Cattle ranch future uncertain

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 3, 2007

GREENSBORO &8212; Gov. Bob Riley was presented recommendations on how to fill the $30 million budget deficit for the Department of Corrections Thursday afternoon, which included the possible sale of the Farquhar State Cattle Ranch south of Greensboro.

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Richard F. Allen presented Riley with his recommendations on how to plug the hole, including the sale 4,610-acre ranch as a possibility. Allen said in an interview prior to the meeting that all recommendations made to Riley will have to be approved by the governor before any actions are taken with the facility or the adjacent properties.

After the meeting, the Department of Corrections declined to comment on the possibility of the sale, referring any questions on the subject to the governor&8217;s press secretary, Jeff Emerson.

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State Representative Ralph Howard, D-Greensboro, whose 72nd district encompasses Hale, Marengo, Perry and Bibb counties, said the sale of the ranch will have far reaching economic impact of the area he represents. He said he spoke with Allen prior to the meeting and was under the impression that Allen will recommend selling off the entire property. He also noted in April the department sold 540 acres of the cattle ranch land known as the West End Swamp for $1.6 million to help raise money for the prison system.

Howard, who is worried about a sale&8217;s impact on his district, said between the 17 local jobs at the ranch and the large amounts of local purchases for supplies and equipment, the loss of the farm would have an adverse effect on the economics of the struggling Black Belt region. He said programs such as field trails for hunting dogs and the ranch&8217;s rodeo draw visitors that utilize area hotels and inmates provide free labor to community work projects for the county, surrounding cities and other governmental agencies.

Aside from providing economic opportunities to the surrounding area, the ranch also provides income for the department looking at shutting it down and selling its land to fix its budget. In the Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2006 the department found that the farm portion of the revenues brought from Alabama Correctional Industries&8217; work programs statewide, which include the sale of cattle, timber and land use, catfish production, crops and other income, topped $2.4 million.

Howard said the ranch produces all of these products, as well as revenues from the sale of quail and access to handicapped hunters, while inmates make only 15 cents per hour from their labor. He said he would like to see the department expand the facilities at the ranch, noting the need statewide for an additional women&8217;s prison due to overcrowding, which could put the 4,000-plus acres to good use.