By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
Take a drive by the Pontotoc County Jail early one fall morning and you’ll see an unusual sight: close to a dozen inmates out in the field, picking turnip greens they’ll wash, cook and eat for lunch.
The two gardens around the jail and another one at the North Mississippi Research and Extension Service in Verona – about 30 acres in all – are the brainchild of Sheriff Leo Mask, who was re-elected to office in January. He previously served as sheriff from 2000 to 2008.
“When I was in office the first time, we had a small garden downtown and then we had the one at the Experiment Station in Verona,” he said. “The cost of food is the reason we do it.”
Mask gets a lot of his seed from the farm supply store, but some comes without a price tag.
“We had a lot of seed donated to us,” he said. “All of the corn was donated to us. Business people in town bought us a lot of seed.”
This past summer, inmates grew peas, corn, okra, squash and a few tomatoes. For the fall, they’ll harvest turnip, mustard and collard greens, rutabagas and cabbage.
“We didn’t have a good tomato crop this year,” Mask said. “But we’re going to try again next year. Stanley Wise (the county extension director for Union County) said he’d help us with them.”
Mask said the hard part of the garden was getting it started – preparing the land, liming it, breaking it up, putting in a sprinkler system.
“It’s just like anything else – the first year is a challenge,” he said. “Once you get started, everything falls into place.”
Mask said he looks to the Amish community in Pontotoc County for garden guidance.
“I usually watch them and talk to them and when they plant, that’s when we plant,” he said. “They live off the land. They had a tremendous tomato crop. That’s why I want to talk to Stanley. Of course, there’s no way to compete with the Amish, though.”
Benefits of gardens
The Pontotoc County Jail typically houses between 40 and 50 inmates on any given day. A group of about 10 non-violent offenders goes out in the field six days a week to pick whatever’s ready to be harvested. Another group then takes over, washing, shucking, silking and shelling the vegetables.
Once the vegetables are blanched, they’re put in gallon-sized ziptop bags and loaded into a 16×20-foot walk-in freezer. Mask estimates they’ve put up close to 1,000 bags of vegetables this year.
“In the winter, they’ll eat really good on vegetables,” he said. “The ones who work in the garden, they take pride in it. And you don’t have as many problems at night, because after working in the garden all day, they’re ready to lay down and go to sleep.”
In fact, that’s one of the three benefits of having the garden, the sheriff said.
“First, it’s a cost savings,” he said. “And they’re eating locally produced food. But it also makes for tired inmates.”
Mask said they plant and grow just about every kind of vegetable that does well in Northeast Mississippi.
“That way, they don’t have to eat the same thing every day,” he said.
One recent day, the inmates dined on turkey roast with brown gravy, creamed potatoes, purple-hull peas and just-picked turnip greens.
The meal was prepared by the inmates, under the supervision of Ruby Lindsey Parks, who came back to the jail to work in the kitchen for Sheriff Mask in January.
“It’s a lot better here when you cook fresh food,” Parks said. “It really saves on ordering food. We don’t have to order vegetables anymore. With the amount of food that comes in that they grow, I’m able to give them a big, hearty helping of vegetables, a big scoop.”
Parks said two gallons of peas or corn or squash will feed about 60 people, so that’s how much she cooks of each vegetable she’s serving on any given day.
“I cook the food here the way I could cook it at home,” she said. “I try to prepare this stuff as though I’m the one who’s got to sit down and eat it myself. We don’t have leftovers very often. They’re men and they work hard and they’re hungry.”
Too much coming in
Mask said he knows the gardens are going to provide a cost savings for the jail, but he doesn’t know how much yet.
“When I came in, we were paying between $3,000 and $4,000 a month for food – meat and vegetables and stuff,” he said. “After January, I’ll know what our savings will be. Fertilizer, water, electricity – we’ve got to include all of that in the costs. But the labor is free.”
The sheriff said they’ve about run out of room in the walk-in freezer, and they have only just begun to harvest the fall vegetables.
“We’re going to have to get a reefer trailer – a portable 36-foot freezer on 18 wheels,” he said. “There’s a guy who’s going to let us use one for free. We’ve just got too much coming in. We didn’t know how well everything was going to come in, but we’ve had a good year. In the future, we might have to do some canning.”