Put A Lid On It

Published 4:26 pm Tuesday, December 14, 2010

PRINCE EDWARD – County officials have big plans for the cannery and those within the region interested in producing and selling commercial products are welcome to put a lid on it.

Prince Edward, specifically, is interested in encouraging agribusiness and food entrepreneurship and now has a facility that is FDA registered as a food canning establishment and inspected by the Virginia Department of Agriculture as a commercial kitchen for acidified foods.

County officials held an open house recently at its cannery, located in the Worsham area. The spiffed up building-thanks to a $350,000 Tobacco Indemnification grant-has had a makeover of sorts in preparation of what is hoped will come.

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“It's just exciting because we're at the beginning of it all and where we go with it is only limited by…our imagination and workforce,” offers Hal Smith, the Cannery's new assistant, who will be focused primarily on growing the commercial side of the business.

Smith will work with farmers and food businesses, aiming to link suppliers with buyers.

Perhaps it is a lofty goal, but the County aims to get each household in the eight-county region to spend on average $10 per week of their food dollars on fresh local produce and farm-based products, according to Prince Edward County Administrator Wade Bartlett.

That is projected to mean a $25 million direct economic impact for the region in new dollars generated.

Dollars, in a green sense, that get recycled through the community.


The concept of community-based agriculture has already been pioneered in other communities in other states.

Locally, area residents have utilized the cannery for decades to can food for their own consumption (a option that is still available), but the commercial grade level facilities now available will allow much more.

The problem with perishable goods is a short shelf life. When a crop comes in, the bulk of it can come in all at one time. In an economy driven by supply and demand, too much perishable supply can be bad news for the producer. So what one doesn't use or sell immediately can go for naught.

While canning has long been an option for home consumption, the improved facility with commercial grade equipment and renovations now makes it so a backyard farmer with an acre full of peas, for example, is able to can and sell his product.

“Peas, being a low-acid vegetable, you would need to come up with a recipe that resulted in what we call an acidified food product,” County Planner Alecia Daves-Johnson explains, following up on The Herald's peas example. “So, like a bean salad that incorporated your peas would be an example 'cause that's a vinegar base. So you need to come up with some sort of recipe that incorporates vinegar or tomatoes.”

It may, perhaps, take a little trial and error, but it's a pretty simple formula: develop a recipe, visit the cannery and process the recipe-conduct a couple of trial runs.

They'll measure the pH factor, make sure temperatures reach appropriate levels and basically “ground truth” the recipe and the process, Ms. Davies explains.

“And once you're comfortable that your recipe…that your end product tastes the way you want it to taste and that you're hitting the acidified food pH goals, then you submit your recipe and your product to a food processing authority…” Ms. Daves-Johnson continues.

That can be a private consultant or Virginia Tech, she says.

Once the food processing authority signs off on the recipe, process and product, the would-be producer can return to the cannery and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will send an inspector who will watch the process.

If the inspector signs off that the process was followed exactly, then the producer is ready to make and sell the product. Of course, there is the small matter of developing a label, which must also be approved.

Other Options

It would be easier, however, instead of growing peas if someone opted for an acidified product such as tomatoes. Canned products have to reach a pH level of 4.6 or below. (A prescribed level of acidity assures bacteria are killed.)

Products, within those specific guidelines, can provide a veritable smorgasbord.

But for growers interested in processing those low acid foods, Prince Edward officials are looking into adding a flash freezing process available at the cannery. That could be used for such things as fish, shrimp, corn, string beans, homemade French fries and even broccoli casseroles.

Ms. Daves-Johnson says that they need to hear from those who feel such a system would expand their business opportunities.

There may be a lot of hoops to navigate to sell a commercial product-developing a product, testing recipes, and filling out the necessary paperwork-but those same hoops provide some assurance from the purchaser's perspective that the product has had to meet some production standard.

Still, for those willing to cook up a good agribusiness idea, help is available.

“It might be intimidating…to someone to try to fill that paperwork out or whatever, but…Hal is at the cannery and help you…testing your process, making your recipe, making sure you're hitting those thresholds and myself or Hal could help with the paperwork part of it,” Ms. Daves-Johnson said.

Market development could also play a part in agribusiness success. The County, through Smith, aims to develop a relationship between local growers and local and regional institutions that could effectively take a locally grown product to the consumer (from farm to school, for example).

County officials are planning to hold a meeting to facilitate a communication network between prospective growers and buyers. Ms. Daves-Johnson advises that those interested should contact her at the County Administrator's office (392-8837) and let them know they're interested.

Workshops are also in the works to assist in the process-one is penciled in for February for those aiming to start their own food business; another is scheduled for March for developing a logo and marketing a food business.

Again, those who wish to can for their own consumption such as has been done for years are welcome to come and use the facilities. And there is something new they might enjoy: cannery users have the option of using glass jars instead of cans.

For those who long wished for such an option, it could be a deal sealer.