Jail Garden Helps Feed Laconia Community
David Sargent carries a green folder holding a stack of organized notes, photographs, lists, ideas, and research he’s compiled to learn more about New Hampshire agriculture. “The minute you think you’re smarter than your garden, it’s gonna whoop ya,” he says with a good-humored chuckle. Sargent functions as a key player in the Belknap County Department of Corrections Garden Program. He is also one of the jail’s inmates.
Aside from the temperamental New England weather, early winter geese, hungry summer woodchucks, and incessant weeds, Sargent says the hardest part about maintaining the jail garden is the constant change out of inmates in the program. But for those currently involved in the program, “it’s a collaborative effort,” says Sargent.
Sergeant Patrick O’Reilly, who helps oversee the program, agrees. In county corrections, inmates are typically sentenced to serve a maximum of one year. Due to these shorter sentences, inmates’ first growing season in the program could also be their last. But any time spent in the program can be beneficial.
“The inmates take pride in their work in the garden. It’s definitely an accomplishment,” says O’Reilly, who explains that the program teaches inmates life skills they can use when they get out, including how to grow their own food and people skills by working with the public when they sell their produce at the jail’s garden stand. A typical schedule for program participants consists of 10-12 hour days, seven days a week. In return, inmates get a chance to give back to the community.
The garden program, which began in 2008, was brought back last year after being cut from the budget several years ago. Now, in addition to three and a half acres of cultivated land, the gardening operation has high and low tunnel greenhouses that allow seedlings to prosper despite cold temperatures or extreme sun. Once they’re ready for the fields, the crops are transferred outside and into the ground, where they continue to grow.
Currently the garden program isn’t able to grow during the winter months due to a lack of water supply. However, says O’Reilly, “We still had tomatoes and peppers growing in the high tunnel in November from last year’s crop.” These remnants of the spring’s bounty were donated to the jail’s loyal vendors.
The garden’s produce is sold at a garden stand stationed in front of the jail and to local restaurants. This past year, the jail made almost $8,000 in sales. But the real merit lies in the program’s donations. In 2016, almost 900 pounds of produce were donated to the nursing home kitchen located adjacent to the jail. 1,525 pounds of produce were donated to programs such as the Got Lunch program for school children, New Hampshire Gleans, and other local food pantries, and 800 pounds were donated to local restaurants. In good seasonal spirit, the garden program also donated pumpkins and corn stalks for Pumpkin- Fest in Laconia this past October.
Fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, and rosemary were recently added to the garden’s list of offerings; small circular plots surrounded by rocks sit outside the greenhouses, waiting to produce again once the snow has melted and the inmates can put to work their plans, some of which are sketched out in Sargent’s green folder. Part of the success of these plans lies in the work done by the inmates’ many partners, who make up in speed what they lack in size. Bees, who reside in the pollination station next to the garden’s greenhouse, keep the crops healthy and fed.
This type of collaboration is an essential component to nature’s stamina, as well as the stamina of the garden program. “I rely on the individuals who have been out here with the program, doing it faithfully,” says Sergeant O’Reilly, who recognizes the inmates’ hard work and also credits Kelly McAdam of UNH Cooperative Extension and Lisa Morin of the Belknap County Conservation Department. “They help us tremendously. It is a team effort out here,” says O’Reilly.
The future of the Belknap County Corrections Garden Program looks prosperous. Eventually, they would like to add flowers to their list of growing items, as well as determine an irrigation system so crops can be grown year-round. “We have three and a half acres of garden out there and plenty of room for expansion,” says O’Reilly. “It’s a great feeling to know that as a department, we can help out our community, because some of the programs we donate to help out our inmates.”