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UVU Column: Utah Valley faces canning shortage during new wave of binge buying

By Jay Wamsley uvu - | Oct 3, 2020
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Nathan Gerber has his portrait taken in his garden in Pleasant Grove on Saturday, October 3, 2020. (Erik Flores, UVU Marketing)

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Nathan Gerber, right, works his garden in Pleasant Grove on Saturday, October 3, 2020. (Erik Flores, UVU Marketing)

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Nathan Gerber works his garden in Pleasant Grove on Saturday, October 3, 2020. (Erik Flores, UVU Marketing)

The pandemic shutdown isolated many families to their home.

Now, in its sixth month in most areas of the United States, the pandemic has ushered in a wave of binge buying, which resulted in a shortage of an interesting mix of household items. First, toilet paper and paper towels disappeared, then cleaning and disinfecting products.

Then jigsaw puzzles — of all things — were in short supply. While most have caught up on their paper and cleaning products, many Utahns now find themselves short of a fall staple: canning supplies.

Vacant shelves where canning supplies used to be are just the next domino in a renewed interest in home production initiated by the pandemic, according to a local master gardener.

“The increased interest in home gardening production started to increase in March,” said Nathan Gerber, an in-depth master gardener who lives in Pleasant Grove and works at Utah Valley University. “That is usually the time that most home gardeners start shopping for seeds and most local nurseries and stores were reporting they couldn’t keep seeds in stock. They would sell out within a few days of receiving seed shipments. We knew then it was going to be a exciting gardening year.”

As a master gardener of 16 years, a designation earned through Utah State University Extension Services, Gerber also teaches gardening classes for the local community and noticed an increased interest in the gardening subjects being covered beginning in March.

There seemed to be “a renewed vigor around gardening and home production,” he said. “We assumed it was due to people wanting to be more self-reliant or maybe it was due to so many people being home from work at that time.”

It turns out the shortage of seeds was a national problem, according to The Washington Post.

In an article published in late August examining such shortages, The Post wrote that seed companies experienced shortages early in the pandemic and “the crops sown in the spring by newly isolated gardeners are now quite literally bearing fruit. Still, the volume has taken some by surprise. When orders started flying in in April, Lisa Reinhart, an employee of the Fillmore Container Company in Lancaster, Pa., which sells bulk jars and accessories for canning and candle-making, wondered if it was a fluke. After weeks of sustained sales, it became clear that it wasn’t.”

The Post article quotes Reinhart, saying that the first products to sell out were canning “flats,” the disc-shaped part of the two-part lid used by most canners. For water-bath canning, filled jars are sealed with the two-part lid and submerged in hot water.

While jars and the ring part of the lid can be reused, the flat has to be new each time. Fillmore sells sleeves of them, but she is sold out of the standard size and has only some in the wide-mouth style available. All the Ball flats are back-ordered.

“Our purchaser is trying to find some pockets from other manufacturers,” she said. “Unless we can find more, it won’t be until late fall that will be able to replace them.”

Gerber said master gardeners are regularly fielding questions from local community members about gardening issues.

“We started seeing an increase in those questions around the March time frame and it really picked up during May and June.”

“The increase we are seeing right now is that of home canning,” he said. “Canning supplies, especially jars and lids are sold out everywhere. All the local stores are sold out. Amazon and other online retailers are showing shipping dates into late October for many supplies. Canning jars and lids are the new toilet paper.”

Gerber, who is the director of web development at UVU and has been a gardener in his spare time for 40-plus years, said he believes many people have said, “I have some time so I thought I would try this,” and as they have success in gardening, it catches on and they want to do more, so the interest continues to grow.

“There have also been many individuals that are concerned about how availability of things can be affected so quickly by what is happening around us or the perception of what is happening around us,” Gerber said. “The shortages of basic supplies in the spring made people realize they need to be more prepared for such things. For many individuals, when the canned vegetables were out of stock for weeks, they had nothing to fall back on, so, I think that is driving some of the renewed interest in home production.”

He said he hasn’t seen an attitude of “preparing for doomsday” when it comes to gardening. “I think most folks are just wanting to feel like they have a little more control of their food supply in case of challenges.”

Gerber said he teaches a home production class in the fall and the most common areas of interest are the basics, such as working with beans, corn and tomatoes. People come to the class, thinking it will be all about how to can food in jars, but Gerber also covers how to properly freeze, dry, powder and juice many foods.

“The options are becoming much more interesting and fun,” he said. “I teach ways to preserve that do not require the usual canning equipment such as jars and lids. Being creative can really help in these times of shortage.”

Gerber, who thinks this uptick in interest will continue for several years, said there are a few suggestions he would give to make home production successful for anyone.

First, he said, plan to learn from someone that has done it for a while and knows the latest techniques. It will really help make it easier, fun and enjoyable.

Second, plan to invest a little money into the right equipment. In the beginning, he said, you can probably find someone close by that can lend you some equipment, but eventually you will want some equipment for your own.

Then, he said, find some local classes to explore new and fun ways, to store food, and always use instructions from the local extension office or the “Ball Blue Book” for canning food. This will keep your food safe for consumption.

“And finally, have fun,” Gerber said, with an obvious grin. “Make it a family activity. And enjoy the fruits of your own labors.”


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