The Mississippi Department of Corrections has harvested 20,000 pounds of blueberries and recently received their certification to sell to outside markets, including schools, retail stores, and farmers markets.
The blueberry farm at South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) in Leakesville passed an audit by the Mississippi Department of Agriculture in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on June 8th.
“Although being GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified is not mandatory, most buyers will not accept any type of produce, if a farm is not certified,” said Roger Davis, director of Food Services and Agriculture Enterprises for the MDOC. “Being certified gives the USDA an avenue to trace where each produce item that is sold to the public came from, down to the time, day, and field it was harvested and processed. This helps with any recalls on fresh produce.”
The blueberry orchard was started at SMCI in 2006 as a way to address inmate idleness and to teach inmates a trade skill in the blueberry industry. The blueberries help reduce food cost and serve as a healthier menu option.
Davis said they can also be a cash crop, but not without GAP certification.
This year’s crop which was harvested using 30 inmates and three staffers, is the largest in several years, due to more staff and inmates being available. Last year, 15,300 pounds were harvested.
The blueberries are just one of the crops from the Agriculture Enterprise, which is one of 11 legislatively approved programs at the MDOC. The program, which includes farming and leasing, uses no general fund dollars. In 2017, soybeans, vegetables, pecans, and blueberries generated about $1.1 million, and $1.8 million came from land leases.
“Farming is still very much a part of Mississippi’s makeup, especially in the Delta,” Commissioner Pelicia E. Hall said. “Therefore, we are helping inmates obtain transferable skills. At the same time, we are growing healthy food products and generating funds from sales.”
Davis said he envisions increasing the number of pounds of blueberries, but the orchard must first undergo major pruning in August. He added that there will likely be fewer pounds of blueberries produced during the 2019 harvest season. However, he said the plants will rebound with an increase in weight going forward.
*Photos courtesy of the MDOC.