Reflections on the past canning season (and notes for next year’s marathon)

The last of the canning left last week.  Which is to say, the last of my canning that I’d done for another person:  The client, a farmer, picked it up from a bin on my patio while I was at school.  When I came home and checked that the bin was empty, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  Good riddance, for now.

My original idea behind offering to can for other people in exchange for a share of the result was that I’d do a lot of one-off jobs for many different clients.  This appealed to me, because I’d be able to pick and choose when to take on jobs and when to turn them down.  What I ended up with instead were two clients who were connected to farming operations, and had more work for me than I could ever do.  There were some obvious benefits to this:  I could focus on the actual canning instead of promoting my service; the farmers had just about anything I wanted to can, or other things I wanted to buy very cheaply (which didn’t always work out:  the $3 eggs were great, the $10 corn, not so much); and I only had to deal with the tastes, schedules, and odd personalities of two clients.

It was that last bit that turned out to be the kicker:  The client that I finally finished with last week was quite the character, and I honestly don’t think I liked her enough to go through another canning season with this arrangement.  It’s not that she was horrible in any particular way, but she had an intense personality, and often did not seem to understand my circumstances.

For one thing, there was the rendezvous:  She split her time between this town and the farm up island, driving back and forth making deliveries, and would rarely give me more than a day’s notice of her arrival and request to meet up.  Not having a car of my own, and only wanting to ride a certain distance with my bike trailer (and 50+ pounds of canning or produce), it was often tricky for us to agree on a time and location.  Since she was driving around anyway, I think it would have made sense for her to consider the picking up and dropping off the canning and produce as part of the canning service she was getting, but instead the client tried to get me to meet her all over the city.  When I could, I did.  The rest of the time, she was annoyed at me.

Another thing was the question of yields:  The client brought this up to my neighbour first, which is rather rude, since Sum was already doing us a favour by handing off the canning while I was out of town.  The client suggested to Sum that the amount of pickles was less than she’d expected, considering the amount of produce she’d given me.  Sum passed this on to me when I returned, and I spoke to the client about it.  Apparently, she felt that 50 pounds of over-ripe field cucumber should make at least 30 jars of pickles, which, as per our 50/50 agreement, would give her 15 jars.

This yield might have happened, I suppose, if the cucumbers were in better shape.  As it was, I had to peel off the wrinkled skin, discard the huge amounts of watery innards, and even then I still think these pickles ended up bitter from using such low-quality fruit.  The client argued that she never discarded any part of the fruit when she used to make pickles, to which I responded with a pleasant “Oh, that’s interesting,” while in my head all I could think was, Hey, maybe you should return to doing your own canning again.

Overall, there was a lot of such minor conflicts that were partially useful, since they served as funny anecdotes for dinner parties, and partially tedious, because really?  I have a lot of school work to do, and a puppy to train, and a partner with whom I want to spend time, and a social life of some sort, and really, the canning could just be a nice way of bringing extra food into the house WITHOUT ANY DRAMA, thanks.

I’m not entirely innocent here, of course:  I should have set clearer boundaries by stating exactly how much notice I’d need, what distance I was willing to travel, and an honest assessment of the quality of the produce as soon as I could examine it.  Also, I should have kept track of how much I spent on everything canning-related that wasn’t given to me by either client:   Sugar, vinegar, salt, pectin, onions, peppers, spices, lids, jars.   I also didn’t, and don’t, keep a canning inventory.  It’s ridiculous.  As we’ve been eating tons of it throughout the holidays, all I can tell you is that there are still shelves and shelves and shelves of everything, but there used to be even more.

To summarize, I was much more seat-of-the-pants than I’d even intended to be.  I suppose this was to be expected, considering that in the same time period as I did all that canning, I’d just returned from Australia, started full-time school in an unfamiliar field, moved, and got a dog:  Life was chaotic, and the canning was too.

Now it’s over*, and I’m glad to say that I don’t regret anything, but that when I do it again, I’ll do it all differently.  Overall, working with farmers was really great, especially because I would otherwise have never been able to afford so much organic produce.  However, I wasn’t always proud of my product, and while these farmers were pretty much pleased with everything, I would have rather made food that was excellent as opposed to simply preserved.

With that in mind, my parents sent me a copy of The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves: 200 Classic and Contemporary Recipes Showcasing the Fabulous Flavors of Fresh Fruits by Linda Ziedrich and it’s blown my socks off. I finished reading it the other night, and turned to Oats:  “I feel like I just finished a marathon,” I told her, “But am only now getting an idea of how to run.”

Here are my notes for next year’s marathon:

  • Inventory EVERYTHING:  Jars in, jars out, amounts of raw produce, product yields, etc.
  • Track all financial expenses
  • Track all time expenses (this would have been VERY interesting this past season, since I was often up water-bathing an evening’s worth of jam late into the night)
  • Bloody hell, USE TRUSTED RECIPES, preferably ones that I myself have tried before (Difficult, since I had produce that was beyond my established repertoire, but will get easier over time )
  • Label every single batch of everything, and note all variations (Eg.  the first green salsa had cumin in it, but later batches didn’t)
  • Schedule canning into sensible time blocks and stick to them
  • Make sure any client knows what it is I do and don’t do, and don’t make exceptions unless fully compensated
  • Focus on quality, with smaller batches and better produce (Which may include telling a client that I can’t work with what they give me… Ick.)

Oats herself has contributed to making next year’s marathon a success, with the gift of a portable burner (kinda like this one) that runs on propane.  Not only can I use it here at home on our sheltered patio, but it would be easy to bring to canning workshops all over the place!  Also, I think the electric stove was a casualty of this past canning season: One of the little burners already didn’t work, and then the socket of the big one exploded.  Since this is the one which saw the most use when water-bathing, I think I may have been to blame.  Luckily the landlady already said it was old and needed to be replaced, otherwise I’d feel bad about it.

But next year:  No more hot and steamy apartment!  No more crowded little kitchen corner where the stove sits!  Nice outdoor quasi-kitchen arrangement!  Applesauce-ing all over town!  A new chance for a personal best, with better organization and structure and logic and time-management!  Hurrah!

Home canning IS fun, it really is! This is my favourite art from the side of an old box of canning jar: I adore the retro font, and am contemplating that jar drawing as a tattoo.

*Except of course for the pounds and pounds of grapes and blackberries in the freezer… Egads.

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2 responses to “Reflections on the past canning season (and notes for next year’s marathon)

  1. Thanks for chronicling and critiquing your project. It’s extremely useful for anyone else who might be contemplating a local trade/barter arrangement. Where to give and take? How to honour your own time and skills and still be community-minded and cooperative? How do you make it work for both parties?

    Maybe you should print a little quarter-page flyer which outlines your capabilities and expectations. “In return for FRESH produce, I can make …”

    Good luck for next year’s canning season. Just to make things more complicated … have you ever used a food dehydrator? Some years ago I worked at a place where I had infinite access to second-rate organic produce. I bought a dehydrator for $15 at a second-hand store, and was able to make apple chips, banana spears, dried tomatoes, dried herbs … less labour-intensive than canning and less electricity I think, and a totally different taste & product. What do you think? Another aspect to your barter system?

    • feralgeographer

      Yes, next year there will be much enforcement of the desire for fresh produce that’s actually fresh!

      I used to dehydrate, in a wonderful homemade drying cupboard that I got at a yard sale: Essentially a plywood box with screen trays inside, a heater element on the floor, and a fan on the roof. It was great because it was massive, about the size of a fridge! But that, of course, was also why it was really ridiculous, and I didn’t have room for it when I next moved.

      I’d definitely like to do it again, and have been keeping a look out for reasonably priced units at the thrift stores. I don’t know if people would barter their produce for dried foods, but who knows? I can access a lot of fruit just through my friends, and I know we’d all love it.

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