AUGUSTA — Administrators at the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office are organizing volunteers to take the county’s inmate garden programs to new heights even as they celebrate one of the more successful growing seasons in the program’s history.

Lt. Michael Hicks of the sheriff’s office said Friday that the inmate garden program, known as Kennebec’s Restorative Community Harvest, donated more than 60,000 pounds of produce to agencies throughout the state.

“We had a good harvest,” Hicks said. “It could have been better if we had had better weather.”

Meanwhile, Hicks said county corrections administrators, including Sheriff Randall Liberty, are forming a new foundation to support the garden program. The Friends of Kennebec County will raise money and seek grants in ways the sheriff’s office is unable to do.

“This foundation is initially going to be for the garden projects,” Hicks said. “It’s being developed for the purpose of assisting Kennebec’s Restorative Community Harvest.”

Kennebec County jail inmates this summer cultivated crops on about 20 acres of land, including a 6-acre parcel off Cony Road that is owned by the Maine Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.

The inmates so far have collected more than 30 tons of vegetables, almost all of which have been donated to programs such as the Good Shepherd Food Bank and the Northeast Dream Center in Winslow.

Inmates continue to harvest in fields that farmers make available to the county, Hicks said.

“We have the manpower to make sure these things don’t go to waste,” Hicks said.

Plans are already in place to plant an additional 10-acre parcel off Cony Road next year, but Hicks hopes that is just the beginning of the program’s expansion. The Friends of Kennebec County, which Hicks hopes will be set up next month, will help shape the future of the garden program. That future could include a building at the Cony Road site to house equipment and a classroom for training inmates.

“We’re not just teaching them how to dig holes and plant seeds,” Hicks said. “We want to teach them how the process works.”

State law prevents the sheriff’s office from seeking donations or charitable grants, Hicks said. The Friends of Kennebec County, however, will have complete autonomy, thus freeing the group to pursue a variety of funding methods.

Hicks said he is unaware of a similar foundation geared toward agriculture anywhere else in the country. Kennebec County is working with an attorney to establish the new board.

“There has to be a bright line between the sheriff’s (office) and this foundation as to what these funds are used for,” Hicks said. “We want to go carefully and be very diligent that we operate within the letter of the law.”

There has already been broad interest in serving on the board, Hicks said. The new board will be responsible for coming up with its own mission statement and developing its own rules and procedures.

“We’re looking for a very eclectic group of people,” Hicks said. “We’ve had interest from lawyers, directors of food banks, from people in the agricultural industry and we’re looking to have people from the finance sector. We don’t think we’re going to have any trouble getting a board going.”

Hicks said expanding the garden program not only will give inmates additional skills and direction, it also will provide even more food at a time people are struggling to make ends meet.

“It provides a wonderful and needed service in this community,” Hicks said. “It’s the right time and right situation to step in to help.”

Craig Crosby–621-5642

[email protected]

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