SICI spud harvest underway

Yellow,two-row potato digger attached to a tractor
The garden's "new" two-row potato digger

To get an idea of just how far the foodbank garden at South Idaho Correctional Institution has come, take a look at the machines in the field.

Four years ago, the Idaho Department of Correction teamed up with the Idaho Foodbank to grow fresh, nutritious produce for hungry Idaho families and now the garden is on track to produce its biggest crop yet.

During the garden's first two years, inmates harvested potatoes using shovels.

Last year, the effort took a leap forward when a retired farmer loaned the project an antique piece of farm equipment, a 1920's-era, single-row digger.

Today inmates are using a 1950's-era, two-row digger donated by a Parma farmer. The machine isn't pretty, but it's reliable and it's allowing inmates to harvest more potatoes faster. This year inmates expect to take in about 200,000 pounds of spuds.

If that estimate holds, the potatoes, along with the 30,000 pounds of corn and beans that have already been collected, will set a new garden record; 230,000 pounds of fresh produce compared to 184,000 pounds last year.

"It's wonderful to have the fresh corn, the beans and the potatoes," says Jenifer Johnson, the Idaho Foodbank's vice president of development. "They fly out of our warehouse as quickly as we can put them in there."

Popular food choice

They fly out because at a foodbank, fresh produce is a treat. Typically, foodbanks have difficulty tapping into a reliable supply of fresh produce. But here in Idaho a variety of factors have come together to make it possible to consistently provide a large amount of nutritious vegetables to hungry Idaho families for free.

The first factor is the availability of good land and plenty of water. The garden is on nine-acres of state-owned property in a fertile valley just to the north of the prison. The land was unused until the garden project launched.

The second factor is the dedication of the inmates. They get paid regular prison wages for their labor, but many say what draws them to the job is the opportunity to do meaningful work which makes doing time easier.

"I know the foodbank always has a hard time coming up with enough food to feed all the churches and so forth that do feed people, and it's an honor actually to be part of it," said inmate worker Joe Molyneux, IDOC #107143, as he took a break from bagging potatoes.

The third factor is the enterprising nature of the diverse group of people and organizations who have come together to make the garden a reality. The group includes staff from the Idaho Foodbank, Idaho Department of Correction, agricultural supply and service companies and three retired farmers.

Generous donors

The garden receives virtually no taxpayer funding. Everything is donated, from the seed that is planted in early spring to the use of the trucks which haul the produce to the foodbank's warehouse in the fall. 

SICI Deputy Warden Jay Christensen says one donation this year stands out above all the rest. An irrigation equipment supply company, Interwest Supply, donated a 10-horsepower pump to the project and in doing so set the stage for the bumper crop of potatoes and made it possible for the inmates to grow corn in the garden for the first time.

"In the past we've had that three-horsepower pump, and we've really struggled to keep up with the demand for water," Christensen says. "(The donated pump) really made a difference especially in the hot, summer months."

But what everyone agrees has made the biggest difference is the involvement of the retired farmers who have taken the garden project under wing. Sonny McCray volunteers his time and equipment to till the soil. Lavar Thornton offers his bean-growing expertise; Jerry Thiel his knowledge gained from a lifetime growing potatoes. Boyd Anderson helps oversee the entire operation and makes sure the labor, equipment and supplies are used efficiently.

The companies that have provided the equipment and supplies include:

  • Walters farms in Newdale which donated red potato seed.
  • Parkinson Seed of St. Anthony which donated russet potato seed.
  • Interwest Supply of Nampa which donated the irrigation pump and pipe.
  • The Idaho Trucking Association which donated the use of refrigerated trailers.
  • J.R. Simplot Co. which donated fertilizer.
Story published: 09/13/2013
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