LINCOLN, Nebraska — Inmates working in a sprawling orchard and garden at a Lincoln prison campus say they are taking away more than just fruit. They're learning life skills as they prune and spray the crops, ward off hungry critters and nurture beneficial bees.
"I think I'm getting a good work ethic out here planting trees, and I'm getting a green thumb," said Michael Bilby, a 30-year-old from Scottsbluff who is serving time for burglary. "I love it out here."
The first cherries were harvested earlier this month from trees planted more than two years ago on the grounds occupied by the Lincoln Correctional Center and the Community Corrections Center. Young apple trees are beginning to bear fruit, and each tree should produce 400 pounds of apples in three or four years, farm shop manager John Filbert told the Lincoln Journal Star said (http://bit.ly/1vnI1jN ). Pear trees also have been planted.
A vegetable garden occupies almost 20 acres of tomato, pepper, onion, radish, sweet corn and potato plants.
"Last year we brought in 2,000 pounds of tomatoes at a time, and they were gone the same day," Filbert said.
Two years ago some 30,000 pounds of potatoes were harvested by hand.
He estimated that the prison saves about $28,000 annually by growing instead of buying the fresh produce. The orchard's bounty should increase those savings.
Corrections officials are fine-tuning the program and are looking at expanding it to other facilities. Filbert said it's difficult to maintain consistency with the gardening and orchard work, because inmates come and go on work release. Most work only one growing season.
Nonetheless, the program has continued adding new challenges in addition to new trees. Two honeybee hives were acquired last year, and two dozen inmates attended a beekeeping workshop with a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate student. They learned how to make hives, care for bees and harvest honey.
Rudy Johnson, 34, of Omaha, enjoys all the agrarian work and appreciates learning new skills.
"This is a guy thing for me," said Johnson, who was convicted of manslaughter. "We get to get our hands dirty and get to work with forklifts, skid loaders, Bobcats and tractors."
Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com