THE Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) knows the true value of a self-sufficient farm: For more than 100 years, TDCJ has been raising field crops, edible crops and livestock and turning those raw agriculture products into items like clothing and food for its prison units.
The agribusiness division was established to offset the cost of incarceration and provide the offenders with valuable work skills.
Over the years, as the state of Texas acquired land to build prisons, it also obtained the land to support the farming operation. Presently, the agribusiness department operates and manages more than 141,000 acres, majority owned by the state of Texas, located in 47 counties.
At the beginning, the goal for the farming operation and related agribusinesses was to provide 100% of the food and fiber needs of the prison system. In the late 1980s, the need to build more prisons required the agricultural operation to streamline its goals and adjust them to focus on what the TDCJ agribusiness department did best.
Even though the farming operation today does not entirely support the prison system's food and clothing needs, it aims to produce all of the fiber and as much of the food as possible for 155,000 prisoners.
The agribusiness department is divided into two sectors: crops and livestock.
The diversity and self-supporting environment is quite a contrast to the average farming operation. Beyond growing row crops, vegetables and livestock, the department also has a vegetable canning plant, beef processing plant, pork processing plant, two feed mills, two cotton gins and an alfalfa dehydrator.
The two feed mills combine the corn and sorghum grown on 37,000 acres with premixes to feed the livestock, while the cotton grown on 7,000 acres is transformed in the textile mills into linens and clothing.
The prison's foodservice system is provided with a wide variety of vegetables grown on 5,000 acres. Likewise, the farrow-to-finish swine operation and the 300,000-laying hen operation provide pork and poultry products. Most harvested products are processed and preserved within the prison system to be used throughout the entire year.
The livestock operation also includes a 10,000-head beef cow/calf herd. The calves produced are sold on foot, and the profit is used to purchase beef trimmings to be packaged in house for basic beef products.
The ultimate goal is to utilize the entire harvested raw product and reduce operating expenses. For example, kitchen waste is recycled and properly prepared in accordance with regulatory requirements to feed hogs in 13 finishing operations. This recycling program saves the prison system up to $1.5 million in waste disposal fees annually.
The added value of this agricultural enterprise is providing offenders with an opportunity to work. The agribusiness department employs nearly 300 people and utilizes more than 6,000 offenders as the main labor force.
The range of jobs is vast, from cleaning fence lines to harvesting crops to operating machinery to clerical duties in the farm and shop offices. Offenders gain valuable skills and acquire experience that eventually can be used in the outside world.
In an interview, Matt Demny, TDCJ director of the agribusiness, land and minerals department, explained that the farming operation was designed to be more labor intensive than a modern farming operation. Nevertheless, the department strives to use equipment and facilities that are safe and serve the necessities of the operation.
Recently, TDCJ purchased six new modular swine buildings through a competitive bidding system from Art's Way Manufacturing Co. Demny noted that TDCJ is not expanding the swine operation; it is replacing old facilities. The Art's Way buildings meet the climate, disease and security control needs of TDCJ. In addition, the prefabricated buildings will limit security risks during the construction phase.
"We are honored to have the opportunity to design, manufacture and install these six AG swine buildings for the state of Texas," said Dan Palmer, president of Art's Way Scientific. "Our ability to design, construct and install 'ready-to-use swine units' in a short period of time made this a very easy decision for Texas. Our 'turnkey solution' is ideal for environments where the site must be closely controlled for security reasons."
TDCJ does share common management struggles with fellow farmers and ranchers. The farming enterprise and its related processing facilities must operate within state and federal regulations.
TDCJ is also not immune to dealing with normal farming headaches created by weather, but the ability to spread the crop acres across Texas allows TDCJ to offset and adjust when Mother Nature threatens potential yields.
In years when TDCJ is blessed with a bountiful crop, the surplus is sold on the open market, and extra vegetables are donated to local food banks.
The health of the livestock is also a priority. TDCJ has established a partnership with the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine in which TDCJ provides students with access to large livestock operations for real-life experience, and the department, in turn, receives a dedicated and personalized veterinary staff. This arrangement is a win-win for both parties.
Demny feels that securing a capable workforce may be the most difficult part in managing the TDCJ farming operation.
"The ability to attract and retain competent (hired) employees is becoming more difficult," Demny said.
Nevertheless, TDCJ's highly secured farming operation is a creative solution to sustain government spending on state facilities.