If not for Mark Lowry and Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, “The Farm,” rather than providing inmates with meaningful work and the Orange County Food Bank with a weekly abundance of fresh produce, would be nothing more than the nickname for the James A. Musick Facility jail in Irvine, California.
It was at an Orange County Sheriff’s Department volunteer recognition event where Lowry, the director of the Orange County Food Bank, first learned of the jail farm’s history. From 1963 until its closure during the economic downturn of 2008-2009, the inmate operated farm had grown produce and maintained a livestock operation.
This sparked an idea in Lowry’s mind: revive the jail farm so that it could become a source of fresh and local produce for the Orange County Food Bank.
“So I called up Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and invited her to the food bank,” says Lowry.
During their conversation, he explained to Sheriff Hutchens that locally-produced fruits and vegetables are in high demand, and pitched his idea of reactivating the jail farm to her. Hutchens felt that this was the right thing to do. After she gave her approval, the next step was convincing the Orange County Board of Supervisors of the need for a farm at the James A. Musick Facility. The County Supervisors approved the request, and in 2012 the jail farm reopened.
“The Sheriff was the one who was decisive,” Lowry says. “She’s such a great partner.”
The farm is managed by Orlando Chacon, who is happy about its resurrection. He comes from a farming family in Chino and began working at the jail farm in 1995 after graduating from Cal Poly–Pomona. The farm employs five staff members and produces a wide array of fruits and vegetables including cantaloupe, watermelon, red onions, Romaine lettuce and green cabbage.
About 300 boxes of produce per week go from the jail farm to the Orange County Food Bank. Chacon would like to see this number grow.
“We’re trying to increase production each year,” he says.
The jail’s inmates perform the bulk of the farming duties including weeding, planting, harvesting, washing produce, repairing irrigation lines, trimming trees, and taking tree mulch to the compost pile. There’s also an inmate landscaping crew.
“We keep the inmates busy. They love it. They all see the benefits, and they know the food is going to the less fortunate,” Chacon says. “They enjoy it, and pay restitution to society. They would rather work on the farm than be incarcerated.”
Chacon and Lowry both hear from deputies working at the jail that it makes their jobs easier as well.
“Deputies are supportive of this,” says Lowry. “There’s more tension if the inmates are left confined.”
According to Chacon, the farm doesn’t just serve as a buffer between inmates and deputies, but as a literal buffer zone of land between the jail and the general public. Instead of seeing a jail where people serve time, the general public sees a farm that’s helping both prisoners and those who are in need.
Future goals include possible expansion of the jail farm and additional partnership opportunities.
“We continue to talk about other partnerships,” Lowry says. “I had a conversation with the Sheriff about possibly resuscitating the poultry operation.”
From his perspective, Lowry couldn’t be more pleased with the arrangement between Orange County Food Bank and the Musick jail farm.
“The Sheriff is such a great partner, with integrity and morality,” he says. “And the Food Bank has no financial relationship with the jail—that’s another great gift.”