From Preservation to Commercialization

The United States has a long tradition of canning food, from the time when it was a necessity because of a lack of refrigeration to today. In times of war, government officials have encouraged citizens to grow gardens and can the results so manufactured canned foods could be redirected to the front lines. Canning reached its peak during World War II, but the increase in home refrigeration contributed to the hobby’s decline.

However, a relic of those times, the Prince Edward Public Cannery, survives to this day and now houses Virginia Food Works, which uses the commercial kitchen to come to the aid of small businesses.

The Process of Processing

Prince Edward County in Central Virginia is home to one of the few public canneries still open, a relic of those wartime campaigns that encouraged bulk canning. Given the large equipment and storage space required, that work was difficult to do in home kitchens. Today, the cannery is under the management of Virginia Food Works, and is used by residential and commercial customers alike.

“Virginia Food Works is a nonprofit developed to help farmers and food entrepreneurs navigate the food regulations and the commercial kitchen requirements in order to make food for resale,” says Allie Hill, director of Virginia Food Works. “It’s not this very clear set of guidelines on how to get from raw ingredients to a beautiful jar of something on a grocery store shelf.”

The commercial kitchen space provided by the public cannery gave Virginia Food Works a platform to help more people.

“Prince Edward County Cannery is a facility and commercial kitchen that is owned by Prince Edward County. It operated for many years for canning for personal consumption, meaning foods that people keep in their own pantries,” explains Hill. “But, [the county] received a grant [in 2010] to upgrade the facility to make food products for resale. That’s when we came in, and they hired us to work one on one with the different clients.”

With the facility licensed as a commercial kitchen, Virginia Food Works has been able to help farmers and small businesses get their products from harvest to store shelves.

“The first thing we will do is look at the product that they want to make and make sure that it fits within the abilities of our facility.”

“We are a facility that only processes foods of a pH of less than 4.6, a magic number that doesn’t mean much to most people but means a lot to us,” says Hill. “Any food below 4.6 is an acidic food that can be processed very quickly and efficiently without having special vacuum pressures. This category of food would be your salsas and applesauces, most of your vinaigrettes and dressings, but it would not cover things like canned asparagus or canned corn, because those local ingredients are not acidic enough. If you have a pH higher than 4.6, botulism can thrive, so it’s a much higher risk “

However, ensuring the product has the right pH often isn’t quite enough. To help ensure the foods produced in the kitchen are safe and shelf-stable, most items undergo testing.

“We look at the recipe itself and work with the client to see whether or not it needs to be sent off to a food scientist to review the production,” explains Hill. “Ninety-nine percent of the time we send them to a food scientist to get another set of eyes.”

Once the food is approved for production, Virginia Food Works continues working with the producer all through production.

“We help them find the correct container that works with our equipment, and works with their product and their ultimate shelf appearance,” says Hill. “We work with them on labels, and most importantly we work with them on regulations and meeting our local Department of Agriculture requirements, FDA requirements, [and] filing the business licenses.”

“We just try to simplify all of the acronyms and the vocabulary words that may not be common in everyday life, but they’re common in the food world for food production.”

Keeping it Local

The recent focus on the locavore movement was hard to bring to Virginia until very recently, despite its rich farmlands. Most of Virginia’s produce was being sent out of state for processing, a trend Hill hopes to help reverse.

“My big reason for getting started in this was to help the general local economy,” she explains. “We can keep farmers in business by giving them alternate sources of revenue by helping them with year-round sales. That farmer may now have a salsa or marinara sauce to sell in the off-season. Helping the farm’s bottom line, whether that’s physical sales of the jars or the added marketing by seeing the logo in the stores, is also keeping more acres of farmland here. Virginia did not have a place where farms could make these value-added products for sale, so I think we’re fulfilling a great niche.”

That niche is about to expand, thanks to a grant from the USDA making the cannery’s services even more convenient.

“We received a grant from the USDA to develop ten new recipes using Virginia-grown produce,” Hill explains. “These types of recipes will be available to any farmer or food entrepreneur who wants to use them. Examples include a salsa, a fruit-flavored applesauce, and a mushroom vinaigrette, which is stellar. We have fruit syrups and pepper jellies, and these have all been vetted by a food scientist. They’ve been crafted and tested on our equipment, and we have samples available.”

Virginia Food Works offers a co-packing service that allows farmers and businesses to simply drop off their produce for processing.

“[A farmer] can actually call us in the middle of tomato season and say, ‘I have a couple thousand pounds of tomatoes, can you make me a salsa tomorrow?’ And, if our schedule allows, we can do that,” Hill says. “We’ve done the upfront legwork of developing the recipe. Plus, we have this very basic label that we’ve developed, so all a farmer has to do is insert their logo on the front of the label, give us their tomatoes, and we can make them the product that they are looking for with a very quick turnaround.”

This new service will offer opportunities for local farmers looking to offer a value-added product from their less-desirable produce.

“Oftentimes if you have a tomato or an apple or a peach, up to 40 percent of that crop is ugly,” Hill explains. “It may be perfectly edible, but if you see it on a grocery store shelf, it’s going to be misshapen or have a bug spot or whatnot, and it’s going to be less desirable. So taking these foods that have already been grown and harvested, and making a value-added food, you not only get the extra advertising by having someone see your logo on the jar in the pantry or in their kitchen in the off-season, the reminder of your business, you can also take food that you weren’t going to get a high price for anyway and turn it into great advertising for the farm. It’s a way of making lemonade out of lemons.”

While canneries have all but faded out across the country, the concept of shared kitchen spaces is growing in popularity.

“I have to say, this is a wonderful project, but it really counts on a county like Prince Edward being so supportive of the cannery,” Hill says.

“We have been asked by so many different states and different counties in Virginia for information on how to replicate what we’ve done. If anyone is interested in creating a commercial kitchen, they really have to have the right partners and the right support, but it can be a very successful project, with lots of hard work and dedication.”

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.