Jan 22, 2018
Inmates learn about specialty crops on farm

Georgia’s burgeoning fruit crop is not the only thing budding at the Mitchell County Correctional Institute in Camilla, Georgia. Among the inmates learning to care for a 100-tree grove there is a new sense of satisfaction.

For fruit and vegetable producers anywhere who worry about H-2A visas, finding labor, and the new variety or market development, the Georgia program is a model that might work anywhere fruit is produced.

“Every time I’m there, without a doubt, an inmate comes up and they have begun to have this pride about it,” said Georgia Citrus Association President Lindy Savelle, who has shown the MitCo Grow project to potential growers regularly since it was unveiled in May. “At first we had some problems because they didn’t know anything about agriculture, but they are learning,” Savelle said.

While a prison fruit grove is a novel approach, growing food in correctional facilities is not uncommon. For example, the Insight Garden Program is a California-based organization that helps U.S. prisons establish gardens.

A study of paroled participants found that less than 10 percent returned to prison or jail after participating in the organization’s gardens during incarceration. Bureau of Justice studies have found that within three years of release, about two thirds of released prisoners were rearrested.

In a few years, the 100-tree citrus grove at the Mitchell County Correctional Institute in Camilla, Georgia, will yield more citrus than the facility’s inmates can consume, giving them fresh food and experience working with one of Georgia’s newest crops. The orchard is next to a busy highway further promoting the growing crop to travelers. Photos: Georgia Citrus Association

Symms Fruit Ranch in Caldwell, Idaho was among the first to take advantage of state legislation allowing inmates to work with perishable foods in 2015. Jim Mertz, one of five owners at the 5,000-acre operation, said inmates work in the fields and the warehouse when they are available.

“It’s a learning curve on both parts, I’m sure, but it’s way better than not having anyone,” said Mertz, whose crops include apples, cherries and peaches. “Everyone deserves a second chance. We’ve all got a lot to lose and a lot to gain.”
The first of its kind in Georgia, the MitCo Grow program promotes one of the state’s up-and-coming crops while providing a teaching environment for inmates and area students. South Georgia growers are embracing the seedless and cold-hearty satsuma mandarin orange as well as other varieties developed to weather Georgia winters by the University of Georgia (UGA). While the citrus greening that has devastated Florida groves has been detected in Georgia, growers are hoping the climate will prove too cold for Asian citrus psyllids.

Savelle predicts there will be about 42,000 trees planted in the state by the end of 2017, which is almost double 2016’s tree count.

“We knew interest was going to grow, but we never knew it would grow that much,” said Savelle, a retired FBI agent who returned to her Georgia roots to become a citrus grower and to partner with her brother in a citrus nursery. “I have devoted my life to it, and I think it can bring back the small family farms. Most of these people are not putting in over 10 acres. We have the potential to create a ripple effect in agriculture.”

MitCo is the brainchild of Mitchell County Administrator Clark Harrell, who saw increasing interest in citrus in southern Georgia as a potential boon for the rural county. It was his idea to use inmate labor and county land adjacent to the correctional facility to lock in the county’s role. The inmates will be able to eat the fruit when it begins to harvest in a few years, while plans are still in the works for any excess.

“You’re going to need people to pick the fruit,” said Harrell. “I envisioned putting those trees in close proximity to the prison to have inmates tend to growing the fruit which trains them. It gives them an opportunity to learn a skill and become productive citizens.

“In my mind, the distinguishing point was to provide fruit for our inmate population thereby reducing cost for the taxpayers of Mitchell County,” Harrell added.

The MitCo grove has 10 varieties of citrus, including three seedless varieties developed at UGA and known to be resilient to cold. The UGA varieties include the Sweet Frost tangerine, Pink Frost grapefruit, and Grand Frost lemon. Other varieties in the grove include the Cara Cara navel, Frost Owari satsuma, Nules tangerine, Murcott mandarin, Meyer lemon, Kieffer lime and Liquid Gold grapefruit.

Warden Bill Terry said out of about 140 inmates there are three or four tending it regularly by mowing grass, watering, checking for pests and weeding. Introducing inmates to agriculture hasn’t been without incident. Weed killer proved too much for a handful of trees when sprayed in error. But, all agree the grove is thriving today.

“I think once the trees start bearing fruit, we’ll get a lot more buy-in from the other inmates but the three or four that take care of it on a daily basis show a lot of pride in it. People driving by see it and that works well with the inmates.”

Other contributing organizations included Georgia Extension Service, Mitchell County Board of Commissioners, the University of Georgia, Mitchell County 4-H and FFA and local businesses.

Satsuma grower Mack Glass of Marianna, Florida, has been harvesting his six acres of citrus for more than 12 years. A member of the Georgia Citrus Association, he would consider expanding his operation if he knew labor would be more readily available.

“Labor is a challenge and that’s why we haven’t grown our groves,” said Glass. “I think MitCo Grow is a great service to agriculture in that they are using it as an innovative way to train workers. They are needed in every segment of agriculture.”

— Jennifer Paire, FGN correspondent

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