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Gardeners and extension teach Indiana prisoners
Indiana Correspondent

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — An award-winning horticulture short course at the Terre Haute Federal Prison Minimum Security Camp is teaching inmates about food production and providing thousands of pounds of fresh produce for the institution’s foodservice.

Jim Luzar, Vigo County Purdue University extension agriculture and natural resources educator, was presented the 2012 Agricultural and Natural Resources Individual award by the Indiana Extension Educators Assoc. on Nov. 8. Luzar is the brainchild behind the prison’s course in vegetable production and sustainability, since its inception in 2011. Prior to 2011, the prison’s farm enterprises were administered by the USDA and area farmers assisted.

“Each fall and spring it takes each class of 25 participants 36 hours of hands-on training to complete the program,” Luzar said. “We meet weekly and cover topics traditionally taught in a Master Gardener program. Soils, plant science, nutrition, plant diseases and entomology are all presented in a teaching lab at the prison. So, half of their effort is in the classroom and the other half happens in the prison’s garden plots.

“As (I and area Master Gardeners) teach about the site’s sandy soil, we get a backhoe out and dig deep so the participants can look at the soil layers firsthand. Compaction and drainage are discussed, including the shallow tillage used years ago on the prison grounds.

“These discussions are beneficial to teaching soil management, as well as being generally educational. All of these elements are beneficial to learning about food production,” he added.

Feeding fellow inmates

While the program’s student inmates usually have minimal gardening experience, they soon learn skills that are put to quick use. An on-site greenhouse holds 40,000 potted plants prepared by inmates. In 2011 the garden plot covered 15 acres and was planted with vegetables including potatoes and zucchini.

Inmates could also tend individual plots where they had some discretion of what was planted. Those plots offered okra, hot peppers, a variety of tomatoes, various types of salad greens and potatoes. “They all worked together and sent the fruits of their labors to the kitchen for the general population to consume,” Luzar said.

Tallying up the produce totals from 15 acres is a daunting task, but one the inmates relished, according to Luzar.

“In 2011, the plots produced 44,000 pounds. The inmates kept track of the bounty, learned about the market system and how the demand for produce related to what the kitchen staff – which feeds 3,300 inmate 3 meals a day – could prepare,” he said. “If the kitchen didn’t know how to prepare zucchini, then they had to learn. The end user and the supplier had to learn how to communicate with each other.”

The garden is a good example of bringing the inmates together for a common purpose, according to Kevin Beaver, a case manager at the prison.

“For me, it was a goal to educate the inmates with something beneficial to them and offer them skills,” he explained. “The produce is also a fresh source of nutrition for the population and well-received. I give the inmates some guidance what the prison’s objectives are, then they do the planning over a week or two. Once the plan is approved, it’s put into action.”

Because of this year’s drought, the plot covered three acres. “Our program parameters changed a little bit so the smaller site was more manageable,” Luzar said. “They grew a lot of their own transplants this year. Though the poundage this year was hurt by the weather, we were able to send Roma tomatoes and onions to the kitchen.”

Finding area support

He was pleased with the support of the local community becoming involved in the program. “We really utilized resources outside of the prison. John Rosene, Ivy Tech Community College – Wabash Valley’s Ag Department chair, taught a soil science module. Ryan Hendricks, from the Vigo County Soil and Water Conservation District, offered equipment to help with planting fall cover crops, the city of Terre Haute gave us their leaves from neighborhood pickups for organic matter and Sister Terry Boland from the Sisters of Providence taught the inmates about composting.

“Bringing the community into the project was beneficial for both parties. The inmates are quick studies and good students. They were complimentary of the instruction provided to them. This is a good outreach for dealing with life outside prison,” Luzar added.
Beaver was encouraged by local response. “We had such an amazing response from the community, and it was a pleasure to see everyone succeed at something so beneficial. Inmates were rewarded with relationships with businesses and community leaders.”