(Updated at 2 p.m., with new info. from DRC).
SALEM, Ohio — The sale of dairy cattle from Ohio’s prison farms is scheduled to begin this week in Holmes County, following the April 12 decision by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to close and sell the farms.
According to a schedule provided by the DRC, the first sale is planned for 5 p.m. this evening, May 16, at the Mount Hope Auction barn, where 42 head of dairy cows from the Marion Correctional Institution are scheduled to sell.
As of May 10, the state also began seeking bids to provide about 1.3 million gallons of milk through November, packaged mostly in half-pint containers, and delivered to nearly 30 of the state prison institutions.
About 1,000 head of dairy cattle are involved in the herd liquidation, which, according to Ohio procurement documents, the department plans to have gone by June 9.
The cattle had previously supplied milk for the state’s milk processing facility in Pickaway County, and was then packaged and distributed across the prison farm system for consumption by inmates.
The department said its cows had produced about 1.5 million gallons of milk over the past two years.
The DRC maintains that even with the cost of buying milk, it can buy it for less than the total cost of production, when all factors are considered.
The state prison farm system also owns 2,300 head of beef cattle and 12,500 acres of farmland. Decisions are still being made as to how much of those assets will be sold.
To sell land, the department will first need the approval of the Ohio legislature.
The union that represents prison farm staff sued the state May 5, for a restraining order and injunction on selling prison farm cattle and land. The Franklin County Common Pleas Court ruled against granting a restraining order, but the case for an injunction will be heard May 27.
Reason for sale
The department said the decision was made to “better align” Ohio’s prison system to its core mission, by making sure that inmates received meaningful rehabilitation, and that prison properties are kept safe and secure. The department said the farms had become a security issue, with inmates using them to bring contraband into prison property.
The sale has the support of some key Ohio lawmakers, who say the state can operate more efficiently by relying on the private sector to produce milk and food.
Ohio Sen. President Keith Faber, R-Celina, said he prefers that local farmers be given the option to lease the land.
“I understand the administration’s desire to become more efficient and effective,” Faber said. “It does appear that this is a prime example of where government has not been as efficient as the private sector.”
Faber said some of the land may be better situated for other uses, but any future use of the land will need legislative approval, “and as a capital item should never be used to fund ongoing prison operations.”
Ohio Sen. Bob Peterson, R-Sabina, a farmer, said he understands the value of hard work and teaching that to prisoners, but he believes the inmates will be more secure and safe without the farms, and that the private sector can farm more efficiently.
“I have a strong belief the (prison farm) land should be held privately, not publicly,” he said. “The efficiency is just much better in the private sector.”
Peterson said he had not looked at the numbers, but was confident the cost to purchase the food needed would be less than the total cost of producing it.
Peterson said the legislature should be involved with the sale of land, and that it should be well-publicized in advance. He said one thing the DRC plans to continue is vegetable production.
That could bring some relief to Ohio’s network of foodbanks, which were surprised to learn of the sale, because the foodbanks relied on a 10-year-old agreement with the prison farms to produce food for Ohio’s hungry.
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, said she has received a memorandum of understanding that the program will continue this year. Historically, the inmates have grown the produce for the foodbanks with funds from the sale of grain commodities grown on the prison farms, like corn, soybeans and wheat.
She said the partnership has been a “win-win” for inmates and for Ohio’s hungry, and she hopes something can be figured out for the future.
“We just hope the parties come together and can figure all of this out,” she said.
”Hungry Ohioans are hoping for the best possible resolution to all of this and the state of Ohio has a lot invested in these prison farms,” she said.
Updated schedule of upcoming dairy sales:
5/16 Dairy Auction at Mt. Hope Auction in Millersburg.
5/23 Dairy Auction at Mt. Hope Auction in Millersburg.
6/8 Dairy Auction at Lebanon Correctional Institution.
6/9 Dairy Auction at London Correctional Institution.
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