A plan moving through the Legislature would require some Minnesota prisons to plant gardens that would help feed prisoners.
Supporters say it would save the state money and give inmates a productive outlet while they serve their time.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, and discussed Tuesday in a House committee, would make eight of the state's prisons till up ground for agricultural use by inmates.
"Hard, sweat equity work creates a strong back and a sound mind," he said. "It's especially needed for our young people, and also all ages actually, and especially people in a correctional institute."
Gruenhagen said he speaks from at least some experience. He's an insurance agent now, but he grew up milking cows on his family's dairy farm south of Glencoe.
Gruenhagen was just elected to the Legislature last fall. He's already known for offering suggestions regarding state offenders, including chain gangs and even castration for sex offenders. Authorities rebuffed the effectiveness and practicality of such measures earlier this session.
But the garden idea took root at the Public Safety and Crime Prevention committee meeting.
Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy told lawmakers he thought it was a good idea. He's the former director of Arrowhead Regional Corrections the workhouse for five northern Minnesota counties, just outside Duluth.
“At the end of the day, I probably wouldn't say it was a huge cash cow.”Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy
"For years, that facility has had a pretty significant farming operation, including vegetables, hay and also raising livestock," Roy said. "They still have a slaughterhouse on grounds, and chickens and other things meet their demise in that slaughterhouse quite regularly."
Roy said that some of the jail's potato and pumpkin crop even finds its way on to local food shelves.
He said a similar effort would probably fit well at minimum security facilities, where authorities think inmates would need minimal supervision and weren't a flight risk.
Greengage cited programs in other states. They include an organic flower garden at California's famed San Quentin prison and a landscape horticulture program at New York's Rikers Island.
Oklahoma officials said prison farms made nearly $1 million selling firewood, beef and pecans in 2009. Gruenhagen said the state's fiscal crisis is part of the reason he's pitching the idea.
But farm advocates expressed some concern about that idea here in Minnesota. Paul Hugunin runs the Minnesota Grown program for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and said about 1,100 small producers are in the program.
"Our growers, our farmers have to compete for markets with people all over the country, and corporations internationally," Hugunin said. "They'd hate to see themselves in competition also with the state prison system."
DFLers tried to strip a provision permitting sale of prison produce, but Republicans voted to keep it in.
The corrections commissioner said he didn't think inmates would pose a threat to the state's farmers — or help close the state's budget gap by reducing prison food costs.
"The money aspect of it, it certainly contributes and it certainly helps," Roy said. "But at the end of the day, I probably wouldn't say it was a huge cash cow. I think we'd have a lot of onions to raise before that would happen."
He also said that some prisons have been experimenting with gardens on their own. The state sex offender program in Moose Lake also had a greenhouse, but it was removed during the Pawlenty administration.
The prison garden measure is now on its way to the Agriculture Committee.