Seeding the future

At Otisville State Correctional Facility, a New York State prison, growing fresh produce for the dining hall teaches inmates skills by having them work on a cutting-edge hydroponic garden experiment.

At A Glance: Otisville State Correctional Facility in New York

•David Schor, foodservice administrator

•Introduced hydroponics in 2005

•Start-up cost was $3,000

•Annual savings on lettuce: $1,500-$1,800

•Grennhouse capacity: 650 lettuce plants

•Dining hall seating capacity: 228

•Daily meal cost per inmate: $2.07

Otisville State Correctional Facility in upstate New York is saving money and stabilizing its supply of fresh produce through an expanding hydroponics program. David Schor, Otisville’s foodservice administrator, believes hydroponics and corrections are “a perfect match” because of savings in labor cost and utility bills, plus the educational and rehabilitative value for inmates.

Hydroponics involves growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions instead of soil. Hydroponics can be done in a limited space, and hydroponically grown crops such as lettuce can be packaged and sold while still alive, greatly extending freshness.

We can do this: Schor, who came to Otisville 21 years ago, introduced hydroponics in 2005. The institution already had a horticulture program in place, growing tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, squash and some basil, for about 10 years.

“Outside my mess hall I had a fenced-in area, about 1,800 square feet, and I decided to convert it into raised-bed gardens,” Schor recalls. After doing so, the prison’s horticulture instructor told him he’d met someone teaching hydroponics at a federal facility in Pennsylvania.

“I was able to contact the guy,” Schor says,  “and took a ride out there, six hours one way. We took a look and decided, ‘Hey, we can do this.’”

Schor and his staff proceeded to convert a 17-ft.-by-30-ft. greenhouse to hydroponics. The cost of getting the project off the ground was not high. “Considering we had a used greenhouse, our original start-up cost for the equipment, fertilizer, seed and everything else was about $3,000.” He continues to grow some produce in the raised-bed garden, “but there’s a limited growing season.”

Schor had been growing tomatoes in the greenhouse, but space had become an issue, and tomatoes are not on his menu. Thus, the decision was made to grow only lettuce. Two or three inmates work between six and eight hours a day, five days a week, on the lettuce crop. Otisville puts lettuce on the menu once a week for salad, and the hydroponic garden covers it completely.

The institution was paying its primary produce supplier about $12 a case for year-round lettuce. “But there are times when there are lettuce shortages, whether it’s drought, an early frost, or too much water,” Schor points out, so supplies could be intermittent. Other produce items go out to bid every two weeks. The prison budgets $2.07 for three meals per inmate per day.

The greenhouse is spacious enough to grow 650 lettuce plants at the same time. Yield-per-acre calculations are difficult, according to Schor. “You can’t really compare. The yield per acre is difficult only because most places where you’re growing something per acre, you’re growing on a seasonal basis. What I’m able to do is grow (year-round) in a smaller space, using a tenth of the water and half the fertilizer. I don’t have a dollar figure, but there’s a savings.”

Additional benefits: Hydroponics grow fast: from seed to a full head of romaine takes only about 30 days. The shelf life on the hydroponic lettuce is generally three to four weeks. “That’s what’s amazing about it,” says Schor. “When you buy romaine, iceberg or any of those lettuces in a store, the roots have been removed. In about six or seven days that lettuce starts to turn brown.”

When Otisville’s inmates harvest their hydroponic lettuce, on the other hand, they leave the roots attached and place what they pick into an airtight bag. Most of the time it is used in one to two weeks. The lettuce is stored in the kitchen’s regular walk-in cooler.

Savings from his entire farming program, he says, are tough to nail down, but Schor recently calculated that the hydroponics program saves the department between $1,500 and $1,800 a year. Inmates working on the hydroponic crop are paid from 22 cents to 38 cents per hour.

“We’ve learned a whole lot,” says Schor. “When I started this I knew basically nothing about hydroponics. We’ve made mistakes. We lost power one day in the middle of the winter because of a problem with our furnace and our whole system froze.”

While heat is a cost connected to the program, Schor points out that this was an expense that predated hydroponics. “We took a greenhouse that wasn’t being used at all for a viable product before. We just had ornamental plants growing in there, and we were heating and lighting it anyway. So this represented no additional cost to the facility at all.”

Savings continue to accrue. When the program kicked off, Schor was paying about $70 for 5,000 lettuce seeds.

With a new supplier, he’s paying $30 for about 24,000 seeds.

Beyond the dollars of savings and the lettuce itself, the program offers yet another benefit, namely “teaching these inmates a trade,” Schor says. “It’s very educational for them. I have a guy from the Dominican Republic who is constantly trying new things. He already told me that when he goes back to the Dominican Republic this is what he wants to do. I feel a strong sense of accomplishment. Not only am I saving the state money and giving the inmates a good product—and they do appreciate that—I’m also teaching them a trade that they can actually use on the outside.” The prison already offers a foodservice training program, as well.

Not surprisingly, Schor calls hydroponics “the way of the future,” for several reasons. “First of all, you’re able to grow year-round.  Second, it’s what we call a controlled soil-less environment; you’re able to control the amount of water and fertilizer. Light is supplied by powerful metal halide bulbs.

“You can grow your plants a lot closer together because there is no competition for light, water or fertilizer,” he continues. In addition, the hydroponic crops grow without the use of pesticides.

The future: Schor and his staff are experimenting with growing various kinds of produce hydroponically to see how well they do. Produce that he has grown on a limited basis so far include tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, snow peas, and most recently, watercress. “I’m hoping that the hydroponic program can be expanded,” says Schor.

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