“It’s a way of life and a service to the community,” says plant operator
Above, Gordon County resident Carlis Martin (right) and others in his group fill and prepare jars of green beans for the sealing process at the
Pickens County Canning Plant. Pictured below is a photograph taken at the local canning plant decades ago.
Mid-morning last Tuesday, Gordon County resident Carlis Martin busied himself making conversation with other customers in line at the Pickens County Canning Plant.
Martin, like many others present that day, arrived with cleaned and snapped green beans to make quick work of canning his summer harvest.
“This would have taken at least a full day, probably longer at home,” said Martin, who discovered the local food-processing center three years ago. “Here it’s done in three hours.”
Martin, whose grin was as wide as an ear of corn, was obviously enjoying the experience. Martin traveled to the food processing facility behind Jasper Middle School with his daughter and some other members of his family, and together the group funneled brightly colored beans into Mason jars, filled them with water and put on metal lids in preparation for the vessels’ descent into a giant pressure cooker, called a retort, which is capable of processing 95 glass quarts or 122 metal cans at once.
But Martin wasn’t the only one donning a big smile that day. In fact, most everyone at the canning plant seemed to be in high spirits. It could have been because of the sheer economy of time; they knew they were saving themselves hours of time and cleanup. But maybe on some more metaphorical level, it was because they felt they weren’t preserving only their fruits and veggies, but doing their part to preserve a way of life that has been around for generations.
According to Jack Barnes, a former PHS agriculture teacher who operated the facility from 1980 through 2009, food processing centers in the state of Georgia are almost all operated by agriculture departments at public schools.
“I think there are a few that the Extension Office now services, one in Union County and a few others,” he said. “But other than that, they are through the Ag. departments.”
Both he and current PHS agriculture education teacher and plant operator Joe Wright said canning plants were developed at a time when food grown in the family garden was a main source of nourishment, and canning the right way was crucial.
“These were developed as a teaching tool on the correct way to can, so there is no spoilage,” said Wright, who has been running the plant since 1993. “This was a primary food supply for people at one time, and it needed to be done right.”
Wright estimates the Pickens County Canning Plant opened around 1937, about the same time county schools started their agriculture program. The plant is now one of 28 facilities in the state of Georgia.
While the actual facility has been relocated from its original location near Jasper Elementary School “about the same place the old green gym sits,” it is still in operation 75 years later.
Of course, Wright said, the plant was much busier when eating food from the family garden was the norm, but he says traffic is still pretty good at the local facility and is actually on the rise.
Looking back at an old ledger book from 1965, which has handwritten entries for each person who processed that season, including what they processed and how much they paid, customers then numbered well over 400. An old photograph from the 1960s shows the canning plant just after it relocated to the place it still stands, its parking lot filled with vehicles.
Wright estimates the facility now sees anywhere between 35 and 50 customers a year, with each which maybe coming in multiple times during the season, but both Wright and Barnes say that in the last few years there has been a steady increase of people who want to can their food in bulk.
Interestingly, Barnes noted the customer base also increased in the summer of 1999, just as the Y2K scare was sweeping the nation.
“It went down for a while there, but I’d say the past seven or eight years the numbers have steadily been increasing,” Barnes said. He noted about 90 percent of customers are people who are not native to Pickens County. “And some of those Y2K people that came in, just stayed and kept coming back.”
Wright says he feels the increased customer base is coming from the recent explosion of the local/slow food movement, which is popular with younger generations of people.
“A lot of it is tradition. A lot of it is a way of life,” Wright said. “But there is this whole movement going on now, and you can see that in restaurants like 61 Main, but there is this whole movement now, and people want to know what they are eating and where their food came from. This a way to ensure that.”
“But this has been the best start since I can remember,” he added. “Our busiest time is usually the end of July into August. Today we processed 604 cans. In August it’s not unusual for us to process 500 cans in one day.”
Barnes’ experience reinforces Wright’s theory. Barnes said one of the biggest changes he has seen over the last 30-plus years is the quantity of food that is being brought in for processing. He says there are more backyard gardeners coming in to process smaller amounts now.
“Back then most people were farmers,” Barnes said. “There has been a big difference in quantities. People used to bring in larger quantities. Now they bring in much less.”
Barnes says the average number of quarts processed now is 30 per customer.
Customers can bring in their own glass jars and process them for 30 cents each, or the facility will provide a metal can and process it for 60 cents each. The money made from the processing goes directly back into the facility for production costs.
“But this is not here to make money,” Wright said. “This is an educational tool and a service to the community, and what we try to impart is that this is a way of life. Usually when a major piece of equipment like a boiler breaks, then a facility may close, because they don’t make profit.”
According to Wright, the current commissioner of the Georgia Department of Agriculture is a big supporter of canning plants and wants to strengthen the relationship between the Dept. of Agriculture and the Dept. of Education in regard to food processing facilities.
“These places mean a lot to the people who use it,” Wright said. “I always try to tell the school board that these older people, sometimes it’s the only contact they have with the school system at all.”
Wright said students at the local high school and two middle schools are also brought into the facility for an educational class on how to can and handle food properly. Regular customers who come in are also given a lesson on proper canning, because the entire process is hands-on. Customers fill their own jars, add salt, water or other ingredients, and put on lids themselves.
“The only thing they don’t do is the last step,” Barnes said in reference to the actual industrial pressure-cooking process that seals the jar or can. “That is for safety reasons. We don’t want any accidents.”
And according to Wright, the actual process has not changed much in the last 75 years.
“It’s basically the same technology,” he said laughing. “There may even be some of the original equipment in there.”
Any fruit or vegetable can be processed, with the most popular items customers bring in being green beans, applesauce and soup.
“At one point we processed meats,” Barnes said, “but we stopped doing that, because you now must be USDA certified to process those.” In fact, Barnes said, the most unusual item that he ever saw processed was a meat.
“A man had about 100 pounds of frozen meat he collected over several years and wanted it canned,” he said. “I don’t know what you’d do with all that turtle.”
If you’ve got your own bounty of fruits or veggies (no turtle) that you want to process, try the canning plant yourself. They open at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday through July 31, but will be closed the week of July 9. The plant closes when the processing day is finished.
In August they will be open every Wednesday afternoon beginning at 2 p.m.
Plan to arrive before 11 a.m. to allow time for preparation and processing before closing.
A list of all food processing centers in the state of Georgia can be found by visiting agr.georgia.gov