Windham resident Lisa Webster cans tomatoes earlier this month. She and her husband have put up 162 pints of tomato sauce and tomato juice this year. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Anne Tessier Talbot grew twice as many tomatoes and hot peppers as usual this year and needed more canning lids.

She checked her local Hannaford, but the store was out of them. No luck at Reny’s, either. Target? Out.

Then she dug down deep into her stash of canning supplies at home – Talbot, co-owner of Tess’ Market in Brunswick, has been canning produce from her garden for more than 40 years – and found some lids that had been forgotten long ago. Score!

“I just did a happy dance,” Talbot said. “I had three packages of lids, two different sizes.”

Mainers who used their spare time during the spring quarantine to start a garden or expand an existing one are now preserving their harvests by canning, freezing, fermenting and dehydrating the late summer bounty. But there are so many of these eager gardeners this year that the equipment they need to can all those tomatoes, beans and relishes is in short supply – and not just in Maine, but all over the country. It’s toilet paper and baking supplies all over again.

Tim Currier, manager of Maine Hardware in Portland, has worked at the store for about 25 years, and says 2020 has “been the craziest year when it comes to Ball jars I’ve ever experienced.”

“All these people are bored,” he said. “I get it. But the manufacturer just cannot keep up.”

Webster preps vegetables for canning. She’s an experienced canner, but many Mainers tried it for the first time this year, an outgrowth of the pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

If you need half-pint or half-gallon jars, Currier has a few he can sell you (but you’d better be quick). All the more popular sizes are sold out; quart jars may not be in until early October.

“People are just grabbing whatever I have,” Currier said.

Likewise, customers enter the Paris Farmers Union in Portland every day in search of canning supplies, but the only jars left are “really large sizes,” said Ashley Gifford, a cashier at the store.

“The lids with the bands we can’t get,” she said. “We’ve been out for a month with the regular ones, and then the wide-mouth ones, I just sold my last three a week ago.”

The shortage is so widespread that Newell Brands, the company that owns Ball, put out a statement about the problem, noting there’s been “unprecedented demand” for the company’s products partly because “during the pandemic, many consumers discovered canning for the first time.

“Ball has increased glass production, found additional lid manufacturers and expanded our (shipping) locations to replenish stock as quickly as possible,” the company said.

Webster’s stash of mason jars. She’s luckier than most, as a shortage of canning supplies is affecting Maine, and the country. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Before the pandemic, Burdie Fertig-Burd and her husband, Jonah, had planned to make their Durham garden smaller this year because it was too much to manage with their work schedules.

“So much food got wasted last year, which really made me sad,” she said.

But then COVID-19 happened, bringing with it uncertainty about the food supply, and they went in the opposite direction “so we can help more people have access to fresh food,” Fertig-Burd said. “There’s a couple of people that are sharing our space with us.”

She said their gardens are “doing better than ever” this year, partly because they’ve had more time to pay attention.

“We were home so much more, so we could squeeze in a half hour here and there,” she said. “It just makes so much difference the amount of attention you pay to the plants.”

The couple are making pickles and fermenting vegetables, freezing green beans and tomatoes, and dehydrating cauliflower and zucchini.

Fertig Burd said vinegar, used for pickling, has been a challenge to find in stores, as have canning lids and jars.

“When I bought some canning jars, it reminded me of the whole toilet paper incident where you don’t want to (clear) the shelves for yourself and not leave some for others,” she said. “So we just get a little bit at a time here and there.”

Webster’s canned tomatoes sit on a canning rack in a canner. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension Service has been holding food preservation webinars all summer long (they continue through Oct. 27), and they have been drawing an unprecedented 100 people every week, about half of them canning virgins.

“We expected there to be more canning demand this year based on the fact that there was more vegetable gardening happening in the spring,” said Kathleen Savoie, an extension educator who specializes in food preservation and food safety. “It’s a natural progression to go from gardening to suddenly having too much produce to thinking ‘I don’t want to waste it, let’s preserve it.’”

She added: “People are pickling anything they get their hands on.”

The dome lids that seal the top of canning jars are in particularly short supply, Savoie said, probably because “that is the only piece of the canning jar that needs to be replaced each year. So if you keep your jars crack free, nick free, you can reuse them. If you keep the screw bands rust free, you can reuse those.”

Savoie believes gardening and preserving are new hobbies for most people, not a form of hoarding for the apocalypse. The last time she saw “doomsday prep,” she says, was during Y2K, two decades ago.

Lori McCartney is a beginner who signed up for four of the food preservation webinars – Canning Relish, Preserving Apples, Pressure Canning Soups and Stocks, and Dehydrating Fruits and Vegetables.

McCartney and her partner, Andy Whitaker, started container gardening at their Portland apartment early in the pandemic, when grocery store prices were rising and they had plenty of time on their hands. They started with a few potted herbs, then added dwarf tomatoes, radishes, beets, baby bok choy, jalapenos and mini bell peppers. They used grow lights indoors, but once the weather allowed they moved their “crops” onto the porch.

“The dwarf tomatoes are absolutely insane,” McCartney said. “They produce like crazy, and they’re the perfect size. We’ve got them in one-gallon pots, and on one plant we’ve gotten well over 150 tomatoes off it.”

She’s making pickled radishes with fresh thyme and red wine vinegar, a treat she hopes to share with friends once she’s mastered her technique. “You want to make sure they’re healthy and sanitized and sealed, and all of that good stuff,” she said.

The webinars, and the resources that come with them, have made the task a lot less daunting, McCartney said, “taking some of those novice questions and fears out of the equation and making me feel a bit more confident.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Lisa Webster, whose farm garden in Windham grew this year from 400 square feet to 18,400 square feet. Webster has been cheering on fledgling gardeners all season because she believes people should grow as much of their food as they can. But, as she has learned recently, there may be limits.

“I think we can all eat better,” she said, “but how many pickles are we supposed to eat? I’ve got pickles enough for 10 years.”

Webster’s stash of recently canned pickles. “How many pickles are we supposed to eat?” she asked. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Webster, who owns North Star Sheep Farm with her husband, Phil, has put up 96 pints of pickles so far, and 162 pints of tomato sauce and tomato juice. Much of it is destined for their own family table, and they plan to sell the excess at their farm stand to make up for some of the losses their business has suffered during the pandemic. The garden is filled with corn, peppers, cucumbers, pumpkins, winter squash, watermelons, melons, gourds, summer squash, zucchini and tomatoes, all waiting to be canned or frozen.

Webster had trouble finding canning supplies, but eventually found what she needed at Paris Farmers Union and has been recommending the store to others – which may be one reason why their shelves now are almost bare. She wonders if this craze will last, “or are people just wanting the experience?”

Whatever the motives of this new crop of canners, Webster says she respects them.

“Even if they’re only putting up 12 or 14 pints and using them through the early winter, isn’t that a wonderful thing to teach your kids?” she said. “You don’t learn that on Zoom.”

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