August 2, 2006 | By: Laura Skillman
MADISONVILLE, Ky.

A nearly two-acre patch of land that once contained only grass today is producing fresh vegetables to feed to the inmates and, at the same time, lower total food costs at the Hopkins County Jail.

“It’s the first Hopkins County Jail garden we’ve ever had and we’re doing it to help offset the cost of feeding an average of 400 inmates a day,” Jailer Joe Blue said. “We have approximately $350 to $400 invested in fertilizer, seed and plants, and we’re looking at a projected value of $15,000 in produce. So from a small investment, we are getting a big return at the end.”

Jail officials were looking for ideas to become more self-sufficient, Blue said. So he and Deputy Kenneth Oates did some research, visited another jail garden and then contacted the Hopkins County office of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service for some gardening expertise. 

Oates worked with the head of the jail’s kitchen to determine what they could best use from a garden and called on Matt Fulkerson, Hopkins County Extension agent for horticulture, to plan and plant the garden. Two state inmates work in the garden full-time and additional workers are used when necessary, said Oates, who oversees the garden project.

“I’m very happy with it,” Oates said. “Everything we planted, I put together a forecast of what I expected it to yield and so far we’ve met or exceeded those yields for this garden, so I’m very pleased with it.”

Sweet corn, tomatoes, green beans, squash, peppers, cucumbers, watermelons and cantaloupe are in the garden, and so far more than 5,000 pounds of produce have been harvested. A pond is located beside the garden that can be used for irrigation, if necessary. That has not been needed this year.

“Deputy Oates called me in February and asked me if it could be done,” Fulkerson said. “I came out and looked and what was a grass field in February gradually turned into this vegetable garden that we are all really proud of.”

The Hopkins County Horticulture Program assisted in analyzing the soil, deciding the final plot layout, making cultivar selections, identifying insect and disease problems, and making control recommendations, he said. Integrated Pest Management strategies have been incorporated and will continue to be with crop rotation and other practical strategies for next year. Postharvest considerations have also been discussed and recommendations made.

All the produce is used at the jail for the inmates. Extra corn, tomatoes, green beans and squash is being frozen by the jail’s kitchen crew for use in the winter in soups and stews.
“We’re getting some good feedback,” Oates said. “They all seem to like it. The workers love it. One of them grew up on a farm and that was a real asset. They take a lot of pride in it. It’s like a child to me. When Jailer Blue told me he’d like to have a garden, I don’t have a lot of background in that and with the help of Matt Fulkerson and a little bit of research on my part, we put together a garden. To see it go to what you see here, it has been a lot of pleasure. We are already looking at where we can expand. We also want to put our own hot house in to produce our own plants.”

Next year, they plan to expand the garden by another acre, and the Extension service will assist by evaluating what worked well and what did not and what can be done next year to improve. 

“Hopefully, down the road we can incorporate some small fruits – blackberries, blueberries – and tree fruits that don’t have to be replanted every year,” Fulkerson said. “I would like to eventually incorporate some variety trials and have already talked with them about that.” 
The garden has had a positive impact in both tangible and intangible ways.

“This ground was just sitting here doing nothing and they were buying this food,” Oates said. “Now, we are able to substitute this food for what they were buying and so it will save money and maybe next year even more. Another good thing is the people in the jail have good fresh produce and it gives some (inmates) an opportunity to work and get some training. They get an opportunity to learn something they didn’t know before and maybe they learn something about themselves too - that they are able to do good things and they take pride in that.”

Contact: 

Matt Fulkerson, 270-821-3650