STOW, Ohio — When Stow Municipal Judge Kim Hoover signed a search warrant for a marijuana-growing operation last year, he hoped he finally found what he was looking for.
He tracked the case as the Merriman Valley site was raided and the defendant worked his way through Summit County Common Pleas Court.
After the case ended in a felony conviction, Hoover made his move. He asked Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands whether he could have the agricultural products in the custody of her court.
She didn't hesitate, Hoover said, and released to him equipment that otherwise would have been destroyed.
Now, dozens of needy families in the area are eating fresh vegetables that started as seeds under a drug dealer's grow lights.
Currently, the lights are being used to nurture cabbage sprouts, which were planted this month and will be harvested later this fall.
It's just the latest twist in Hoover's 2-year-old effort to use nonviolent offenders in cultivating produce on the grounds of the Stow courthouse.
The project began last year when Hoover offered cash-poor defendants the opportunity to work off fines by constructing raised garden beds and growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and onions. The result was 20 bushels of food given to the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank and to Good Neighbors.
This year's crop, which also included potatoes, more than doubled because the plantings got a head start in the courthouse basement.
Court Administrator Rick Klinger, who supervises the community service workers, said the seized equipment, worth thousands of dollars, also is saving the court the cost of buying plant starts.
"The cost of producing our plants was less than $20, compared to 10 times that amount last year," Klinger said.
To be honest, when the court took possession of the gear this spring, officials were scratching their heads over what to do with the lights, tracks and transformers. After all, there was no instruction booklet.
Klinger and Hoover chuckle as they recalled how one of the garden volunteers in their community service program stepped up to admit he knew how to assemble and run the equipment.
"You take something as rotten as a drug dealer's agricultural setup, combine it with a kid who's probably never felt good about himself but has the chance to do something important, and in the end, you're delivering truckloads of food to people who need it," Hoover said.
In addition to the vegetables, the gardeners raised flowers for the courthouse's manicured grounds, which community service volunteers also maintain.
The mini-farm is about to grow again. Already, offenders who volunteer for the program have churned up a quarter acre beyond the courthouse parking lot in preparation for planting an even bigger potato crop next year.
"It's crazy to have public land that isn't being used for public service," Hoover said.
The soil was enriched with manure brought from the Brimfield farm of court security officer Mike Barker. Hoover said he knew Barker had horses and wondered what he did with the droppings, so Barker "started driving to work in a dump truck instead of his car."
Hoover — who, along with Klinger, frequently rolls up his sleeves to help in the gardens as well as other landscaping chores around the courthouse — is particularly excited about the potato-growing opportunities after the success of this year's crop.
Klinger received guidance from his father, who grew potatoes on a farm near Marietta, and the advice netted 50 bags of fist-size Yukon Gold and red-russet potatoes.
The court also began a garlic crop this year, taking advantage of knowing Twinsburg City Prosecutor Dave Maistros, whose wife operates a garlic farm on their Chagrin Falls property. The Maistroses donated cloves for this year's crop, and Hoover hopes to expand into "boutique" garlic that can be sold and help pay for gardening supplies. Currently, costs come from the court's special projects fund, which is acquired through a special fee attached to every court case.
Hoover said he hopes to motivate area businesses to join his crusade to grow more produce for struggling families. He is prepared to offer community service volunteers to companies that have green space to spare.
"We're going to talk others into helping us grow things," Hoover said.
He also hopes to use swamp land behind the courthouse for celery and asparagus, and maybe add a barn to the property.
Dan Flowers, chief executive of the food bank, said every bushel is appreciated. He even encourages home growers to drop off excess bounty at his agency.
"No amount is too small," he said.
"Produce is a big initiative at the food bank. Nutrition is what we're all about," Flowers said as he toured the court's operation with Hoover and Klinger. "Our target is 5 million pounds of produce this year."
Flowers added, "And this kind of produce is the best we get," recalling Hoover's declaration that it's all organic and no pesticides are used.
That kind of basic gardening extends to the equipment volunteers use. Hoover said the program is as much about getting young offenders to appreciate the satisfaction of what hard work can produce.
He remembered his answer to one young man churning up the sod for next year's potatoes when asked why they didn't use a rototiller.
"I said I don't have a rototiller," Hoover said. "But I have a shovel. And I have you."