Prison farm workers better their lives with agricultural work


24 April 2024

The 8000-head piggery at Christchurch Men's prison covers some 100 hectares of the 800-hectare farm of mixed livestock and cropping that surrounds the prison on the western outskirts of the city.

In 25 years, the Christchurch Men’s Prison pig farm has changed from a small operation with sows housed indoors into one of New Zealand’s largest free-farmed piggeries.

According to RNZ, the prison farm has a supply agreement with Freedom Farms, which receives around 17,000 prison pigs annually.

The 8000-head piggery covers some 100 hectares of the 800ha farm of mixed livestock and cropping that surrounds the prison on the western outskirts of the city.

While the farm and piggery are run as commercial businesses, its workers being prisoners and its staff farm instructors.

“We are not a normal farm and have different goals from your usual farming operation,” principal instructor Warren Chilton explains.

“We are primarily about rehabilitation, providing men working and learning on the farm with an opportunity to earn qualifications and learn work aptitudes and skills that will support their future employment in New Zealand’s primary sector, as well as their wellbeing.

“You’re trying to better someone’s life. Very few of our prison farm workers have ever worked on a farm or with animals and many of them take to it well enough to see this as a future career.”

Warren Chilton has been the principal instructor at Christchurch Men's Prison piggery for 25 years, teaching inmates new skills in the agricultural sector and giving them a qualification.

A third generation Canterbury pig farmer, he decided to take on the role at the prison piggery some 25 years ago at a time when it was a small operation with sows housed indoors. He had always wanted to farm pigs outdoors and the prison farm offered ideal topography with flat, light and free-draining soils.

It has two operations, and finishing the progeny of about 900 sows.

It is one of several free-farm operations in the country, where the sows are outside, and the growing pigs are housed in eco-barns, micro barns and ‘cozy kennels’. Most of this accommodation has been built at the prison by men engaged in its industry training programmes.

The piggery also has other impressive sustainability credentials.

All sawdust for the bedding in the eco-barns comes from timber processing, another of the prison’s on-site industry training operations. Once used, it’s turned out onto concrete pads to break down and is used in the wider farm’s cropping operations.

Likewise, leachate from the compost pads and shed sumps is spread evenly across farm paddocks, protecting groundwater.

Pig breeding units are run in rotation to manage accumulated nutrients from pig manure and give the land a break.

“We are pretty proud of what we have done on the piggery over the years,” Chilton says. “We have seen an increase in demand for locally grown product as people want to know where their food comes from.”

Pig farms are also audited in New Zealand to very high standards and the prison farm is very proud of both the quality of their product and animal welfare record, he says.

The prison pig farm has become one of New Zealand’s largest free-farmed piggeries, with two commercial operations, and finishing the progeny of about 900 sows.

“We are very focused on our goal to train and inspire men in the prison for future roles in agriculture and also to run an environmentally responsible and animal welfare conscious operation.

“At any one time, there are around 16 prisoners working in the piggery where they are trained in NZQA level qualifications, qualifications which are transferable across the primary sector.”

Prison instructors, who predominantly come from a farming background, are further trained in delivering these qualifications and embedding literacy and numeracy skills into the day to day running of the farm.

Chilton says working with animals can also make a massive shift in the men coming from the prison.

“We find the demeanour of the men changes on the farm. Animals are very non-judgemental, they don’t care about how you got where you are – just how you treat them today. So we find they respond well to the men and the men respond well to having an animal to care for. This is the case for all the animals but especially the pigs, which are quite intelligent animals.”

He says quite a few of the men go on to employment in the pig industry, to other agriculture roles, or to other industries where they are using the work aptitudes of farm labouring and the transferable skills they have learned on the farm.

“It’s always heartwarming to hear the success stories of men who have developed an interest through working and learning in our prison industries and now have a positive and constructive life and employment in the community,” he says.

“Farming is in my blood and I love seeing how it positively impacts and changes these men and their futures.”