Tar Heel Tattler - August 2005

Nurseries don't dig captive competition
By Arthur O. Murray

You’ve heard it from Triad textile and furniture manufacturers. They can’t compete with cheap foreign labor, especially in China, where some of it comes from prisoners. Now the complaint is hitting closer to home: Some Guilford County greenhouse operators say they can’t compete with the County Prison Farm in Gibsonville, where labor isn’t just cheap, it’s free.

Medieval England had its War of the Roses. Modern Guilford has its War of the Geraniums. The 800-acre prison farm, part of the county jail, sold 61/2-inch geraniums this spring for $2.50 — a little more than half the wholesale price charged by private greenhouses. “They would have tomato plants that would be $1 or $1.50,” says Margie Brinkley, owner of Katydid Greenhouses in McLeansville. Such plants normally retail for $5, she says. “That’s not competitive with Wal-Mart or anybody else.”

Larry Smith, president of Minden Hill Farms in Pleasant Garden, didn’t like the prison farm’s price for 10-inch fern baskets — $5. He sells them for $15 retail and $10 wholesale. “We found their pricing extremely cheap.”

Sheriff B.J. Barnes, who has been in charge of the prison farm since 1997, doesn’t apologize. The farm generated $80,000 in revenue last year. After expenses, about $22,000 went to the county general fund. The farm is for nonviolent offenders who receive short sentences for crimes such as driving while impaired, writing worthless checks and failure to pay child support. About 45 live there during the week, and the population doubles on weekends. In addition to working at the four greenhouses, inmates tend about 300 head of cattle, raise corn and soybeans and learn such skills as furniture making, automobile repair and cooking.

Smith doesn’t believe the farm’s prices accurately reflect the cost of growing the plants. For example, he says, prices don’t include depreciation on the greenhouses, employee insurance or workers’ compensation. He and Brinkley support the idea of inmates working. “I’d even help them learn to grow greenhouse tomatoes to feed themselves. That wouldn’t be competing against us,” Smith says.

Barnes recently offered a compromise. This fall, the farm will grow and sell about 3,000 poinsettias and chrysanthemums and sell them for the average price charged by the private greenhouses. The end effect, he says, will be greater profits. “One guy said, ‘I don’t care what it costs — that’s where I’m going to get my tomatoes. You’ve got the only tomatoes I can grow.’”