, she said, should help ease the escape problems.

Since closing in September much of the farm machinery has stood idly next to empty barns and feeding sheds.

The only cows are ones painted on signs. Larry Verlinda looked at a painting above one building that depicted a black and white cow in front of a clear, blue sky. Recently, someone suggested putting a different sign up in its place, the farm manager said.

"I said, ‘Oh no. You can put something along side it, but the cow stays.’ "

You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to

cornwall@heraldnet.com.

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