Those of us who grew up on the Eastern Shore remember the canneries. For almost 100 years, canneries dominated the Eastern Shore. By the early 1930s canneries employed half of the male population on the Eastern Shore. Women had roles too, peeling tomatoes. and filling cans Canneries offered reliable work under harsh conditions, processing peas, green beans, lima beans, peaches, cherries, seafood, meat, and corn. But on the Eastern Shore, tomatoes were king. (A video history of the canning industry is available from the Preston Historical Society.)
Canneries also spawned trucking and shipping businesses.
The depression signaled the demise of most canneries, the few that remained gradually dwindled away. Local canneries couldn’t compete with California’s 365 day growing season or weather the declining prices for canned goods. Workers demanded better working conditions and higher wages. Environmental protection regulations required proper waste disposal instead of dumping waste directly into streams or ravines. Cannery owners were caught in a vicious cycle, unable to compete profitably, they could not afford to invest in technology to make their canneries profitable.
Now, there are hints of change…no, the canneries will not come back to the way that they were, but changes in consumer tastes may present an opportunity. Younger consumers are environmentally conscientious and prefer high quality, local products. Can the Eastern Shore take advantage of this trend?
I recently talked to Steward Enterprises, https://gosteward.com/ a crowd-farming funding source for food hubs, equipment, and small farmers. CEO Daniel Miller, who has an MBA from Wharton has a passion for the Eastern Shore. (Full Disclosure: Dan Miller was the co-founder of Fundrise, the largest crowdfunding real estate company. He is also my nephew.)
With its rich soil, dedicated farmers, highway system, and proximity to large metropolitan markets, Talbot County is an ideal location for a food hub. Those of us lucky enough to live here are rewarded with local produce stands and farmers’ markets. But our location offers even more opportunities. We have a local branding, Chesapeake Harvest, which has been nurtured by the Easton Economic Development Corporation under the leadership of Tracy Ward.
The goal of food hubs is to help local farmers by combining produce and providing logistics support: food prep, distribution, markets, food storage, etc. Combining yields gives farmers access to larger markets.
As Ryan Anderson of Steward, explained, food hubs not only provide logistics support, but also support the development of processed foods such as canned goods. For example, Spike Gjerde of Woodbury Kitchens (who has agreed to participate) encouraged local farmers on the western shore to grow fish peppers, an heirloom pepper. Using this rare pepper, he created a locally popular Snake Oil Hot Sauce.
Steward Enterprises applied for a grant to do a feasibility study for a food hub in Talbot County. This food hub would support organic and traditional produce farmers and provide a commercial kitchen for entrepreneurs to rent space to create and distribute new products.
This new type of food hub is in the most nascent of stages; it requires funding for a feasibility study and collaboration with farmers, local leaders, local growers, and state agencies.
Targeting younger buyers who favor regional over mass produced products, even a local canned product is possible. That’s right, maybe someday, we might start to have small canneries.
It is too soon to know if this will happen. Food Hubs are notoriously tricky to implement, there is often opposition to change, insufficient supply (local supermarkets and restaurants are clamoring for regional products), capital, and logistical challenges. The only way to proceed is through a laborious collaborative approach with traditional farmers, entrepreneurial farmers, local government bureaus, and local leadership.
But I can dream. After all, there are over 250 food hubs in the United States…wouldn’t it be cool if the Mid-Shore could join this movement?
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.