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Membership up 17 percent in effort to save Little Rock Cannery

Published:   |   Updated: December 5, 2013 at 12:45 PM

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BROOKSVILLE - It was Rachel Watler's first time canning and she was a bit nervous.

Watler's mother, herself fairly new to the craft, asked her to come to the Little Rock Cannery on Wednesday morning and the two tried their hand at making caramel apple jam.

Watler, 33, did much of the slicing and dicing of the apples and placed them in a large bowl of water before taking them to the cannery kitchen for processing.

"That's a little bit intimidating," said Watler, peeking inside the next room at the big ovens, pressure cookers and steam machines.

Watler and her mom, Kim Link, spent much of the time talking and visiting with others who were invited for a tour of the facility.

"It's a lost art," Watler said of canning. "I don't see a lot of young women doing this anymore."

But in the past six weeks, more have started doing it than ever before at the Little Rock Cannery. That's good news for the cannery, which has come close to having its doors shut these past four years due to budget cuts and other reasons.

County commissioners, in a last ditch attempt to get the cannery off the public dole and make it self-sufficient, asked a group of volunteers and cannery regulars in September to unite and form a business plan to save the Little Rock, located at the corner of Citrus Way and U.S. 98, north of Brooksville.

Commissioners approved that plan and also agreed to fund the cannery through the end of this calendar year. The board plans to meet in January to revisit the funding needs of the cannery, and could vote to pay its operational costs through the end of the fiscal year in September.

Frank Paonessa, president of the 2013 Leadership Hernando graduating class, said the plan is succeeding in the short term due to a promotional push.

The Little Rock Cannery is up to 113 members, a 17 percent increase from the 96 members about six weeks ago.

Paonessa credits that growth to a full-court information blitz and getting the cannery's name out in several different venues.

Volunteers have scheduled some fundraisers in the next few weeks designed to further increase awareness before they must go back before the county commission board to update their progress.

"They truly want to see the cannery succeed," Paonessa said of the commissioners. "They really do. (But) the county needs to know it's here."

Those interested can buy a year subscription for $50 or pay a day fee of $10. At the Little Rock, they can fruits, vegetables, seafood and meats. Staffers and volunteers assist people in preparation, preservation and heat processing.

Paonessa is working with volunteer Renee Oij, also a member of the Leadership Hernando Class of 2013, who said the cannery cannot sustain itself on member subscriptions and so must look for alternative funding sources.

She agreed with a task force's findings that the cannery must be run as a business. The group, she said, has already obtained the services of the school district's grant writer to seek money from that source.

"We feel like we've gotten a lot of information out there for people," said Oij.

The Little Rock Cannery is one of only three canneries in Florida and the only one that allows membership to residents throughout the state.

Its kitchen has six pressure-cooker pots capable of canning 96 quarts of food at one time.

While the apple chopping and grating was going on in one room, Russell Johnson was busy in the kitchen cooking previously prepared apples and the white and brown sugar that would eventually go into jars for the jelly.

"It's starting to smell good now," said Johnson, as he stirred the ingredients on the stove.

He turned things over to his wife, Laura Johnson, long-time cannery member, who took a ladle and tested the concoction for consistency.

Johnson said it is imperative the cannery stay open in these hard economic times. It is far cheaper to can, she said, than buy groceries in the store.

"It stretches the dollar," she said. "I've cut my grocery bill in half. You can make enough for a month or a year."

And it's not all about economics, said Jennifer Raines, one of the cannery's employees.

"When you buy from the store, you don't know what's in there," she said.

People are also stuck with a product with the existing ingredients, she said. A brand name spaghetti sauce, for example, comes as is and there's no deviation.

By making your own sauce at the cannery, people can add ingredients to taste and leave out preservatives.

"I've canned forever," Raines said, as she helps supervise the morning's apple jelly project. "My mom ran this place for 18 years. I kind of grew up in here."

So why can't people can at home and save the membership dues?

They could but it wouldn't be as much fun, said Harry Johnson, the county's recreation coordinator.

The cannery falls under the purview of the parks department.

People can bring their jars and cans and food to the cannery and use the facility's ovens and other machinery, which makes for faster processing, he said.

"You have more room and space to can here and the mess stays here," he said.

Plus, people can get together and play a game of cards or simply chat while cooking and that kind of ambience is hard to match at home, he said.

Commissioners came close to closing the Little Rock Cannery the past four years because of budget shortfalls. It survived the budget ax thanks to two $50,000 donations from an anonymous resident who later was revealed to be civic activist Janey Baldwin.

Baldwin died in June 2012.

The Auroveda Foundation, which had a lease with the county to operate the cannery, decided not to renew last September when the lease expired.

County Commissioner Diane Rowden, one of the facility's staunchest supporters, is assisting members of the cannery group as they come up with an operating plan. She said 17 percent membership growth in two months was more than she expected.

"Impressed would be too small of a word to express my appreciation for everything that they're doing," Rowden said. "It's just incredible."

Rowden added that the Little Rock Cannery is too important a part of Hernando County's history to let it close. In the 1940s, the facility was used as a schoolhouse and became a cannery in the mid-1970s.

"I've always believed in the cannery," she said. "It's part of our heritage. We've got to take care of it."

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