September 20, 2012
The Guilford County
Prison Farm has looked more like a farm than a prison for about 80 years. However, soon it will look a lot more like a prison and a lot less like a farm. Guilford County
Sheriff BJ Barnes has decided to put an end to raising cattle at the farm and to cease most of the crop and livestock operations that have been a Guilford County
tradition on the 800 acres near Gibsonville for years and years.
Barnes said he intends to maintain the county farm's greenhouse business, and continue selling flowers and plants to the public. However, he said, most of the other crop and animal operations will end.
According to the sheriff, there are currently about 300 head of cattle grazing at the farm – but soon that number will be zero. Barnes said he recently gave his staff the order to end the cattle operations.
"I just told them to sell them," Barnes said.
He said a number of factors have contributed to his decision regarding the Prison Farm, the only such county-run facility in the state.
Barnes said the Prison Farm will also cease grape production – a relatively new crop that was just added a few years ago – and the inmates will stop growing other crops there as well.
Barnes generated quite a bit of publicity about three years ago when the county's farm began manufacturing and selling "Jailhouse Jelly," a muscadine grape jelly that was packaged and sold in jars with an inmates image on the label.
Barnes said that, when it comes down to it, his decision to get out of the farming business can be summed up well in a Kenny Rogers song.
"You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em; you gotta know when to walk away," Barnes stated – thankfully without attempting to actually sing the lyrics.
The 800-acre facility, which opened in the 1930s, was run by a stand-alone division of Guilford County
government until 1997, when the Sheriff's Department took it over.
Over the last 15 years, Barnes has expanded the agricultural operations at the eastern Guilford County
farm, and it now has everything from beehives for honey production to grapes to make jelly, to wheat, soybeans and other crops that are either sold to cut costs to taxpayers or used to feed inmates in the county's jails.
Barnes said the Prison Farm has a very interesting past. He said it was once the place set aside to hold prostitutes and, he added, the farm also contains a cemetery where the county buries the bodies of the indigent.
The Prison Farm has been in the news a lot these days because area economic development officials and others have been pushing to turn 750 of the 800 acres into a commercial and industrial park. Earlier this month, a well-publicized attempt to attract a large company to be an anchor for the proposed industrial park fell through, but Barnes said the incident helped him see the writing on the wall.
The sheriff said that, in recent years, there's been a push by Guilford County
Manager Brenda Jones Fox and Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Skip Alston to rezone the property for industrial use, so that, if a big company does want to come in quickly and open a call center or distribution center at the Prison Farm, the proper zoning would already be in place.
"It would not be zoned agricultural and a lot of our operations would not fit," Barnes said.
The sheriff said the tight financial margins of running a farm have played into his decision as well. He said his staff at the Prison Farm recently asked him about planting winter wheat as usual this year. Barnes said he asked about the profit of that crop.
"I asked, 'Does it make money?' and he said it about breaks even," Barnes said.
Barnes said some crop and livestock initiatives over the years have turned out to be more trouble than they're worth. For instance, at one time inmates at the farm raised chickens but, according to the sheriff, there simply wasn't any money in that. Barnes said the Prison Farm also got into the hog farming business years ago, but got out of it due to issues related to the pollution and smell. The Prison Farm dropped hog production, he said, around the same time hog farming came under intense scrutiny statewide from the media and state regulatory agencies.
Barnes and his staff have been proud of the fact that they have been teaching inmates skills and getting back some taxpayer money on the farm. In recent years, the farm has generated revenue of about $270,000 annually from greenhouse sales, jelly and honey production, crop sales and the manufacture and sale of lawn furniture and lawn ornaments.
The Prison Farm will still generate some revenue in upcoming years, since the greenhouse will continue to grow and sell products. Barnes said the bees will also get to stay, and the farm will keep making and selling honey. However, most other farming endeavors will end shortly.
According to Barnes, it's time to refocus the operations at the farm and begin preparing it for the inevitable economic development.
Barnes, a high-profile Republican – has had many battles with commissioners and other county officials over the years in his effort to keep the farm open in the face of budget cuts and moves by some of his political opponents, who simply want to see the scope of the sheriff's wide-ranging empire diminish.
Barnes has always argued – and still does – that inmates at the Prison Farm get a lot of benefits from being incarcerated there. He said the inmates learn both trades and self respect. However, he said, those benefits may be a thing of the past.
"I'm a realist," Barnes said. "My first job is law enforcement and being keeper of the jail."
The Prison Farm holds about 40 or 50 prisoners a day during the week and around 120 on weekends when the "weekenders" come in to serve out convictions – largely drunk driving cases or other cases where a judge has determined someone's incarceration shouldn't cost them their job.
Gibsonville Mayor Lenny Williams said the citizens in eastern Guilford County
seem to enjoy having the farm in the area and he said many would like to see it remain open in the years to come.
"They like going there to buy plants," Williams said.
He also said the facility has been there long enough that nearby residents have a very high comfort level with it because the inmates there aren't being held on violent crimes and, he added, there's never been an escape that he knows about.
Commissioner Billy Yow said he doesn't think people understand the importance of the Prison Farm and all that goes on there. Like Barnes, Yow said that all the benefits of having inmates working at the farm can't be captured in the farm's revenue numbers or other statistics.
He said that, when an inmate helps deliver a calf and holds a new life in his hands, it is a transformative moment. Yow added that working on a farm furthers character development in many other ways as well.
"It does change lives," Yow said. "It gives him a down to earth, grassroots skill set, and it teaches him where he comes from."...continued on page 2