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Hernando's Little Rock Cannery is a nicety we should cherish

Considering that 64 other Florida counties get along fine without similar facilities, we don't, strictly speaking, need the Little Rock Cannery.

And these days, anything we don't need is a valid candidate to be axed. The county faces an $11 million budget shortfall this year and its Budget and Finance Committee is talking about big, scary cuts, like closing county offices one day a week.

And the cannery? Well, it's not much more than an extremely well-equipped kitchen, with pressure cookers, industrial-sized food processors and a steamer for sterilizing jars.

It's barely noticeable, squeezed along with a library into a small, isolated building on County Road 491 north of Brooksville. Outside of the 100 or so families that use it every year, few people would probably even notice if it closed.

But I think the committee definitely made the right decision on Tuesday when it recommended that the county cannery (one of three in the state) remain open.

Its budget is tiny, for one thing — $49,000 per year.

It may be the friendliest operation run by the county. (Imagine, for example, a code enforcement officer saying, as cannery supervisor Flossie Raines did on Thursday: "We all love each other here.")

It is definitely the best-smelling — like Thanksgiving year-round.

And it has one of the richest legacies, which is why I'm writing about it now: The cannery represents what this county and country do for people during hard times.

It was built as a school by farmers in that part of the county — the Annuteliga Hammock — who were badly in need of the cash and self-respect offered by the Depression-era federal Work Projects Administration.

And in 1975, during another severe economic downturn, agricultural extension agent Al Dawson secured a small federal grant to refit the small lime rock building as a cannery.

"We had some young couples, and some older ones, too, that didn't have enough money to pay doctors and such," Dawson, who has since died, said in a 1997 interview.

So it was intended to help people get by, and do it in a way that promoted health and self-reliance.

During our current crisis, it is still doing that. Raines said the number of families that have paid the cannery's $10 user fee is on pace to break the record of 115 set during the Y2K panic of 1999.

Representatives of eight of them were working when I visited on Thursday. "And this is a slow day,'' Raines said.

Cindy Boyer, who cans almost all of her family's food, stirred pots of boiling onions for relish and taught 12-year-old Michael Harrell how to use the hand-cranked apple peeler.

She has a lot of practice at this, teaching kids how food is grown and prepared. Boyer, 52, has eight children, ranging in age from early teens to late 20s, and she brings some of them here weekly to can the chickens they raise and the vegetables they buy from local farms.

She can't imagine any other way her family could eat so well and cheaply. To them, it pretty much is essential. "We raised eight kids in a three-bedroom house, with one income," she said.

I was inspired enough to lay down my $10 and order two boxes of tomatoes to make sauce with next week.

Yes, sure, we could get along without the cannery, but I wouldn't want to.

Hernando's Little Rock Cannery is a nicety we should cherish 06/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 4, 2009 7:54pm]
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