On the Hill – Down on the Farm

There’s no question that our federal government is busy these days. In fact, it seems they’re so busy they haven’t heard all the noise being made about the increasing viability of the local-food movement.

How else to explain the fact that the government is adamantly refusing to listen to logic and is determined to shut down the six farms located in minimum-security prisons across the country?

The physical, emotional, and social benefits of such programs are well documented. Fresh air, exercise, the ability to reconnect with and nurture other living things; all contribute to improved mental and physical well-being. As one inmate told the CBC, the farm experience has ?reawakened his emotions, letting him feel human again.?

And the benefits go well beyond those for individuals. As a recent Eastern Ontario AgriNews article says, a prison farm in the Kingston area ?ranks in the top 20 per cent of Ontario’s dairy herds for management.? The farm supplies 150 local butcher shops, donates produce to ?food banks across the province,? and supplies eggs and milk to other Corrections Canada facilities in Ontario and Quebec.

The six prisons cost a total of $4 million annually to run and the government thinks That’s too high a price for the immense dividends the farms pay for society.

But their main argument is the one that makes the least sense. In February, Corrections Canada spokesperson Christa McGregor told reporters that what inmates really need are skills that will prepare them for their eventual entry into the workplace.

?Employment-related skills are major factors in an offender’s ability to pursue a crime-free life,? McGregor said.

And what’s a key sector in that workplace? According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, It’s farming. ?Canadian agricultural producers are the backbone of a highly competitive sector worth $130 billion a year,? the agency’s website says.

Not just industrial farming, either. As the Agriculture Canada website goes on to say, ?there are [a] number of emerging local food systems initiatives in Canada,? and consumers are becoming increasingly aware of ?the benefits of ?buying local? in Canada.? And based on a 2006 Ipsos Reid survey, Canadians believe locally grown food ?is superior to food originating from conventional methods of production.?

It’s a trend That’s spreading. The word ?locavore? is appearing more often in popular media and The 100-Mile Diet is a Canadian success story. The international Slow Food movement, 85,000 members strong and growing, ?supports a new model of agriculture, which is less intensive and healthier, founded on the knowledge and know-how of local communities.?

The prison farm program offers remarkable opportunities for growth, both to inmates and to society at large. It would be a shame for the government to cut that off at the roots.