Program depends on donations, supplies state food bank
By JOHN O'CONNELL
BOISE -- When Boyd Anderson first visited the prison farm here, the inmates were planting potato seeds four to a hole, and at a shallow depth more appropriate for beans.
"They didn't have any idea," said Anderson, a retired farmer.
In their third harvest at South Idaho Correctional Institution's 6-acre farm, the inmates should see dramatic yield improvements thanks to the mentoring of Anderson and his longtime friend, semiretired grower Lavar Thornton.
The prison gives most of its crop to the Idaho Foodbank, which has found it increasingly challenging to obtain donations through customary means as manufacturers become more efficient and produce less excess product.
"It's more like a strategic partnership rather than a traditional donation," said Julie Pipal, Idaho Food Bank food resource manager.
Anderson loaned the prison some of his old spud equipment -- a 1930s-era single-row harvester that hadn't been fired up for nearly three decades and a potato bagger -- and has visited the farm regularly to offer advice, usually accompanied by Thornton.
Anderson also made adjustments to improve the efficiency of the farm's irrigation system, which utilizes excess water from the well that supplies the prison wastewater system.
"It gave me something to do," Anderson said. "They needed the help."
Pipal found Thornton through a friend, Meridian grower Drew Eggers. Thornton recruited Anderson, who had the necessary potato production background.
Both veteran growers have found the inmates to be hardworking and eager to learn, which they say has translated into better crops.
"They got about half the beans they should of gotten," said Thornton, who traced the problem to residual chemicals from a previous season, "but I think we had a successful project out there. The potatoes I think are in the realm of a pretty decent crop."
Deputy Warden Jay Christensen has no budget for the farm program. He's relied on a grower to till the farm before planting each season, free red potato seed from a farm in eastern Idaho, fertilizer donations from J.R. Simplot Co., and Roundup donations from Monsanto.
"It's a very timely thing. There's a lot of emphasis now on fresh food and local food," Monsanto spokesman Trent Clark said of the benefits for the food bank.
Since the farm is located outside of the prison fence, work there is available only to minimum-security inmates. In the first two years, all field work was done with hoes and shovels. They obtained better equipment this season with sales proceeds from an old tractor, originally used to build the prison.
In the farm's first season, the fresh soil yielded about 90,000 pounds of red spuds and 15,000 pounds of other vegetables. Last season, inmates raised only 27,000 pounds of spuds for the food bank.
They've already donated 4,300 pounds of beans to the food bank this year, as they continue harvesting spuds.
"It looks as if we're going to yield 150,000 pounds of potatoes this year," said Christensen, who credits the gains to the program's two new mentors.