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Jail’s Dairy Farm May Seek to Become Largest in County : Castaic: The Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho wants to double the size of its Holstein herd.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho wants the honor of becoming the largest milk producer in Los Angeles County.

Now the third-largest dairy in the county, the jail’s facility could become the biggest if county supervisors approve a $2.5-million proposal to more than double the existing herd of 420 Holsteins and purchase new equipment.

In a county once renowned for its dairies, such an operation would supply milk exclusively for jail inmates--from thieves to prostitutes to wife-beaters--and some children who are wards of the court.

Dairies of all kinds are a vanishing breed in Los Angeles because “with all the development, there just isn’t the room here that there used to be,” said Richard L. Reed, regional administrator for the state Department of Food and Agriculture. “They just had to move out.”

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Only five of California’s 2,200 dairies are in the county. Yet 30 years ago, when the state’s milk industry was much smaller, Los Angeles’ then-50 dairies earned it the title of “Dairy County.” And in neighboring Kern County, dairy and other farm operations at the Lerdo jail were shut down recently because they were losing $1 million annually.

Refusing to see their dairy herded out, Los Angeles County jail officials plan by the end of the year to ask the Board of Supervisors to expand the dairy operation at the 2,850-acre jail north of Santa Clarita.

“We want to keep saving our taxpayers money,” said George Wetzel, the dairy supervisor.

The county now saves 37 cents per gallon, or $360,000 annually, by producing its own milk compared with buying it wholesale, Wetzel said. Although some prisoners say they would prefer beer, state law requires the jail to offer each inmate 16 ounces of milk a day.

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The 420 black-and-white Holsteins produce 66,946 gallons per month, or 77% of the milk consumed by the county’s 22,000 inmates. Another 14,457 gallons produced monthly by these incarcerated cows is served to some of the youngsters housed in county probation camps and residence halls.

To supply all the milk legally required for a rapidly increasing inmate population, 605 more cows and additional milking machines, grain storage tanks and pasteurization equipment must be purchased by 1997, officials at the Castaic jail said. With 1,025 cows, the jail dairy would have 25 more cows than High Desert Dairy of Lancaster, now the biggest milk producer in the county.

Jail officials said the expansion program would pay for itself in four years. But it may be difficult for the financially strapped county to advance the funds, said a spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area.

“The long-range value of this stares you right in the face, but it’s a matter of finding the money without hurting other crucial services,” said Dawson Oppenheimer, Antonovich’s press deputy. “We’d be interested in a very, very careful search for the funds.”

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If 605 more cows were to join the bovines behind bars, it would take 20 hours to milk them all twice a day, compared with the 12 hours that it takes now, Wetzel said. Even with the present herd, the dairy is staffed 22 hours a day, seven days a week, by 100 inmates and six employees working in shifts.

“One thing with cows, you can’t turn the milk off and take a vacation,” said Phil Parkes, a herdsman for the county.

Only minimum-security inmates convicted of misdemeanors are allowed to work in the dairy, Wetzel said. They receive no pay, but earn time off their sentences. To sweeten the deal, they are also allowed to drink all the milk they want for free.

“I’d rather have a cold beer, but you make do,” said inmate Bill Baldwin, 38, of Torrance, who said he was convicted of public drunkenness.

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During a recent visit at midday milking, a team of men convicted of robbery and possession of drugs worked together in a well-oiled operation that an efficiency expert might envy. But jail officials said they must constantly train new inmates because the average stay in the minimum-security section of the jail is only about three weeks.

One inmate, his light green uniform wet with sweat from the 100-degree heat, herded the cattle into a holding pen where their udders were sprayed with a mixture of water and soap. Another prisoner prodded the cows into a series of 16 milking stalls that stretch in the shape of a herringbone along both sides of the barn, which doesn’t have air conditioning.

Then it was Duane Henderson’s job to prime the cows by briefly hand-milking them to make sure the liquid was clear and did not show signs of infection. Henderson, 33, is from South-Central Los Angeles and had never even visited a farm before he was incarcerated for violating probation for robbery.

“I’d rather be out here passing the time than inside the laundry,” Henderson said. “Being outside helps me forget about being in jail.”

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After Henderson primed the cows, other inmates swabbed their teats with a cleansing solution and attached milking machines that automatically disengage in three to five minutes after the udders are emptied. The milk, which is at 98 degrees when it comes out of the cow, is chilled to 40 degrees before being pasteurized.

The dairy only produces whole milk. Reed, the administrator in charge of the local office of state dairy inspectors, said the jail was ordered in May to stop producing skim and low-fat milk products because it was improperly preparing them.

The dairy was making the lower-fat products by mixing milk powder and water, instead of separating the cream from the whole milk mechanically and then adding powder to the skim milk to fortify it, Reed said. Jail officials said they used water because they do not own a separator, which can cost $27,000, and do not plan to purchase one. They were not fined for the state law violation, Reed said.

After the milk is pasteurized by being heated for 15 seconds to 163 degrees, it is packaged in half-pint containers. The bright blue-and-white cartons carry slogans never found in supermarkets.

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One pleads, “Daddy, don’t do drugs,” and another reminds inmates that “Time is a gift, don’t spend it in jail.”

Sources of Inmates’ Milk

Here is a breakdown of where the 86,946 gallons of milk consumed per month by Los Angeles’ 22,000 inmates comes from: 20,000 gallons ordered from wholesaler: 23% 66,946 gallons produced at Honor Rancho: 77% Source: L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept.

County’s Biggest Herds (Holstein cows at area dairies) High Desert Dairy, Lancaster: 1,000 Valley View Farms, La Mirada: 600 Peter J. Pitchess Honor, Rancho Castaic: 420 Norwalk Dairy, Santa Fe Springs: 180 Paul’s Dairy, Long Beach: 100* Source: State Dept. of Food and Agriculture

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