May 24, 2011; Source: Statesman Journal | Since 2006, work-release inmates at the Marion County Jail near Salem Oregon have tended a 5.5 acre garden that’s yielded over 150,000 pounds of fresh produce for the non-profit Marion-Polk Food Share program. Working with donated seeds and equipment, inmate gardeners have depended on water provided from the irrigation system on adjacent state prison land owned and farmed by the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC).

Now, with authorization from the state legislature, DOC is selling its excess land to be developed as the Mill Creek Corporate Center. As a result, part of its irrigation system, including the two pumps providing water for the Marion County jail garden, has been abandoned and sealed. With the only alternative water source being a single hose on the jail’s side of the road, there’s no garden being planted this year— which means a lot less fresh produce for the people who depend on Marion-Polk Food Share.

Vegetables and fruit grown at the Marion County Community Garden have constituted as much as half of Food Share’s total annual fresh produce distribution. “It’s a big hit”, according to Phil McCorkle, the nonprofit’s development director. “Imagine how many individual gardeners it would take to make up that amount of produce.”

With current budget shortfalls, the Marion County’s Sheriff’s Office lacks capital funds to install its own irrigation system. In the long term, DOC plans to drill two new wells that will bring water back for both the remaining DOC land holdings and the County Jail’s community garden. But that could take years, according to jail and prison officials. For now, weeds have overtaken the fallow acreage.

This seems like a penny-wise, pound-foolish (150,000 pounds, to be precise) chain of events that will eliminate far more benefits to the public than it generates in cost savings.–Kathi Jaworski