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Prison dairy offers milk and responsiblity for inmates

Posted: January 29, 2013 5:41 p.m.
Updated: January 30, 2013 5:00 a.m.
Michael Ulmer/C-I

Camden resident Bert Dew oversees the largest and perhaps a unique farm operation in the state. As agricultural branch chief at the Wateree River Correctional Facility in Rembert, Dew is in charge of running a $7.5 million, “state-of-the-art” dairy farm owned and operated by the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDOC).

The farm, which sits adjacent to a Level 2 security prison, covers approximately 27 acres with two barns holding up to 500 cows.

Operated solely as a prison beginning in the late 1800’s, plans were formulated in 2002 to develop a fully functioning farm at the site. Dew said the operation was viewed as a way to generate more state revenue and help foster hands-on working experience for inmates. Despite having a multi-million dollar budget, the farm has become completely self-sufficient while also improving the state’s lackluster milk supply.

“The state produces only about 20 percent of the milk it consumes, meaning 80 percent has to be brought in. Every gallon we make, that’s one more gallon that we don’t have to import,” he said. “We also don’t get any state funds. We pay for all our salaries, fringe benefits, everything. So, we’re definitely saving the state money.”

The cows are milked twice a day, producing about 14,000 gallons a week, which SCDOC uses along with the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice. Additionally, the farm generates about 16,000 excess gallons a week that is distributed to commercial companies.

SCDOC Support Services Director Joel Anderson explained that while such a total sounds like a lot of milk, in the “big picture” of South Carolina, it amounts to a comparatively small amount.

“This is a milk deficit state. What we’re doing here is cutting back on the import of milk. We’ve been supported by the DFA (Dairy Farmers of America) from the very start,” Anderson said, noting the farm doesn’t compete with local dairy companies.

In addition to the dairy farm, the site includes beef cows, about 3,500 acres of row crops, a mechanic shop, welding shop and farm maintenance shop, all operated using revenue generated from the site. 

Anderson pointed to support from former SCDOC Director Jon Ozmint and current Director Bill Byars, also a Camden resident, as helping to develop and progress the operation. 

“Mr. Ozmit helped forged this forward and Mr. Byers has been a tremendous help to us. He can see the vision that we’ve had and he’s helping to make it happen. That’s a good thing,” Anderson said.

He also attributed the success to a concerted effort towards recruiting farming industry experts to work at the site. Anderson said Dairy Manager Arnel Gallardo, originally from the Philippines, has worked at farms “all over the world,” while Gallardo’s assistant Nick Julian was recruited from his job at a farm in Buffalo, N.Y.

“We’ve been able to entice people to come in here to help us get this thing off the ground. They’ve done a slamming job for us,” he said.

Currently, 52 inmates are part of the workforce at the facility in addition to regular staff. Julian said the farm’s dairy training school provides inmates with both a sense of responsibility and extra work skills that will be greatly beneficial once their sentencing is over.

The program consists of 780 hours of training over a five month period, including both instructional learning and practical experience.

“They learn everything from artificial insemination to animal health to calf rearing to nutrition,” Julian said. “It helps us have a steady, knowledgeable workforce here, but also teaches them a skill and a trade that they can use in their introduction back into society.”

One Wateree River inmate named John, who graduates from the program in less than two weeks, said he’s learned about dairy breeding, fertilization, milk processing, and pit work -- the area of the dairy where the cows are actually milked.

“I had a slight interest beforehand,” John said, “but now I want to use what I’ve learned here back out in the public.”

Anderson said trainees like John will have a greater shot at finding jobs since many farmers are working with less labor due to fluctuations in the availability of migrant workers.

“You don’t have what you use to have in the past. A lot of farmers are stretched for labor,” he said. “When a guy comes in and says ‘I can do that’ and shows them he can, they’ll hire him.”

Julian added that Wateree River’s dairy is highly progressive and multi-faceted compared to most commercial operations, meaning inmates get a more well-rounded experience before leaving.

“We use state-of-the-art software, heat detection, milk quality assurance measures,” Julian said. “Everything from the milk processing down to the way we do health treatment for the cows and everything in between is truly state-of-the-art.”

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