Farm stand’s competition: Grafton County inmates

Daryl Grasso has enjoyed her surroundings in rural New Hampshire since she and her partner Harold Brown bought a 35-acre former dairy farm in the Woodsville section of Haverhill a few years ago and began growing vegetables for sale at their roadside stand and at the local farmers’ market.

“It’s so peaceful up here,” she said as she walked outside the greenhouse where she was working to get a head start on the growing season. “And you know your neighbors. When I lived in Massachusetts, I don’t think I ever knew my neighbors.”

There is one neighbor, however, that Grasso has gotten to know better than she would have liked. Her modest farming enterprise is but a short distance up Route 10 from the Grafton County Farm, which is no longer a dairy farm only. For the past two summers, inmates of the county’s House of Corrections have been growing and harvesting produce and selling it to motorists at their own roadside stand. Grasso contends the competition has hurt her and other small farmers in the area who can’t compete with the lower prices made possible by the use of free inmate labor.

“Our local farmers market in Woodsville is taking a real bad nosedive because of it,” she said, noting the contrast between the retail prices recommended last summer in the weekly bulletin put out by the state Department of Agriculture and the August price list of the Grafton County farm stand, as advertised on the county’s Web site.

Green beans, $1.99 a pound on the state list, were offered for 99 cents a pound at the county farm stand. Cucumbers, 65 cents each on the state listing, were offered at 35 cents each at the county stand. Considering the price differentials, said Grasso, it’s no surprise that former customers are driving past hers and other local farms in cars loaded with produce bought from the county.

“They only thing I was selling was tomatoes. I had them, they didn’t,” said Grasso, whose greenhouse enabled her to grow the tomatoes early and keep growing them during bad weather last summer. “The customers come to see you with their backseat full of produce. All they need is tomatoes.” She said she knows of at least one farming family in the area that has tried selling its crops in another market to avoid the competition.

“Her husband packed up the produce and was taking it to Maine to sell it,” said Grasso. But aside from whatever economic hardship the country farm stand may have caused, Grasso insists it is a matter of political principle as well.

Neither small farms nor any other local businesses, she said, should have to compete with a taxpayer-funded enterprise using unpaid labor. “The county is upsetting the whole process of things with their business venture,” she said. “Government is not in business to be in business.”

She is hoping to get that principle written into law, as spelled out in House Bill 654, “prohibiting the sale or resale of goods or services produce by inmate labor.” The bill is sponsored by Reps. Paul Ingbertsen of Haverhill and Robert Giuda of Warren, but Ingbertsen, who introduced it at Grasso’s request, sees little chance of its passage.

“It’s not something I see as easy to pass, simply because we have a long history of using prison labor for a whole variety of things,” Ingbertsen said.

The bill is before the Criminal Justice and Safety Committee, which will likely recommend its defeat by the full House, he said. In fact, as the bill was about to go to public hearing, Ingbertsen was on the fence himself.

“I find myself in a very equivocal position,” he said. “I think the (bill’s) purpose is a good one. Basically the purpose of government in general is to be sort of an umpire, to make sure people aren’t hurting each other in the marketplace. All of a sudden, the umpire is playing in the game.”

All the same, he expected a strong argument from both county government and state corrections officials on behalf of county farms and prison industries.

“I expect they’ll say they need these guys learning trades,” said Ingbertsen. “If we can keep their hands working and their minds busy, their prospects are improved when they get out.”

It also makes the inmate population more manageable, said Julie Clough, executive director of the Grafton County Board of Commissioners.

“Ultimately, the effect would be to shut down the Grafton County Farm” if the bill were to become law, Clough said. “If we don’t have a farm operation for the inmates to work on that means they spend most of their time inside the jail and it takes more people to manage them.”

That argument does not impress Grasso.

“They’re always going to cry that,” she said. “I know they need to do something with the prisoners, but they can’t be taking away people’s livelihood.”

What makes matters worse, she said, is that the county farm is operating at a deficit.

“Then you turn around and ask the public to support you with more tax dollars so you can compete against the private sector with prices on produce 300 percent below the market value,” said Grasso. “They’ve utilized prisoners to grow produce, to pick it and to sell it directly to the public.”

Clough confirmed that the farm has been operating in the red, with a $19,000 deficit for the fiscal year ending last July and $49,000 shortfall for the 2003 fiscal year. But the farm’s fortunes are due primarily to the fluctuations in dairy prices, rather than the produce operation.

While the prisoners are not paid for their work, the program does employ a farm manager, and both the inmate supervisor and House of Corrections Superintendent Glenn Libby are involved in supervising the farm program, Clough said. After Grasso complained about the prices last summer, the county did raise the prices on some items at the farm stand, but found others to be already in line with prevailing market prices, said the director.

“I know that Ms. Grasso has complained to us, but I have not heard from any other farmers in the area that the county has had any effect on them,” she said. “We seem to be having that issue with one individual.”

Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Taylor, meanwhile, was cautiously neutral on House Bill 654.

“On the one hand, these prison institutions are under mandates and court orders to provide work experience and rehabilitation to give them something to do when they get out,” he said. “We still have three publicly owned farms that produce milk. I don’t hear any (dairy) farmers complaining.”

On the other hand, by selling produce at a farm stand within shouting distance of private-sector competition, the county may be inviting controversy.

“They’re pushing the envelope,” Taylor said. “When you have a very short season and prices are volatile on things like vegetables, that’s where you’re going to get the noise.”

As the committee hearing date approached, Taylor said he would be there – for both sides.

“I said I will go to the hearing, see what people say and be there as a resource. I want to feel my way along. I don’t want to jump into these things.”

Neither does Ingbertsen.

“I’m going to absolutely be the equivocal politician,” said the bill’s sponsor. “I’m going to ask for a hearing that will be open-minded, listening to this thing from both sides, and do what’s best for the state.”

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