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July 02, 2009

Extension responds to interest in home food preservation

canning workshop
Susan Condlin, right, Lee County Extension director, teaches participants how to can tomatoes at a recent workshop. (Marc Hall photo)

With a renewed interest in home gardening and purchasing local food across North Carolina comes renewed consumer interest in preserving food at home, through canning, freezing or drying North Carolina Cooperative Extension centers are responding to this interest by offering canning classes across the state.

Once a hallmark of extension programming through Tomato Clubs for girls, canning and other home food preservation techniques had largely fallen out of favor with consumers in recent years. But this year, Cooperative Extension centers are reporting enrollment in canning workshops is up, and many extension agents are adding classes to accommodate demand.

Cabarrus County has scheduled nine workshops, up from the usual four, and all filled quickly. Several television news groups taped the Cabarrus workshops to use as on-air instructional pieces. Five workshops will be offered in Lee County, including one focusing on canning green beans and two on canning tomatoes. In Buncombe County, workshops are scheduled throughout the summer produce season on canning strawberry jam, dill pickles and relish and tomatoes, along with several lectures on home canning.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, 14 participants crowded the kitchen of Lee County's Cooperative Extension center for a lesson on canning tomatoes. All participants went home with their own quart jars of fresh-packed tomatoes canned during the class.

Dr. Ben Chapman, food safety Extension specialist based in N.C. State University’s Department of 4-H Youth Development and Family and Consumer Sciences, reports that about 20 percent of inquiries he receives have been about home food preservation. Chapman came to N.C. State from Canada in January.

removing jars
Two participants in the Lee County workshop remove processed jars of tomatoes from a pressure canner. (Marc Hall photo)

Earlier this year, he led a home food preservation workshop for Extension agents some of whom had never taught canning before. He believes that nearly every agent who has participated is offering community food preservation workshops this summer.

Chapman attributes this renewed interest in home food preservation to three factors: The rise in home gardeners, who want to preserve what they grow – home vegetable seed purchases are reportedly up by 40 percent around the country; the local foods movement, which has encouraged consumers to purchase and eat more local produce; and the economy, which is bringing out new tendencies toward thrift in many consumers.

“The resurgence of local foods and home food preservation is good news for both the health of North Carolinians, and the economic health of the state,” Chapman said. “However, there are areas of potential concern related to food safety.”

For Web-based canning information, consumers can visit www.homefoodpreservation.ncsu.edu, a site developed by Cooperative Extension agents and specialists. The site includes information on how to evaluate a pressure canning gauge, how to can various products and how to prevent illnesses caused by improper canning practices.

jars of canned tomatoes
The finished product. (Photo courtesy of Susan Condlin)

In addition to offering canning workshops, many Extension centers will check the gauge on pressure canners to determine if they are calibrated properly. An accurate gauge will assure a safe product if correct canning procedures are followed. A pressure canner is required for safely canning low-acid foods, and Condlin says the gauge should be checked each year prior to the canning season.

To locate your county Extension center, visit the Web site: www.ces.ncsu.edu/index.php?page=countycenters or look in the government section of your phone book under “North Carolina Cooperative Extension.”

-N. Hampton

Posted by Natalie at July 2, 2009 11:00 AM