Mt Pleasant News
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Wash Journal   Fairfield Ledger
Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 25, 2018

MP Correctional Facility’s fall harvest brings in 100,000 pounds of produce annually

Crops planted on the grounds save $33K in food service costs
Sep 14, 2018
Photo by: Grace King It’s fall harvest season at the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility. Each year, the facility harvests more than 100,000 pounds of produce through their landscape and grounds apprenticeship program, saving food services $33,000 annually.

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News

 

When Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility inmate Harry Fleck worked construction, he never could have imagined finding joy in the agricultural field.

Now that summer is over, however, Fleck is completing his agricultural apprenticeship with a fall harvest at the Correctional Facility. The food he grew will be consumed by his fellow inmates, cutting down food costs at the facility by $33,000 annually.

“(I’ve) never been around any plants,” Fleck said. “I enjoy going out there. He catches me out there in the rain,” he said of Correctional Facility operation manager Jeremy Howk.

Fleck is part of the apprenticeship program at the facility, making 56 cents an hour or $5.04 a day. He estimates he works an average of 45 hours a week among the five gardens on the grounds of the facility.

The facility has 13 apprentice programs total, and the landscape and grounds apprenticeship that Fleck is a part of is the largest with five inmates in the program.

Despite menial pay, Fleck said he doesn’t mind. He would rather be outside. “I think anyone would be,” he said.

The first step in Fleck’s apprenticeship was tilling the grounds to prepare for planting season. The only problem was Fleck had never even drive a tractor before.

“I just like learning new stuff. Hands-on (learning) is what I like doing,” Fleck said.

With all the learning Fleck had to do this summer, there were some surprises along the way. When his peppers turned yellow before green, he thought he was overwatering them. His zucchini? He thought they were cucumbers upon first inspection. And some of his cucumbers ended up a hybrid of cucumber-squash because they were planted too close together.

“If the vines touch, they will cross-pollinate,” Howk explained.

“I might have invented a new vegetable,” Fleck said with a laugh.

Fleck is extremely proud of the work he’s done this summer. One of the watermelons he grew weighed in at 45 pounds. There were some disappointments too, like the onions they planted that didn’t turn out.

Regardless, the food grown at the Correctional Facility can feed the inmates for up to a year. Howk said the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility’s agriculture operations are possibly the biggest in Iowa because the grounds used to be a mental health institute. They normally harvest at least 100,000 pounds of food.

So far this year, the facility has harvested almost 70,000 pounds of produce across almost six acres of land as of Tuesday, Sept. 11. In 2014, they saw the largest produce harvested, weighing in at 171,000 pounds.

Mike Shepherd, food service director, said when they expanded the gardens around the facility over a decade ago, he saw a 10 percent savings in his annual food budget.

What is not eaten while ripe at the facility is frozen such as cabbage, squash and peppers. Additional vegetables come canned from China or are No. 2 grade frozen.

From the landscapes and grounds apprenticeship to the kitchen, inmates learn how to cook the food grown as well. Shepherd said that while he grew up in small town Iowa where they grew and cooked their own produce, a lot of the men he works with haven’t been taught how to cook fresh vegetables or how to preserve them.

“We give them freedom to cook in different ways,” Shepherd said, adding that it’s the same as cooking at home except they’re feeding 1,000 people.

Now that the food produced at the facility is a part of Shepherd’s budget, Shepherd said he really leans on maintenance to ensure the garden is taken care of. What used to be a surplus of an average of $30,000 a year, quickly became a necessity.

“The community never sees the lengths we go to save a buck,” Shepherd said.

The general knowledge inmates are able to take away from this apprenticeship is what staff gardner Steve Putnam finds so important about it. “It’s what can help them in the future,” he said. “It also gives them responsiblility. This is something that is important for the taxpayers and the Correctional Facility itself because of how many pounds of produce we get.”

Currently, Fleck is working on getting his commercial license to drive a tractor. Next summer, he will lead a group of inmates as they go through the apprenticeship program — a challenge he is looking forward to.

“I’m excited to show them what I like about it. It was all new to me too,” Fleck said.

Fleck will be released from the Correctional Facility by August or September of 2019, after which he will pursue a career in agriculture through Proteus, a community service organization that provides job training and health care services to farm and migrant workers in Iowa, Indiana and Nebraska.

“Now, he could work with any farm operation and any equipment,” Howk said, proud of his pupil and of the apprenticeship program.

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