Darlington plant is family-run operation HARFORD COUNTY

CANNING TOMATOES, THE MARYLAND WAY

August 27, 1993|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,Staff Writer

The next time you pick up a can of Point Pleasant, Garden Gem or Econobuy tomatoes at the supermarket, you'll be buying into a piece of Harford County history that dates back to the late 1800s.

Those labels, found in Klein's, Mars and Acme grocery stores, are canned by BGS Jourdan & Sons of Darlington. The plant, which traces its history to the last century, is the only surviving commercial cannery on Maryland's Western Shore.

At one time there were about 50 canneries operating in Harford County and dozens more in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties. In the 1800s and early decades of this century, numerous canneries operated along Baltimore harbor from Canton to Locust Point.

But most small rural canneries were put out of business by the huge operations that grew in states more rural than Maryland, and by the financial strain of improving housing for migrant pickers.

A spokesman for Crown, Cork & Seal, the Baltimore company that sells cans to every food cannery in Maryland, said the Jourdan cannery is the only one still operating west of Chesapeake Bay. There are about 15 food canners on the Eastern Shore. The last cannery to close in Harford was the F. O. Mitchell operation in Perryman, which canned corn until the mid-1980s.

At the Jourdan plant, August still is the height of the canning season, as it has been for nearly a century. Amid the cranking, clanking noises of the machinery that moves tomatoes from truck to warehouse in less than an hour, Roy Reeves speaks proudly of the operation.

It began under the ownership of his wife's great-grandfather, C. Reed Jourdan. Mr. Jourdan stressed product quality, the kind usually associated with family businesses.

"This cannery has an obligation to uphold a reputation established by all those who have gone before us," said Mr. Reeves, 54, who runs the business with his son Scott and Bob Kelly, his wife's cousin.

The cannery employs 30 people.

Every year, from early August through mid-September, the machinery rumbles nine hours a day, Tuesday through Friday.

The tomatoes, which are shipped to the cannery loose, are emptied about 50 at a time into a 20-gallon water tank for an initial cleaning. Then, moving by conveyor, they pass along an inspection table.

Next, the tomatoes are dipped in a tank containing caustic soda, which loosens the skins to make peeling easier. Then they pass through two peelers before they reach 12 workers who toss discolored ones into a crusher that reduces them to juice.

The selected tomatoes move along to a hopper where they drop, three to five at a time into 16-ounce cans. At this point, juice from the crushed tomatoes is added to each can.

Before the tops are sealed onto the cans, a worker will either add or remove a tomato in each can. "We do this because the tomatoes vary in size and we want each can to weigh a pound," said Mr. Reeves.

After the tops are sealed and cleaned, the conveyor moves the cans to two large water tanks. The cans are heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit for 22 1/2 minutes in the first tank to cook the tomatoes. Then the cans are cooled at 120 degrees for 17 1/2 minutes in a second tank.

Finally, the cans are packed into cases of 24 and moved to the warehouse.

At the end of the season, the cannery will have packed and stored nearly 40,000 cases and used nearly 1 million cans.

Because the cannery supplies house brands for three companies, labels are not affixed until orders from the grocery chains are received. Most of the cannery's limited storage space is reserved for the finished product.

Until 1986, Jourdan's tomatoes were grown on the 600-acre family farm in Darlington.

Today, Mr. Reeves said, canning tomatoes are no longer grown in Harford County. The three trucks that each haul about 20,000 pounds of tomatoes to the plant on canning days come from six farms in Lancaster County, Pa.

"When we grew our own tomatoes, we used migrant workers, mostly from Florida, to pick and work in the cannery," Mr. Reeves said. "But housing regulations for the workers became too costly . . . Upgrading the facilities, especially the plumbing, was too expensive."

So, Mr. Reeves decided to stop growing tomatoes locally and to seek new growers.

"We are extremely pleased with the relationship we now have with the farmers in Pennsylvania who grow the entire crop," he said.

Just how long the cannery continues to operate depends on the demand by local customers, said Mr. Reeves, who also raises beef cattle and grows feed corn, soybeans, wheat, barley and hay. He said income from the cannery varies as high as 50 percent to as low as 10 percent of the family's annual income.

"If 40,000 cases seems like a great deal, consider that the large tomato canneries in California can equal that in a single day," said Mr. Reeves, who left a job with Conowingo Electric Co. in 1968 to take over the family business.

Libby Reeves, Mr. Reeves' wife of 30 years, is the company's office manager. Each year people will show up during the canning season and tell her this was the first place they ever worked, she said.

"Most say they came just to see if we were still operating," she said. "It's a nice feeling to be remembered."

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