Prison farms closures will have impact on county
By Jeanne Sager
WOODBOURNE Prisons are by and large insular communities, but the closure of farms at prisons across the state including Sullivan Correctional in Woodbourne is sending waves across the Sullivan County agricultural community.
The head of the state department of corrections (DOCS) issued an edict in early November that all prison farms across the state have six to eight months to wrap up operations and shut down.
It was a response to Governor David Paterson’s instructions to heads of separate state departments that they shave costs to make up for a $2 billion budget deficit.
According to DOCS spokesman Erik Kriss, shutting down the farms will save the state as much as $3.4 million a year.
But shutting them down will cost the state, say local agri-businessmen. What’s more, it will cost the counties the ripple effect of monies spent to keep the farms running.
“They handle a lot of money, and they pump a lot of money back into the economy,” said Roger Brucher, of Fosterdale Equipment in Fosterdale.
The New Holland dealership hasn’t had the state bid to sell tractors to DOCS in several years, but it still managed to average $76,000 in business with the four prison farms in the region in each of the last three years.
According to the Sullivan County Department of Planning and Environmental Management, the dollars generated in the county’s agricultural community have an affect three times over on the county community.
In other words $76,000 spent at just one county agri-business is felt to the tune of $228,000.
Brucher is hardly the only businessman who will feel the pain of losing the prison farms.
Todd Nearing, dispatch manager of Cochecton Mills, said his family’s half-century-old business has sold feed to the farms for as long as he can remember.
In recent years, that’s been a steady $50,000 on average for the small Cochecton business.
“You just don’t find somebody to replace that,” Nearing said, “Not in our business.
“It just moves us one step closer to the end,” Nearing said of this sort of loss. “It puts a little more pressure on the jobs, more pressure on the salesman to try to fill that gap… without traveling, going further and further afield all the time, it’s getting harder and harder to replace.”
Kriss said the Sullivan Correctional itself does at least $350,000 in business with local vendors, but county agri-businesses report they have traditionally gotten regular business from Eastern Correctional Facility, Fishkill, Greenhaven and even Beacon.
Brucher said talks with prison farm staff over the years would put the number much higher closer to the $1.5 to $2 million range.
Members of the local farming community are also saddened to see Sullivan Correctional lumped into a system that’s considered outdated and burdensome to the state.
With a milk-bottling plant that’s just two years old, the farm should be self-sustainable, they surmised.
Kriss said the milk is taken in-house to be served to the prisoners. So, too, are the vegetables grown on the 400-acre farm.
The farm is staffed by five farm-specific personnel plus 13 inmates. On duty during inmate work hours are two to three corrections officers who serve as security.
Kriss said the loss on Sullivan Correctional alone is $225,000 that includes the salaries of the corrections officers, which are carried as debt for the farm.
The officers’ salaries will remain a DOCS cost they’ve been promised they will simply be reassigned to another post within the prison.
The issue of keeping the civilian employees is more difficult, Kriss said, because they are civil servants with no equivalent civil service job in the state ranks. The state has vowed to make an attempt, at least, to keep the civilians employed sending them to another job somewhere within the state system.
“We will try to find other jobs for them, ideally at Sullivan or Woodbourne, if not at another facility and if not, at another state agency,” Kriss said.
Equipment and the herd of 110 is already being sold off. And the state is looking for someone to buy the farm itself. Although portions are too close to inmate facilities (the milk plant is backed right up against the wall of Woodbourne), new gates can be erected and a large portion subdivided.
It’s land that Joe Walsh, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Liberty, hopes can be retained for agriculture.
“They’ve got some very productive land, and we’ve got a lot of people looking for additional land,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of small farmers looking at high quality value-added land for grazing, growing hay . . .”
The extension has worked hand-in-hand with the Sullivan Correctional farm over the years; the inmates have helped ready the fairgrounds in Grahamsville for the Little World’s Fair every year, done composting projects for the county and field crop studies.
Walsh was disappointed to hear the state writing off the values learned by inmates working on the farms as useless for their futures.
Kriss said the DOCS’ view is that inmates will likely be returned to urban environments when they are released from prison; taking them off the farms will allow them to pursue career studies more suited to helping them contribute to society.
“The skills that you learn on the farm, being there and being able to work, seeing the fruits of your labor, the work ethic, those are irreplaceable,” Walsh said. “And they’re universal. The most important criteria on any job is that you show up on a daily basis.”
Farming is one of the top industries in New York, Nearing noted. “For them to close these farms . . . it’s kind of a let down.”
The Sullivan farm, in particular, is a well-oiled machine, a place where Nearing says he sees potential.
“I think they’d be self-supported if they weren’t under the state system,” he said.
The state has already started closures across the state, and that includes moving things out of Sullivan Correctional.
For Sullivan County businesses, the prognosis is not good.
As Nearing said, “certain things you can see fighting for, but from what I hear, there’s no hope.”
It’s “just another nail in Sullivan County's coffin,” Brucher added.