It's an unusual dairy farm – where cows play an active role in helping the men who tend them find careers.
The farm also plays a key role in imbuing the same men with a healthy respect for, and knowledge of, the environment.
Waikeria Prison Farm is no small operation. It covers 1200 hectares, incorporating three dairy farms with about 2400 cows and trains about 30 prisoners daily under the direction of Stewart Morgan, principal instructor for dairy, and Bryan Frederick, industry manager.
The prisoners work on the farm and many attain Level 2 "general skills" certificates from Primary ITO under the scheme, designed to help the men find full employment when they are released. Some arrive with skills and experience already and go on to higher qualifications, Morgan says.
While this is a dairy farm which focuses on men as well as cows, the environment also plays a significant role – evidenced by Waikeria Prison Farm's multiple haul of awards at the Ballance Farm Environment Awards (Waikato region) recently. Though the overall regional prize went elsewhere, the farm won three awards – the Waikato River Authority Catchment Improvement Award, the Synlait Climate Stewardship Award and the Bayleys People in Primary Sector Award.
About 200,000 riparian, wetland and woodland plants have been planted, including taking out species like willows and replacing them and others with thousands of natives in a partnership with the Waikato Regional Council.
They have retired some land from grazing, fenced it off and re-planted river banks on the nearby Puniu River – and say all these water-quality-improving activities have been achieved without huge cost and with no effect on dairy production.
Pest plants and animals are actively managed and biosecurity controls are implemented across what is essentially a 'closed' farming operation with a strong focus on improving animal health, with all feed is grown on the property.
"We believe water quality has improved," says Frederick. "We don't measure it ourselves and there is no scientific data to back this up – but we can see the improvement in the [number and health of] longfin and shortfin eels across the property."
Nor is the dairy farm and the associated planting the prison's only work in the environment. In conjunction with the local Puniu River Care group, a horticultural division is attached to the farm (also tended by prisoners earning qualifications in that industry).
Last year, it grew 80,000 plants and is this year aiming for 100,000.
What doesn't go into the prison farm system as feed or vegetables is given to the Puniu River Care group, attached to the Mangatoatoa marae, which helps out other farmers in the area.
"We are really chuffed to be recognised in the Ballance Farm Environment Awards and the environment is a key part of what we do," says Morgan. "But what makes us very different is the reason behind all this – the 'why'.
"Our purpose isn't really to earn a ton of money for the Crown – it's to reduce re-offending and do so by helping to improve the land environment and animal health so the men in our care can be given an opportunity to make a contribution to their community.
"We're committed to environmentally sustainable farming practices that better balance the needs of the land, animals and staff."
One of those practices is a class-leading once-a-day milking system which Frederick says has "basically led to happier, healthier cows" and which has seen production increase over the former twice-a-day system.
It also improved animal health – lameness, mortality rates, metabolic issues and somatic cell counts all reduced along with improved reproductive performance, with a reduction in animal health spending from an average of $221,688 (2013 – 2016) down to $163,016 in 2017 (the first year of once-a-day milking), a saving of 26 per cent.
The inmates also benefit: "We don't track what happens to the men in our care as they have to be given the chance to make their own way but we do know that some who have left here have been offered jobs by local farmers on release – and there are a few who live in prison but go out to work for local farmers during the day."
They are now facing a new challenge. One of the three dairy farms will be retired in favour of a beef operation and they will also lose some land when the new $750m, 600-person prison (Waikeria has two, one about 100 years old) is completed.
The loss of land means their stock numbers will be reduced – they keep to a stocking rate of about three cows per hectare and are expecting to lose 30 cows. Frederick says that will not affect their production and they are also charged with enhancing wetland and riparian areas, improving water quality and habitats along with the new build.