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Canning plant needs preservation

Get the lowdown on putting up your produce
canning-plant-buildingThe Pickens County Canning Plant: This non-descript building behind Jasper Middle School has served thousands of customers since it was built in 1967. 

    The Pickens County Canning Plant ledger from 1965 - now a yellow-paged antique with entries written in a dying cursive hand – shows one customer who processed 188 cans of green beans in a single visit. Total cost: $16.92.
    Joe Wright, the current high school agriculture teacher who runs the facility during summer months, crunched the numbers. 

    “That’s 9 cents a can,” he said. “You can see from the other entries under her name she was in here a lot.”
    Other customers in the ’67 ledger were also in there a lot. Go back to 1950 and business was even better – 50,000 cans were processed that year. Go back even further to 1941 and volume was nearly double that, with 90,000 cans processed in one season.
    Those numbers dwarf 2015 when a droopy 2,000 units came out of the facility, located behind Jasper Middle School on A.W. Lawson Blvd.
    “For the last 10 years we’ve done between 4,000 and 5,000 cans,” said Wright, who has run the plant since 1993. “It usually varies from year to year a little, but last year’s numbers were noticeably down.”

Aging out

    Wright said weather definitely affects veggie production, citing heavy rains last May as one possible reason for the slump and an unusually dry season this year that threatens to impact business - but an aging customer base and withering farming community are also culprits.
    “We didn’t see the number of people last year, and the people who came in didn’t have the quantity of product they usually do,” he said. “A lot of our former customers have aged, too. There are less of them preserving and we don’t see as many younger people coming in.”
    The demographic of people who use the Pickens County cannery is from their mid-40s and up. Many are repeat customers, and several come from neighboring metro-Atlanta counties that had their canning plants shut down – Cherokee, Dawson and Forsyth.
        Carlis Martin has used the Pickens canning plant since 2010, and he says it’s an invaluable resource for gardeners.
    “Sometimes we’ll have between 75 and 100 jars and doing that at home would take a day and a half,” he said. “There we can do it in a couple hours and most of that is Joe doing his work. To me it’s worth at least twice the price because of the timesaving’s and the quality of the canning you get. People who don’t use it don’t realize how easy it is.”
    The recent boom in sustainable living practices was visible a few years ago at the local plant, but only barely, and just as quickly subsided.
    “We’ve seen some of that group trickle in,” Wright said. “Two years ago we saw an uptick. We had some new customers and folks from Bent Tree, but we didn’t see that last year.”

Home-grown gardens going to seed?

    Wright said while he can’t speak for livestock, he believes the number of home garden and vegetable farmers have decreased in Pickens County. 
    “There just aren’t as many as there used to be,” he said.
    Up in Gilmer County, however, their canning plant is seeing the opposite - an increase in volume each year. The facility is doing so well they recently received $310,000 from the Georgia Department of Education for canning equipment, which will be put in the new agri-center at Clear Creek Middle School slated to open next summer. The old facility, built in 1986, will close.
    A recent article in the Times-Courier reported a significant increase in interest as a result of the organic and homegrown movement, with their canning plant director estimating they get 40 new customers each year, including young people.
    Every season the Gilmer facility processes 10 times the amount as Pickens. Over 20,000 units come out of the Bobcat Trail plant, considered one of the most used agricultural centers in the state. It also has a six-month season, running two days a week through December. The Pickens cannery only operates during high summer production months and ends its season in August.
    “Gilmer County has a different base,” Wright said. “There’s more agriculture that feeds the community, and their canning plant has a shared kitchen, which means apple houses and other businesses are able to can their products and sell them retail.”
    Wright said even with home gardens seeming to be on the decline in town, the Jasper Farmers Market is busy every week with people who want homegrown, local produce.
    “We thought we would have picked up more business from that,” he said. “I guess people are going to get produce to prepare at home, not to can.”
    He admitted the cost efficiency goes down the drain when you buy produce to can instead of growing it at home. Take green beans, for instance. A bushel will run about $50. Wright said that amount equals between 18 and 20 processed quarts. When you add the price to process in your own glass jars, at 35 cents for each quart, that’s $2.85 a jar. If you buy the tin cans at 70 cents each that’s $3.20 a unit.
    “It’s definitely cost prohibitive,” he said.      

Can canning survive here?

    In Georgia’s 159 counties, just 29 canneries are still operational. They are clustered in south Georgia and north Georgia. Most canneries in the metro area were forced to close as the counties became more urban.
    At this point the Pickens cannery isn’t threatened, Wright said, “but if numbers keep declining it’s going to be more difficult to justify keeping it around.”
    The state pays the local ag teacher and a few other canning plant workers for 40 days to operate the facility. The school system covers utilities and maintenance costs on the building – and with a structure that was built in 1967 there’s no shortage of upkeep. The equipment is old, too, but Wright said it still functions and gets the job done.
    “It really hasn’t changed a lot over the years,” he said. “The equipment they’re getting up in Gilmer will be pretty much like ours, just new. If you maintain it you can keep it going.” 
    The original canning plant was built in 1939. At that time it was located near what is now Jasper Elementary School. It burned down and a new facility built at the current location. A newspaper article from 1967 calls it the “busiest place in Pickens County.”

What can you can? What can’t you can?

    If you’re new to canning, doing it on a large scale might seem intimidating. Do you have to pre-snap your beans? Do you blanch them at home? Can you can kale?
     Wright encourages interested parties to drop in and let him and other cannery workers help them through the process, which is much quicker and easier than you can do it at home.
    “That’s what we’re there for,” he said. “We go through a food processing certification program, as a part of that we are taught how to relay this to customers and make sure the food is safely processed. It’s no different from what you do at home, just on a larger scale.”
    Wright said any fruit and veggie is fair game for canning at the Pickens facility, but meat isn’t allowed. If you can find a canning recipe for a less-commonly canned fruit or vegetable, bring it in and they can help.
    “The main thing we worry about is processing time,” he said. “We have the So Easy to Preserve from UGA, but since that time new products have been developed for canning. We’ve never processed kale, but we’ve done turnip greens and it would be similar. If you can find the recipe make sure it has processing time and bring it with you. Our concern is being safe and killing harmful organisms.”
    You will need to bring regulation canning jars with rings and new lids if you choose not to buy tin cans at the facility; the food you wish to can; clean dish cloths and towels for cleanup; and it’s best if you bring food ready to cook (This means beans should be washed and snapped, apples cut and cored, kale chopped to desirable size, etc.) You also need to bring any spices you want to add, so research recipes ahead of time or call the cannery for information.
    Processing time varies for each product. Green beans, for example, have to be blanched for three to four minutes, then put in jars, seasoning and hot water added, containers closed then processed for 30 minutes. Tomatoes need 40-50 minutes processing time, while soups need an hour.
    “But when we get to the processing step you can leave and come back for your product,” he said. “You don’t have to hang around and wait.”
    They also have a juicer on hand to process tomato and other juices.
    While he doesn’t want to discourage anyone from visiting the cannery, batches are ideally a minimum of eight to 10 jars. Anything under that isn’t efficient. 

When can you can?

    If you want to take part in keeping the canning tradition alive in Pickens, load up a  bushel of your favorite fruits and veggies and haul them on over to the canning facility.
    The Pickens County Canning Plant is open July 13, 14 and 21st from 8 a.m. until all food is processed. Customers must have their product in the plant and ready to go no later than 11 a.m. It will be open every Wednesday from July 27th through the end of August beginning at 2 p.m. On those days customers must have their product ready to process no later than 3:30 p.m.
    Call Joe Wright at 706-253-1800 for more information.