Grafton County:Shortage Of Inmate Labor Creates Challenge For County Farm

An Grafton County House of Corrections inmate, pictured here in July 2016, manages the farm stand across from the county complex. Last year, owing to a shortage of inmates, the stand was unmanned. Going forward, county officials are trying to find ways to keep the county farm, which has depended on inmate labor, running during a historic shortage of inmates that could continue. (File photo by Robert Blechl)

The Grafton County Farm, which has the last remaining government-run dairy farm in the state and New England, is in tough times.

The farm in North Haverhill with a staff of three county employees depends on the labor from minimum-security inmates housed in the nearby Grafton County House of Corrections.

That labor, from running the farm stand across from the county complex to tending to crops and the dairy herd, is a component in the HOC’s rehabilitation programs.

The farm, too, produces vegetables for both the HOC and county nursing home and also sells them to residents at the farm stand.

But recent events have prompted county officials to look at changes and develop a long-range plan to keep operations viable.

“We are looking at this season and beyond,” Grafton County Administrator Andrew Dorsett said Friday. “COVID and other issues have had a trickle-down effect. The farm is built on doing rehabilitation and job training for inmates, and right now, the jail population is so low … and that will create an inability to meet the needs of the farm. Grant Nelson, the farm manager, has been working with UNH Cooperative Extension to come up with a plan for this year. It’s a pretty different direction for the farm.”

The county farm has always used inmate labor, but from a combination of COVID and bail reform, the farm isn’t getting inmates at the same historic level, said county commissioner Linda Lauer, of Bath.

“The courts are shut down and we are not getting newly sentenced inmates, plus bail reform has really decreased the number of inmates overall at the HOC,” she said. “If you look at Tom’s report from two years ago and the census at the HOC now, we have maybe a third the number of inmates.”

The Jan. 26 report from GCHOC Superintendent Tom Elliott states there were 38 inmates in-house, a far cry from the levels of nearly 100 inmates or higher in years past.

After speaking with Elliott, Lauer said the farm is currently down to three working inmates, and two of them are leaving next month after completing their sentences.

“It’s requiring an adjustment on our part,” she said. “In past years, we always had an inmate man the farm stand. This past year, we did a cash box and the honor system. This year, we are talking about concentrating on crops that require less hands-on labor, like potatoes, for example.”

The Grafton County Farm has a milking herd of more than 80 cows.

In addition to the dairy farm and farm stand, it has a tree farm and a small piggery.

Some of the potatoes raised go to local food pantries and the pumpkins grown go to local schools.

The permanent staff of three for a 24/7 operation is the bare minimum, said Lauer.

After reaching out to the University of New Hampshire Collaborative Extension for ideas, one decision already made is to take out of the dairy herd some younger cows not yet milking and keep the higher-quality cows to improve the quality of the herd, she said.

“We are looking at new things we can do to keep and strengthen the farm operation and give it new life,” said Lauer.

The farm for the fiscal year has a budget of $446,221.

While the county tries to have operations at least break even or make a small profit, Lauer said 2020 was a tough year and the farm didn’t quite break even.

Last year’s lack of rainfall, for instance, resulted in poorer quality crops, among them corn.

The farm has a timber stand that is harvested about every half-decade, the next cut likely in 2022.

The last harvest generated about $30,000 in profit.

Going forward, crop production could see a big change.

Suggestions for the future include a blueberry crop, for the county complex’s own consumption, and some fruit trees and possibly Christmas trees, though new crop operations would be implemented so as to not compete with local farmers and much study needs to be done before committing to a possible Christmas tree crop, said Lauer.

Another idea is to expand the potato crop so it can be marketed beyond the local area.

To help modernize the farm, a major purchase was made last year for a potato harvester, said Dorsett.

“We are developing a plan so that should the inmate shortage continue, we can grow crops like potatoes and pumpkins,” he said.

Another path is to look at the farm more holistically and possibly set up permaculture, a form of agriculture modeled on natural ecosystems and aimed at being self-sufficient and sustainable.

A plan for that has been sent to Steve Whitman, at Resilience Planning and Design for an exploratory discussion, said Dorsett.

Activating a dedicated study group will be another next step.

“We had a farm committee set up before COVID, but when COVID hit, everything went to pot,” said Lauer. “We are trying to get that started back up again.”

In addition to produce and other farm products, there are also intangible benefits to having a county farm, said Dorsett.

“If it breaks even or makes money that’s great, but I think there is some value in providing it as a resource to inmates,” he said.

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