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Let's Talk

VOL. 30, NO. 3

Life on the Farm

BY Bill Rankin, Communications Officer, Communications and Citizen Engagement

Photo: Bill Rankin

Instructor Larry Thomas is at the wheel of the big Agco tractor with a harvester in tow, cutting a broad swath through one of Frontenac Institution’s cornfields. He’s running against time, hoping that approaching rain clouds won’t burst and make a slick mudhole of his work area. Riding beside him is an inmate, Jim, who is eager to learn farming skills. His most important lesson of the day: how to keep the tractor’s rear wheels from bogging in the soggy earth on the field’s lower reaches.

Instructor Larry Thomas (left) and inmate farm worker Jim turn corn into “chop” to feed the Frontenac Institution dairy herd.
Instructor Larry Thomas (left) and inmate farm worker Jim turn corn into “chop” to feed the Frontenac Institution dairy herd.

It’s just one of the daily activities at this 900-acre penitentiary farm located in the west end of the city of Kingston, well within the city limits — a real estate developer’s dream, if only they could get their hands on the property. But that’s not very likely. It’s been a working penitentiary farm for many years and is highly valued for the produce it supplies to local federal institutions and food banks in the surrounding area and for the skills passed on to the inmates whose labour and sweat keeps the production going.

Building a Work Ethic

Work starts early on the farm — long before sunrise at this time of year. Roughly 65 inmates are up and on their way to the cattle barns and poultry production and dairy-processing areas before the birds start to chirp, collars turned up against the damp, their breath hanging like fog in the chill air. They’re grateful for a hot cup of coffee when they reach the shelter of the barns.

Frontenac Operations Manager Craig Chinnery is there too, his job being to keep the entire outfit running smoothly. He explains that some of the inmates had never held a steady job in their lives until they arrived at the penitentiary farm. “We’re trying to develop a work ethic in these guys. Get them accustomed to getting up in the morning and putting in a full day’s work. And teaching them certified skills they can take with them to the job market.

“Most of them really enjoy the work. In fact, they often prefer to stay here rather than go back to their living quarters after work hours!”

A Good Product

Inside the dairy-processing area, production is in full swing. The air is full of the strong odour of disinfectant, and normal conversation is obliterated by the thump and hiss of pumps and compressors and the clank-clank of a sophisticated milk-bagging machine, operated by one of the inmates. Instructor Phil Dier, dressed in a long smock-coat, Wellington boots and a hair net, runs the processing plant. He’s worked his whole life on dairy farms and is obviously at ease in this setting, wrench in hand, busy checking gauges on the separator and hollering terse instructions to the inmates above the din.

“The raw milk is pasteurized, homogenized, separated and shipped out to institutions in various bag sizes from here,” he says with a smile. “The operation is fully inspected by health authorities. It’s a good product and we’re proud of it.”

The Dairy Barn

It’s quieter inside the dairy barn but just as hectic. Between 5:30 and 8:30 each morning, inmates are moving at full speed, darting in and out of each stall, milking rigs slung over their shoulders. The big Holsteins chew their breakfast and impatiently await their turn; the pressure of all that milk inside them has been building up overnight.

One inmate, Ross, a small and agile fellow, fits his rig to a cow’s udder with a practiced air, springs up and attaches the other end to a pipe that runs the length of the barn and empties into a deep collecting vat. Then he’s quickly on to the next cow. From start to finish during the entire process, the milk is never exposed to air or potential contaminants until the consumer actually sits down to a meal and pours a cold glass.

These inmates seem happy and eager in their work. It’s obvious that they take pride in the operation.

“The animal/human connection is a good thing,” Chinnery comments. “The offenders, under their instructors’ watchful eyes, are responsible for the health of these animals. They take a keen interest and quite often form a bond with some of the animals. This kind of work has a calming effect on many of these guys.”

Chinnery recounts the story of one inmate in particular who was known as a difficult case until he started working in the cattle barns. He’d never set foot on a farm in his life and staff members were at first doubtful about his ability to fit in. But not only did he prove them wrong, he actually became one of their hardest workers and devoted much of his extra time to caring for the cows.

Thousands of Eggs — Daily!

The poultry operation is housed in a long, low shed where the light is purposely dimmed to calm the birds. The odour of 10,000 laying hens assails the nostrils when you first enter the building. As your eyes become accustomed to the dark, you can see the red and white heads bobbing and swivelling from side to side at the approach of inmate workers. There’s a lot of nervous clucking going on, too.

The eggs are collected and loaded onto trolleys that are pushed to the sorting area in another room. Each egg is carefully inspected for quality and graded for size, then shipped in cases of 15 dozen to local institutions and food banks.

A Sense of Pride

“The good thing about farm work,” says Chinnery, “is that the instructors have these inmates for seven hours a day. There’s a level of trust that gradually builds up.

“The work instills a sense of responsibility in the inmate who must provide daily care for the livestock. There’s a general feeling of accomplishment amongst both the inmate farm workers and the instructors as a result of their work.”

Perhaps it has something to do with the age-old cyclical nature of farm work that is so satisfying: the physical labour outdoors during the changing seasons, in all kinds of weather; and the crop production which in turn feeds the cattle, the cattle produce the milk, the milk nourishes the consumer.

Obviously, there’s more than one good product coming from this farm operation and the most important one is the positive changes it makes in inmates’ lives. ♦