Kingston's cows are closer to coming home to prison

Long-time supporters of a federal prison farm program in Kingston, Ont., are looking to re-establish it five years after the Harper government shut it down.

Prison-farm supporters are ready to re-establish a program the Harper government killed

Dianne Dowling and Jeff Peters, farmers and founding members of the Pen Farm Herd Co-Op, check one of the co-op's registered Holstein dairy cows. The plan is to re-establish the herd at the prison farm in Kingston. (Maureen Brosnahan/CBC)
  Long-time supporters of a federal prison farm program in Kingston, Ont., are looking to re-establish it five years after the Harper government shut it down.

The Pen Farm Herd Co-Op, which acquired some of the cows from the former prison farm, said it has a commitment from the new Trudeau government to reopen the operation at Collins Bay penitentiary in Kingston.

The co-op said it has developed a business plan that has already received preliminary approval from the Liberals.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale is aware of the co-op's work.

"We understand the value of the prison farm program and believe that such programs can be very helpful to promoting rehabilitation, empathy, skills training and ultimately public safety," he wrote to CBC News in an email.

"We will be evaluating the cost and the feasibility of reopening the program."

  Jeff Peters, a local beef and pork farmer and one of the founding members of the co-op, said, "We're hoping within the year we can put the farm back together. It will be quite a day when the animals all head back to prison, I've been dreaming about it," he laughed.
Terri, a week-old heifer, is named after one of the members of the Pen Farm Herd Co-Op. Members of the co-op hope Terri will be one of the animals moved back to the prison farm on the grounds of Collins Bay penitentiary in Kingston. (Maureen Brosnahan/CBC)

  The federal government and  Correctional Service Canada closed the century-old farm at what was then called Frontenac Institution along with others across the country.

  The Frontenac farm was considered one of the best run dairy farms in Canada with an award-winning herd that had been bred for docility over the past 100 years.

  The farm provided jobs for dozens of inmates and produced milk and eggs for 15 area prisons as well as local food banks. Officials said it even made a profit.

  But Vic Toews, minister of public safety at the time, claimed the farms were no longer a useful way to rehabilitate inmates. "Less than one per cent learned any skills that were relevant," he told a news conference in 2009.

  "Farmers can't abide by hearing someone say that," said Dianne Dowling, who runs an organic dairy farm in the Kingston area and is a founding member of the co-op. 

"We know that it teaches all kinds of great skills, problem-solving, how to fix something, how to be confident working on your own or with someone else," she told CBC News. 

"The critical thing is, did the people who worked on the prison farm reoffend? Did they leave the prison and never come back? Anecdotally, the staff told us that's what happened."

  Dowling and Peters, along with hundreds of members of the public, led a year-long protest campaign to try to keep the farm open. They rallied on Parliament Hill, held weekly protests and set up blockades to prevent the nearly 300 cows from being sent to auction. 

Two dozen protesters were arrested, including an 87-year-old grandmother who went to jail for the cause.

Celebrities pony up $300 

  But when their efforts failed, the protesters changed course and founded the co-op. Celebrities such as Conrad Black and Margaret Atwood were among the 180 people who paid $300 each for a share in the venture.

  The money was used to buy 23 of the original cows from the prize-winning Pen Herd when they went up at auction. The cows were then placed at area farms where they have been bred, milked and cared for by local farmers for the past five years.

  "It's my intention to make sure our government follows through on our commitment and I'll be sure to make sure that happens," said Mark Gerretsen, former mayor of Kingston and newly elected Liberal MP for Kingston and the Islands.

  Gerretsen told CBC News that re-establishing the farm is a "top priority" for him. He called the previous government's decision "weird" and "short-sighted," adding that it never considered how working with animals helped  rehabilitate inmates.

  "It gave them those core skills of teamwork, independence, responsibility," he said.
Long-time farmer Jeff Peters feeds a heifer. The calf, born on his farm, is one of the descendants of the Pen Farm Herd that the co-op acquired at auction when the prison farm closed five years ago. (Maureen Brosnahan/CBC)

  "These individuals would have to wake up early in the morning and take care of livestock. You heard from some of the inmates that had been in the program and how it changed their lives and that's what rehabilitation is about. It's not about making a welder so they can go out and weld, it's about offering programs, whatever they may be … so they can gain that sense of purpose and meaning in life in the broader sense."

  The original farm buildings are still on the site but some of the equipment is gone, according to Peters. He said the plan is to look at a new kind of operation on the more than 700 acres of farmland beside the prison, including dairy cows, small animals and community gardens.

Green energy

  "We want to change the farm around a bit and produce artisan cheese," Peters said. "It's going to be a smaller scale farm but I hope it has different aspects of learning for inmates. We want to incorporate some green energy on the farm and we want to expand growing food for the homeless and food banks in Kingston." 

  Dowling said, "This could be an amazing opportunity for innovation in terms of prison work programming and also the production of local food."

  Peters and Dowling estimate it will take a year and $2 million to re-establish the farm. They say some of that funding could come from the money the previous government pocketed when it sold off the cows and farm equipment.

  The board of the co-op plans to meet government officials in January to plot out plans to get the farm back on line.

  "We see light at the end of the tunnel now," Peters said. "It's exciting, I mean, to see this decision potentially going a full 360, it's quite fulfilling."​


Maureen Brosnahan

National reporter with CBC Radio

Maureen is a veteran national reporter for CBC Radio. She joined CBC in Winnipeg and was appointed national reporter in 1991. She has since been the correspondent for national Radio News in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. She is now based in Toronto. She has won numerous awards for her work at CBC covering health and social policy issues.