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Learning to Rely on Farms, Not Prisons, to Bolster a Struggling Economy

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What do milk and jails have to do with one another? Dairy and incarceration make up two competing visions for the future of New York State. As one of the nation's largest dairy producers, New York produces enough milk for 2 billion bowls of cereal each year. It also has one of the largest incarcerated populations in the country.

Our state stands at a crossroads. In the next few decades, rural New York will either continue its economic dependence on an unjust prison system and wither, or it will ride the wave of local farming and boom.

While some 80 percent of those incarcerated in New York come from New York City and the surrounding suburbs, the majority of correctional facilities are located in rural, upstate New York. Often the prison gates are right alongside cow pastures.

Over the past few decades, upstate New York has undergone a dramatic transformation. Towns and cities with strong agriculture and manufacturing sectors lost jobs and revenue to outsourcing and automation. Fearing those jobs would never return, elected officials in the now-economically-depressed rural towns grasped for prisons as a possible economic engine for rural development. As a result, prisons are now the largest employer in many counties.

But crime rates have been falling consistently for 20 years, and thousands of prison beds, which were once filled, are now empty. Guarding those empty cells alone is costing the state millions each year.

Closing all New York's prisons overnight would hurt the rural economy, but prison closures are inevitable. Governor Cuomo closed seven facilities last year and our prison population continues to decline. At a cost of over $60,000 per person incarcerated per year, our budget requires cuts. The criminal justice system is not a sustainable jobs program. We urgently need long-term economic alternatives. Agriculture is poised to be one such alternative.

For decades, our state has spent too much locking up non-violent drug offenders and too little preserving family farms. That's backwards. Farms, not prisons, are our state's hope.

Unlike the prison system, dairy has a huge multiplier effect, offering employment from the cow to the cup. For every million dollars of dairy farm sales in New York, an additional 17 jobs are created within the state, the highest multiplier of any New York industry. With New York farmers selling more than $3 billion dollars of milk each year, that's a lot of new jobs, particularly in a tough economy.

Every added job at a New York dairy processing plant creates an additional 4.72 jobs, and each dollar of dairy products sold generates an additional $1.26 for the community. It's estimated that each cow generates an additional $52 worth of local school and property tax revenue each year.

Despite their economic potential, our farms are in desperate need of support. By some estimates, one New York farm is lost to development every 3 ½ days.

Milk Not Jails, the organization I work with, has developed a political agenda that is budget neutral (available at milknotjails.org/policy). It will not require any net spending increases to the State's already strained budget, and decreases New York State's needless criminal justice spending.

Milk Not Jails builds the dairy sector by promoting and selling local milk and by advocating for farmers' needs. The farms that supply Milk Not Jails' milk, Ronnybrook Farm and Hawthorne Valley Farm, have signed on to the group's political agenda. The consumers that buy the milk and the prison families that advocate for criminal justice reform know that their food choices have political impacts.

The truck driver delivering this milk, Kevin Rutledge, knows firsthand how time in the criminal justice system can impact one's life, having spent 11 years locked up.

Rutledge says driving the Milk Not Jails truck is unlike the six other jobs he has held since getting out in 2008. "As I make the deliveries, people are constantly asking me questions about the truck. 'What's this all about?' So I'll talk to them or give them a pamphlet." The truck is eye-catching, with a unique, hand-painted pink design.

Milk Not Jails is taking milk to four New York City boroughs with hopes to expand soon. The organization is also taking its message to Albany, where it has had meetings with over a dozen elected officials during the past legislative session.

Right now, you can buy milk if you are a member of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) site or if you want to start a buying club at your workplace. Visit milknotjails.org/shop for a list of neighborhood CSAs and for more details.

Help us build a new urban-rural relationship based on local food, not locking people up.