House Agriculture and Forestry spent most of this week with orientation activities. I suspect many other committees did the same as we refresh out memories and bring new members up to speed. This includes hearing from people representing the various aspects of the areas our committees oversee.
We were delighted to have the Secretary, Deputy Secretary, and others from the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets join us to talk about what’s going on in their world including low milk prices, a decline in the number of dairy farms, water quality and the Required Agricultural Practices, maple, and animal health.
Michael Snyder, the Commissioner of Forest, Parks, and Recreation, was reappointed by the Scott administration, which is good news for Vermonters. Mike, a licensed forester, is passionate about the many benefits of healthy forests and is a great advocate for the wood products industry.
Our committee has for several years worked to apply the very successful Farm to Plate model to the wood products sector, including them in the now defunct Agriculture and Forest Products Development Board and the very alive Working Lands Enterprise Initiative.
We also learned that our state parks are extremely successful and 94% self-supported with gate receipts and timber, concession, and firewood sales. More than one million visitors take advantage of our state parks which year, which brings in additional revenue to retailers, restaurants, and fuel and equipment dealers.
I was once again invited to the State Agriculture and Rural Leaders (SARL) Ag Chairs Summit, this year in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Agriculture Committee Chairs from all over the country, including Alaska and Hawaii, gather to find answers and exchange ideas. The timing for this conference is terrible – the first week of the Session – but the opportunities for learning and networking make it worth the trip. While the scale and nature of agriculture in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas are quite different than Vermont, issues such as water quality, milk prices, and the cost of grain are similar for all of us.
I moderated the panel on forestry and agritourism, which was well-attended, and got the chance to talk about some of the things Vermont has been doing.
One of the highlights for me was a field trip to Angola State Penitentiary, which historically had a terrible reputation for high inmate mortality and terrible living conditions. Thankfully, things have improved over the last several decades with a change in philosophy. Their brochure states “Louisiana State Penitentiary will provide an environment which enables positive change through the availability of educational and rehabilitative opportunities for offenders who demonstrate motivation for change and the desire to participate in such programs.” To be clear, there is still a maximum security unit and “Death Row” located on the campus
You might ask what a prison has to do with agriculture but the answer in this case is a lot. The campus of Angola includes 18,000 acres of beautiful land bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River and on the fourth side by the Tunica Hills. Four million pounds of vegetables are raised each year that supply the needs of Angola, as well as that of four other prisons in Louisiana. There is a processing plant that allows for the freezing of produce when there is an overabundance. They also raise cash crops of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and sorghum and have 2,700 head of mixed-breed cattle.
In 1995, the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary opened a branch on the Angola campus and a faith-based program was established. While I do attend church, I am not a fan of jamming religion down people’s throats, but at Angola it is voluntary and 15 different religions are represented including Islam. After this program was introduced violence levels dropped 90-95%. Three hundred inmates have been ordained and they serve at Angola and other Louisiana prisons.
There is a strong mentorship program and over 40 inmate associations including Toastmasters and Methodist Men – there are no gangs at Angola.
Also impressive are the programs offered to inmates who have demonstrated that they are serious about change and motivated to learn. There is an automotive tech program that offers an SAE certificate so that when the inmates are released they have a way to make a living – graduates are sometimes recruited by businesses before they leave prison. An Outdoor Power Equipment Repair program gives industry-based certification. The inmate in charge of this program is a lifer who was involved in a gang murder at the age of 17. He gave moving testimony on the value of learning to love oneself in order to realize one’s potential and love others.
There is more to say about the work being done at Angola and I may continue with this in next week’s column.
As I reflected on my visit there and the input I got from the inmates with whom we visited, I was reminded of something I have believed for years. While there are exceptions, I think that many people end up in prison because they have not gotten a good education, they have not had good influences during childhood, and/or their decision-making process has not been developed or is flawed in some way. In Vermont, we spend $28,000 per year to keep someone in an out-of-state prison where they get no programming. In-state prisons cost between $40,000 and $60,000 per year, women are the most expensive.
What is frustratingly ironic is that as we have had the Act 46 conversation, the cost of educating our children (in my view the most important investment we make as a society and a fraction of what we spend to house someone in prison) is the big issue – educational opportunity, not so much. Do we need to build careful, cost-effective school budgets? Yes! But let’s not fool ourselves and shortchange our future.