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Pigs Out at Ojai Honor Farm

Food- producing facility for county jails will close next year to make room for more female inmates.

October 11, 1998|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OJAI — This jail-yard pig farm has, for 70 years, produced enough pork products to feed most of Ventura County's inmate population.

Bacon.

Pork chops.

Ham.

Ham sandwiches.

Bologna sandwiches.

Diced bologna with eggs.

About 523,000 pounds of meat--making up most of the 1.9 million meals served to inmates--came out of the Ojai Honor Farm jail last year, earning the Sheriff's Department operation the distinction as the biggest pork producer in Southern California.

"We get a lot of complaints because the inmates think they eat too much pork," said Cmdr. David Tennessen. "Of course, when it all goes away, they'll complain about something else."

What has become tradition for the county's detention facilities, and for the county itself, is scheduled to end next year.

"Our mission is first to manage our inmate population," said Chief Deputy Ken Kipp, in charge of the department's detention services division.

"Secondarily, we are responsible as keepers of public tax dollars to spend them in the most efficient way--regardless of tradition."

Rising costs of working the farm, combined with a need to carve out more space to house a skyrocketing female inmate population, have forced officials to permanently close the barn door on the pig-breeding operation next July.

That gives inmates about nine months to rid the county of the farm's roughly 2,000 pigs and 180 cows--which means a lot of pork will continue to appear on detention center menus in coming months.

"Yeah, I'd say the majority of these guys are all gonna get ate up," said Tennessen in his best Southern twang as he surveyed a litter of piglets suckling a 700-pound pink-and-black-splotched sow.

Inmates Wouldn't Eat Rabbits

The farm dates to the 1920s, when a small group of inmates was first housed on the property. Even then, they occasionally tended to their other-white-meat neighbors, Kipp said.

By the 1940s, male inmates regularly worked the farm, producing enough food for the county's jail population.

In 1957, county officials added a jail to the Honor Farm facility, expanding the number of prisoners housed there to 80. A second building was added in 1977, doubling the number of inmates.

As the jail population grew, so did the farm. The food produced there fed inmates at Ojai, Todd Road Jail in Santa Paula and the main jail in Ventura, as well as residents at the county's juvenile hall.

Eventually, pigs, cows and rabbits were raised and butchered on site, mostly by inmates.

Most inmates work hard and have caused few problems, said Sgt. Steve Cook, who has been assigned to the Ojai farm for two decades. Staffers remember, though, when inmates would smuggle in a few souvenirs on days when the crew slaughtered rabbits.

"We'd find a few rabbit's feet, maybe some cotton tails," said Ojai Capt. Joe Funchess. "I guess they felt they needed the good luck."

Rabbit as an entree, however, held little appeal.

"They weren't too fond of eating Peter Cottontail," Funchess said. "If we cooked two big tubs of it, we'd end up throwing away two big tubs of it."

In 1994, the department caved in to the inmates' appetite demands and stopped raising rabbits.

Meanwhile, the pig farm has continued to flourish. More than 200 sows, some weighing more than 700 pounds, produce a regular stream of piglets. In the pig world, these professional moms are considered the cream of the pork crop because they can give birth to more than half a dozen squealers in a single litter.

Paid Staff Handle Actual Slaughter

"If she can't give birth to at least seven, she comes out of the birthing mode and she becomes sausage," Cook said.

In his years on the farm, Cook has become an expert on the life of pigs. Most, he notes, gain one pound or more a day. By the time they reach 230 to 280 pounds--usually at 6 months old--they're ready for slaughter. After that, the meat is too tough for consumption, Cook said.

About 40 pigs are slaughtered two to three times a week; cows a few times a month. Paid staff members are given the necessary but unpleasant job of killing the animals--a task no one on the farm relishes.

"I just shoot and then, real quick, I turn around and say a confession," said farm staffer Antonio Chico. "You see them when they are small and you see them grow up. So it's hard."

Funchess agreed. "I don't go over there where they're doing that," he admitted. "I don't want to put myself through it. Have you ever seen a cow with those big brown eyes? How can you shoot that?"

Many of the remaining tasks are delegated to inmates, including cleaning and moving the carcasses. The inmates also scrub the slaughterhouse afterward.

It's hard work, the inmates say, and many are eager to hit their bunks at day's end.

"But at least it's one way to make my time go by fast," said one.

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