Home Canning Away From Home

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 Our family's a big one, we all like chili, and the batch of this food we put up last fall is as good an example as any of the savings that a community canning center can help you make.

With food prices going up and up and up, lots of people who’ve always bought canned goods at the store are beginning to wonder if it isn’t less expensive to grow their own and can it themselves. And, of course, that’s exactly what some of us have been doing for years … and, yes, the practice does save us a lot of money.

To be truthful about the matter, however, “do it yourself” canning can sometimes be a drag. When several bushels of green beans or a small mountain of apricots ripen all at once, the mere thought of “putting by” such a quantity of produce can be slightly overwhelming. Or maybe you just can’t face the idea of heating up the house that much on an already-hot summer day … or you simply don’t have equipment big enough to handle the job … or you just don’t know how to go about the task.

No sweat! At one time or another, most of us home canners have faced all those problems. And many of us have solved them all quite easily and all at once … by doing our home canning away from home!

Community Canning Center

I don’t know who originally thought up the idea of the community canning center — or canning kitchen or custom cannery, as they’re called in some areas — but that individual knew exactly what he or she was doing. By putting heavy-duty washing, peeling, capping, cooking, and cooling equipment all together in one spot and then charging a small fee for the use of the “plant,” our nameless inventor made it possible for almost any family to quickly, safely, and easily preserve as much or as little of its own produce as it wants … and at a substantial savings over supermarket prices.

The idea probably reached its height of popularity during the Second World War when almost every family, it seemed, tended a Victory Garden. At the time, some 3,800 canning kitchens were in operation around the country. The number steadily dwindled during the boom that lasted from the mid-40’s to about 1970 … when the livin’ was easy and a large percentage of our population grew accustomed to eating out of a grocery cart instead of a backyard vegetable patch. Now that the economic squeezes of the 70’s have pushed so many of us into planting “inflation gardens,” however, the custom cannery is coming back all over again.

It’s a Matter of Dollars and Sense

Our family’s a big one, we all like chili, and the batch of this food we put up last fall is as good an example as any of the savings that a community canning center can help you make.

We started with 30 pounds of homegrown hamburger (which cost us only $3 out-of-pocket for grinding), 10 pounds of onions and a few bulbs of garlic from the family garden, 50 pounds of beans that I bought for $2.50 from a seed mill, and $6.50 worth of chili powder, mix, and water from the cannery. By the time we’d added on 147 30-ounce cans and lids at 33d each from the canning kitchen (the use of all facilities was included in the price of the cans), we found ourselves toting home a grand total of 275 pounds of chili for a total out-of-pocket cost of $60.50 (just 42 cents per 30-ounce can).

That’s not bad, especially when you know that several brands of chili with meat (probably not as good as ours!) sell for anywhere from $1.23 to $1.29 in the supermarkets around here. At an average of $1.25 for a 30-ounce can, that means the same amount of “ready made” chili would have cost us $183.75 off the grocery store shelf. Which, in turn, means that by putting in a few hours down at the cannery working up our own “brand” of chili … we saved a total of $123.25. Which is pretty good wages!

As a matter of fact, we’d have saved money even if we hadn’t had our own meat and garden produce. If we’d bought everything at retail, the hamburger ($27), beans ($15), chili powder, mix, and water ($6.50), onions ($5.00), garlic ($1.00), and cans and lids ($48.50) would have set us back $103. Which, subtracted from the $183.75 that the same amount of canned chili sells for in the stores, would still have left us better than $80 ahead of the game. That’s economics anybody can understand.

Metal or Glass Canning Jars

Most of the equipment in the cannery we use is vintage 1940 and the old equipment will handle nothing but metal cans. Now that the interest in home gardening and food preservation is growing again, though, the Ball Company (a large manufacturer of glass canning jars) is actively working to place its small and relatively inexpensive ($5,000 to $8,000) community canning kitchen in the hands of small towns, co-ops, religious groups, and private individuals across the country. The Ball unit, as might be expected, is designed to use glass jars … which, unlike our metal cans, can be recycled and used again. Chalk up a strong environmental point in favor of the glass containers.

We Have a Four-Month Canning Season

Our canning season up here in Montana runs from July through early November. We begin with early fruits and vegetables and end with meat, soup, stew, and — of course — chili. Throughout most of this period other do-it-yourself families like ours keep three full-time employees busy at the community cannery from 7 a.m. to about 6 p.m. five days a week.

The cannery employees handle all the cooking, steaming, and can sealing. They also help the kitchen’s customers with suggestions, recipes, instructions, and quality control (which, considering the ever-present danger of food poisoning from any canned goods — whether prepared at home or in a factory — is especially valuable).

Last year this community canning center helped its customers put up 170,000 containers of food (about 2,200 a day) over a four-month season. Its receipts showed an average income of about $1,200 a month … or $400 a month for each of its three employees.

Set Up Your Own Community Cannery

Nope, you’ll never get rich running a canning kitchen. Still, if your community doesn’t have such a setup, you could do worse than think about forming a co-op to start one. If you operate it right, the business’s cash flow will at least guarantee wages to the folks who work there … and you’ll be able to take a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that you’re saving several hundred or even a few thousand families (including your own!) a worthwhile chunk of their food bills.

We’ve been “putting by” at community canneries for over 15 years now and we’ve never lost a single batch of all the fruits, vegetables, apricot nectar, grape juice concentrate, venison, soup, stew, chili (be sure the seasoning is right before you seal the cans), applesauce, tomato juice, stewing hens (when they stop laying, we can ’em), or puddings (steamed in the cans before they’re sealed) that we’ve processed. We believe that our canning kitchen offers us a great (and economical and easy) way to preserve any surplus of meat and/ or produce that we buy at a bargain, harvest in the wild, or raise ourselves.

Check the Yellow Pages of the towns around you or ask your county agent, the local home economics teacher, big gardeners in your area, etc., for the name and address of the nearest community canning center. And if there isn’t one close to you, do consider the idea of forming a co-op to set one up. 

Believe me. With the price of food headed for the stratosphere the way it is, a community canning kitchen can be worth a lot of money to you and all your neighbors.