- Associated Press - Sunday, June 29, 2014

RUSTON, La. (AP) - Two Lincoln Parish Detention Center inmates kneel straddling a soft hill of dirt. The sharp tines of a pitchfork come down quickly between the two, loosening the damp earth.

The men sift through the soil, lifting red potatoes out of the hills, wiping them clean and tossing them in a large, white plastic bucket. The three inmates move methodically down the row until it’s clean. The yield: 207 pounds of potatoes - from one row.

The potatoes are part of the early harvest from the detention center’s first vegetable garden. Warden Jim Tuten said he’s amazed at the success of the almost 2-acre plot.

“Part of this year was an experiment just to see what we could do,” Tuten said. “I’ve been overwhelmed with what we’ve produced.”

Thus far, the garden has yielded 499 pounds of snap beans and 542 pounds of yellow squash. Tommy Sutton, the detention center’s maintenance superintendent who supervises the garden, estimates the potato harvest will reach 1,400 pounds.

Inmates began picking corn and tomatoes in mid-June. Sutton expects 200 pounds of tomatoes per day of picking. And still to come in: purple hull peas, five varieties of watermelons and two varieties of cantaloupes.

“It’s exceeded my expectations for a first garden,” Lincoln Parish Sheriff Mike Stone said.

The garden has produced so much that even after serving some of the vegetables in the prison dining hall and selling some wholesale to area produce businesses, there’s still food left. The vegetables are expected to go on sale to the public.

Money from the sales goes into the inmate welfare account, Tuten said. The account pays for the center’s education program, televisions and small appliances other inmate-related services, as well as to offset the initial cost of getting the garden going.

Tuten and Stone said they didn’t really know what to expect from the garden when ground was broken in April, but they knew they wanted to give it a try.

“One of the goals of the whole thing was to give the prisoners something they could be proud of,” Stone said.

Tuten also saw the garden as a way to cut the center’s food bill. He anticipates saving as much as $5,000 in food costs by intermittently using the inmate-grown vegetables.

“You can tell the difference between fresh and canned, that’s for sure,” said one inmate. Detention center policy does not allow the inmate to be identified by name.

The garden has no irrigation system. For now, inmates water the garden by hand using large buckets. The spring rains have been kind, Tuten said.

“We’ve been lucky,” he said.

“Come July and August, it may be another story.”

Stone said public response to the garden has been heartening.

“There’re people stopping on the road, looking at it,” Tuten said.

He said two local garden clubs have asked to tour the plot. Tuten’s already making plans for a fall garden and has visions of next spring’s patch.

“Next year, we’re going to make it bigger,” he said.

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Information from: Ruston Daily Leader, http://www.rustonleader.com/

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