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Before industrial food packaging became common, canning food at home was a way of life. All these decades later in one small town in Virginia, an almost-forgotten do-it-yourself tradition survives - a community cannery. There, a new generation of local farmers and food producers gives the cannery a fresh sense of purpose. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Seven or eight years ago, Allie Hill got really serious about eating local food grown near her home in Crozet, Va.
ALLIE HILL: I was able to go to the farmers market and find my produce, you know, fruits and veggies. And I was able to find meats and even some dairy.
CHARLES: But she could not find local versions of the foods that fill her pantry - marinara sauce, applesauce - basically all the food that's preserved in sealed jars and cans. Canning was life-changing when it was invented. With heat to kill bacteria and a vacuum sealed lid to prevent contamination, suddenly you could keep food edible for years. Today cans are everywhere, but the act of canning has vanished inside the walls of huge factories.
Allie Hill could not find many local farmers doing it in central Virginia. And then she discovered the Prince Edward County Cannery in the town of Farmville, a place where anybody can walk in with bags of produce from their garden and walk out with preserved food. Wade Bartlett, the county administrator here, says places like this once were common.
WADE BARTLETT: It used to be every county in the Commonwealth would have a cannery.
CHARLES: Across the country, there were hundreds of them set up during the New Deal and the second world war, bringing almost industrial-scale food preservation to small towns. Most of them have disappeared, shut down for lack of money.
BARTLETT: But the board of supervisors for Prince Edward always thought it was an important part of the fabric of this county.
CHARLES: From the outside, the cannery doesn't look like much - just a long, single-story brick structure. But Patty Gulick, who manages the place, says what happens inside is magic.
PATTY GULICK: If everybody could see what goes on in this cannery, this world would be a much happier place because people get along. It doesn't matter if you're old, if you're young, your race, your wealth - it doesn't matter. Everybody is the same in the cannery.
CHARLES: Half a dozen people are here today - men and women, black and white - dropping sweet potatoes and tomato soup into huge cooking kettles, then spooning them into steel cans that go into giant pressure cookers. Rhonda Mayberry's canning what she calls creasy greens, similar to watercress. You won't find these greens in a supermarket, but they have a special place in her heart because they helped her get through nursing school.
RHONDA MAYBERRY: My husband and I lived in a little mobile home, and I was broke as a convict. And so I took his good hunting knife and found a patch a creasies and sent them off to sell. And that was my gas money to get back and forth to my nursing courses.
CHARLES: For all the memories here, though, not many people use this cannery. And the county's thought about closing it. And then Allie Hill showed up, the local food advocate. She set up a non-profit group, Virginia Foodworks, that now operates the cannery on days when the home gardeners are not using it. And it's bringing in a whole different group of cannery users - the farmer's market crowd - young farmers and small food companies that sell to people who pay extra for food grown nearby.
HILL: It almost seems to me that we are part of the saving of this facility. You know, we are allowing this facility to be used in new ways.
CHARLES: Companies are making applesauce here and ketchup and barbecue sauce packaged in glass jars with artsy labels. It's an old tradition reinvented. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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