Virginia Department of Corrections Agribusiness Project

Virginia Department of Corrections Agribusiness Project website
By Christine Gyovai

[See Tanya’s blog about this.]  The Virginia Department of Corrections has created an unusual model for a self-sufficient food supply that is increasingly rare. Inmates enrolled in the DOC’s agribusiness program produce fish, meat, milk, and vegetables to feed the state’s entire inmate population.

The program includes the following:


  • Meat and fish: Inmates raise beef cattle, pigs, and fish and operate the department’s processing plants, producing 4 million pounds of meat each year. All the pork, beef, and fresh fish consumed by inmates is produced through the DOC’s agribusiness program.
  • Dairy: Inmates maintain a dairy program that produces 1.2 million gallons of milk each year. All the dairy consumed by inmates is produced through the agribusiness program.
  • Vegetables: Inmates harvest 2.7 million pounds of fresh vegetables annually. Hydroponic systems and 30 greenhouses make fresh vegetables available year-round. Much of this produce is consumed fresh by inmates. Excess is sold outside the system to generate revenue or is processed in the agribusiness program’s freeze plant, to be served to inmates later.
  • Fruits: Inmates maintain two orchards, producing apples and peaches.
  • Beekeeping: Inmates tend to more than two hundred beehives. Honey is collected for use in the food-service programs, and bees provide pollination for the crops.
  • Timber: Inmates manage 7,000 acres of woodlands, with the timber harvest processed by the department’s three sawmills. All the lumber used on DOC farms comes from these sawmills.

Of course, the DOC does supplement its own production with purchases from outside the system, and it does sell some of the foodstuffs it produces to generate revenue. William Gillette, the DOC agribusiness manager, says that the system is able to supply the inmates with about half of their complete food needs. Additionally, the agribusiness program makes a practice of selling off some of the higher-value crops, using the profits to purchase a greater volume of lower-cost foodstuffs for the food-service program.

The DOC maintains correctional facilities at numerous locations across the state, and each maintains a diversity of agricultural enterprises. For example, inmates at the James River correctional facility tend to 150 dairy cattle, 850 beef cattle, 75 beehives, and 25 acres of vegetables. In addition, the site hosts a grain mill, a fluid milk plant, a meat processing plant, a sawmill, and pastures of small grain, alfalfa, and mixed hay.

Building Efficiency and Self-Sufficiency

According to Gillette, the key to the success of the DOC farming system is its efficiency. The program’s efficiency contributes to the DOC food-service program’s self-sufficiency and bolsters the state government’s commitment to the program.

The first factor in efficiency is the food the program produces for its own institutional food-service system. The food produced by the agribusiness program, by inmates for inmates, using DOC facilities, reduces the DOC’s need to purchase food from outside vendors. The DOC uses as much of its own fresh produce in its food-service system as possible, and frozen and canned produce fills in the gaps in vegetable and fruit demands. The frozen produce is processed at the DOC’s own freeze plant.

The agribusiness program maintains its own distribution system, which extends to all the correctional facilities in the state. Where appropriate, the program can maximize what is grown at any one site and distribute it throughout the entire system. When the program produces significantly more than what the inmate population will consume, the surplus can be delivered to regional jails, nonprofit organizations, and other state-owned facilities. Localities have the capacity to access the food-distribution system as well.

The program also maintains its own produce-distribution center, where inmates pack and ship produce. In this way the program is able to grow, package, and distribute produce within one system, which has been a key to its success.

Redundancy built in at multiple scales helps enhance the efficiency of the system. For example, the agribusiness program uses the same fluid processing equipment to produce both milk (from DOC dairy herds) and juice (from DOC produce). Repurposing the equipment to perform two functions helps the DOC save money.

The DOC agribusiness program cultivates mutually supportive cooperative agreements with other state agencies. For example, the DOC exchanges soybeans with Virginia Tech in return for pigs, and Virginia Tech’s Veterinary Medicine School maintains a health program for the DOC’s herd while providing a valuable opportunity for students to work on the large two-thousand-plus cattle operation.

In terms of replicating or adapting this system, Gillette says, “Volume is very important, as [is] having a facility with refrigeration.” However, replication of the system would be difficult at a community scale, because inmates are paid a rate of $0.45 per hour, so labor costs are not comparable. But as a whole, the Virginia Department of Corrections farming model is unique and quite successful — costs are lowered (to the tune of $6 million savings a year, according to Gillette, or about 25 percent of the department’s food expenditures), the food is healthy and local, and inmates are gaining real-world work skills.

This piece is based on personal interviews by Christine Muehlman Gyovai with William Gillette, manager of the VDOC Agribusiness program, on August 24, 2010, and September 1, 2010.

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