Build a public food preservation facility? Yes, we can

With new canning plant, Blairsville shows Atlanta how it’s done

With all the interest right now in home canning and food preservation, wouldn’t it be great if there were a place in your community where you could process food quickly and inexpensively, using large-scale equipment to improve efficiency?

Well, there is. If you live somewhere in Georgia other than metro Atlanta.

Around the state you can find food processing centers that are open to the public—usually during the summer, but sometimes throughout the rest of the year, too. Most of these facilities provide the equipment to quickly skin and deseed tomatoes, peel and core apples, shell peas, cook quantities of soups and sauces, and seal food in cans or jars, all for a very reasonable fee: about 25 cents or so per unit. But the nearest facility to Atlanta is a good hour away.

Metro Atlanta could easily support such a facility. Enthusiasm for food preservation has exploded in recent years; just check any listing of cooking classes to find instruction in making jams, pickling vegetables, drying food, pressure-canning soups and sauces, etc., for evidence of the trend. But building a food processing facility—often called “canning plants”—takes money, land, and commitment. It takes a groundswell of support and political leadership.

Community canning plants have been a part of the Georgia landscape for nearly 100 years.

According to the book “Two Hundred Years of Agricultural Education in Georgia” by John Taylor Wheeler, the first community food processing center in Georgia was built in 1926 in Franklin County, with the goal of teaching farming families how to safely preserve food. By 1942, there were 383 canning centers around the state.

At first they were built by communities; later, they were built in partnership between host communities and the state Department of Education. Often, the plants were built on school property, staffed by agriculture education teachers, and maintained through school budgets. But over time, expensive equipment failed, or new schools were built without the plants, or operating budgets simply became too tight. The canneries dwindled.

There are still a couple dozen food processing centers with ties to the DOE in operation (the most up-to-date list can be found here), but none is close enough to Atlanta to have a 770, 440 or 678 area code. If a city or county in metro Atlanta wanted to offer such a facility to its residents, it would likely have to build one.

Given that public school systems are unlikely to have a million or so dollars lying around to build a new cannery, how could a community pull it off?

Union County, population 21,000, found a way. In 2009, facing the inevitable closure of its 60-year-old school canning facility, voters approved the use of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds to build, among other things, a farmers market and canning plant on the same Blairsville property. The 60-stall covered market opened a couple of years ago; the cannery, with additional equipment grants from the USDA and Appalachian Regional Commission, opened last fall.

I visited the North Georgia facility this week, and let me tell you, it is a thing of beauty. Powered by a state-of-the-art boiler (price tag: about $190,000, installed), the open room is packed with stainless steel work tables, huge steamers, cauldrons and retorts (giant pressure-cookers). In a morning, an individual could easily prepare and process 50 quarts of food; it would take several days of hard, sweaty work to accomplish the same feat at home.

How did Union do it? The folks I spoke with give most of the credit to the county’s sole commissioner, Lamar Paris. “He’s a visionary,” says Mickey Cummings. “He realized we had to do something to maintain our heritage in agriculture. … The commissioner understands that this is a service to the community.”

Cummings deserves kudos as well. He came out of retirement as the county extension agent to oversee the market and canning plant. The part-time job doesn’t truly reflect the many hours he works, especially during the summer and fall.

These canning plants have always been an excellent idea, but the way Union County has designed this new facility is pure genius. By locating it a few feet from its farmers market, it encourages consumers to buy ingredients directly from the farmers, thus boosting the local economy while encouraging home economy as well as good nutrition. Starting this summer, the operation will also support budding entrepreneurs by offering special hours to process certain high-acid foods, like jams and pickles, for retail sale. Businesses will still have to meet state certification and labeling requirements, of course.

The potential is exciting. What might other communities, inspired by Union County and imbued with the collective will to raise money, find space, and navigate the maze of overlapping government regulation and certification systems, do? Build similar farmers market/canning plant properties? Create new hybrids for both personal and small-business use? Maybe add a row of mixers and ovens for community bread-making days? Or a demonstration kitchen, to help teach a neglected generation how to cook food from scratch?

I hope some local leaders will consider the possibilities. In the meantime, Cummings invites us city folk to vist Blairsville next summer and see how it’s done. “People from Atlanta can come up and use it,” he says. “We’re not shutting our doors to anyone.”