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Monday, September 9, 2013

Colorado Prisoners Tend To Buffalo Dairy Farm

When you think of a dairy farm, you might envision black and white cows dotting a rolling hillside. But there are countless deviations from that pastoral setting.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Luke Runyon of Harvest Public Media reports on one of the more interesting dairy operations in the country.

He takes us to a water buffalo dairy that sits behind razor-wire fences in southern Colorado.

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

When you think of a dairy farm, you might envision black and white cows dotting a rolling hillside. But there are countless deviations of that pastoral setting including this interesting one. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Harvest Public Media's Luke Runyon takes us to a water buffalo dairy that sits behind razor-wire fences in Southern Colorado.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Welcome to the four-mile correctional center outside Canon City, Colorado, an unlikely place to find what could very well be the country's largest herd of domesticated water buffalo.

STEVE SMITH: I believe we have right at - probably 250 head. You want to go look at them first?

RUNYON: Steve Smith runs Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the state's Department of Corrections that sets up businesses within prison walls. And today, he's my tour guide. Cheesemakers sometimes blend in buffalo milk to give their cheeses a distinctive taste. And the herd at the prison in Canon City is really the only place to go for a big quantity of buffalo milk in the U.S.

SMITH: People say how do you milk a water buffalo? Very carefully.

RUNYON: It feels like any other farm, just run by prisoners in green jumpsuits. The sprawling campus stretches along the upper Arkansas River. Warning signs are everywhere within the prison gates, but the one at the water buffalo pen had to be custom made. It reads, warning, water buffalo are very dangerous animals.

SMITH: We get a lot of looky-loos down here and so we want them to stay away from the animals.

RUNYON: The horned beasts poke their heads between the white metal fence as we drive by. If you squint, you might mistake them for beef cattle, but their curled horns give them away. These are water buffalo. The prison already has goat and cow dairy operations, so why the addition of these animals?

SMITH: We had an opportunity that a customer lost their ability to get water buffalo milk from India. When I found out about it, we did a business plan.

RUNYON: The customer is Leprino Foods, arguably the world's largest mozzarella cheese manufacturer. If you've eaten a pizza recently, there's a good chance the cheese came from Leprino. When the company lost its supply, Smith was happy to step in and offer up rich, frothy buffalo milk. Leprino wouldn't do a taped interview for this story. But a spokesman says the company uses the milk as an addition to their cheese to give certain products a unique taste. The milk is more fatty than a dairy cow's.

SMITH: We'll go up here to the parlor.

RUNYON: On a raised concrete platform, half a dozen water buffalo stand in small pens. Prisoners in reflective vests affix tubes to the animals' udders.

FELICIANO GOMEZ: Yeah, you could probably touch one if you want.

RUNYON: Prisoner Feliciano Gomez oversees the water buffalo operation. Most businesses within the prison's walls are run by inmates.

GOMEZ: Yeah, they got the attitude. They got their own personalities.

RUNYON: Personalities that can sometimes be confrontational. Gomez says most prisoners who work with the buffalo have stories of being horned by the temperamental animals, with the bruises to prove it. He started working at the dairy almost two years ago. Prisoners who work at the dairy earn $5 a day with the chance to earn even more for how much milk they produce. Smith says most men are sending the money to family outside the prison or the court-mandated child support.

GOMEZ: Never in my life would I think, you know, I'd come to prison and milk water buffalo.

(LAUGHTER)

GOMEZ: Never in a million years.

RUNYON: The prisoners have to apply for jobs. No one is forcing them to work. Critics have pointed to the fact that this is cheap labor for for-profit companies. But the important thing for Smith is these jobs give the men marketable skills when they're released.

SMITH: Ninety seven percent of all inmates are getting out. They're hitting the streets. So what do you want when that guy comes in and moves next to you? Do you want him to be able to have a job and keep a job or do you want him to go out and do the same habits he did when he came in?

RUNYON: A Colorado Corrections Department study showed if prisoners spent the last nine months of their incarceration working, they had a 19 percent better chance of not reoffending. Sometimes it works a little too well. Smith says one prisoner got out, started a business and ended up stealing away clients from the prison, though they still have control of water buffalo milk. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colorado.

HOBSON: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

And, Jeremy, earlier in the show, you know how we talked about the debate over Syria and how that could end up stalling or even derailing immigration reform in Congress.

HOBSON: Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, many people have weighed in on our Facebook page. JR McGee writes, I thought we created multi-tasking. Can we not treat more than one issue at a time? It seems like an easy out for Congress. David Kaslan(ph) says, our government obsesses with war or any other major event as if they only need to do one thing at a time. I shudder to think of what gets put on the backburner, never to surface again.

HOBSON: And here's one from Brendan McTear(ph). He says, this is one of those cans that you knew they were going to kick down the road as soon as they had the flimsiest of excuses. If there was no Syria issue, then Congress would claim the debt ceiling was too important. If no debt ceiling, it would be something else. You can join our conversation at facebook.com/hereandnowradio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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    Allowing the government to compete against the private market and make money off the labor of those who are imprisoned is a dangerous precedent. Using prisoners to maintain roads, parks and government facilities is one thing, but when they are allowed to sell products with virtually zero labor cost, that is not fair to those who make their living selling the same products.

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