2020 is the year of unforeseen shortages
With so many at home this summer, we've learned some new skills, however it seems that everyone is learning the same new skills. This creates shortages. There was a time when flour was impossible to get, then packaged yeast was impossible to find. Enterprising bakers learned to make sourdough and even traded the starter to others for essentials like paper towels and toilet paper. Then, everyone decided to grow a garden. Mail order seed companies that were used to handling thousands of requests a week were overwhelmed by the avalanche of orders. Gardens started producing and the happy new farmers decided to preserve their harvest. This led to the canning supply shortage. It also contributed to the freezer shortage because the factories making the freezers were closed. I have several friends who have unsuccessfully tried to purchase a freezer after contracting for half a beef or pork. They never thought that the freezer would be hard to find. However, the shortage that affected everyone wanting to preserve their fruits and vegetables was the Mason jar and lid shortage. The jars are still in very short supply and the lids are nonexistent.
Mason jar history
Mason jars were invented by John Landis Mason in 1858. They have undergone several changes over the decades, however, the reusable glass jar and the metal lids have been used by people to preserve their harvest have stood the test of time and even though other companies started manufacturing a similar product, the name, mason jar applies to any and all of these containers, regardless which company makes them. They are a safe and reliable way to preserve just about any food, as long as the proper sealing lids are used and the correct processing time is followed.
Canning jar and lid shortages
Here in my rural area, there are plenty of jars for the asking if someone wants to start canning. I have a shed full, handed down to me by my mom and other family members. I often see them at estate auctions and yard sales. They go for just a few dollars for a large box full. A little research and some well placed requests at church or on social media usually results in more than enough to get started. We have a long history of canning and freezing here in west Kentucky. Other parts of the country are not as lucky The jars are in short supply and the lids impossible to find. There are hoarders reselling both at extremely high prices and people are paying, so that they do not lose their harvest. Lids have been unavailable here in west Kentucky for a couple of months, however they are being advertised on line at four or five times what they should cost. The jars and rings are reusable, however the lids that seal the contents are one-time use. When the filled jars are processed, either under pressure or in a boiling water bath, air is pushed out and the food is heated to a high enough temperature that when the jars cool, the lids form an airtight seal. Once opened, the lid can't be reused to seal a jar.
Seal jams and jellies with paraffin wax
There are some alternatives to the lid and ring sealing, depending on what you are preserving. Growing up, we always used paraffin (wax) to seal jam and jelly jars. There is a food-grade wax product made just for this purpose. The hot jam or jelly was poured into a sterile jar and then, melted paraffin poured over the top of the food. You can then close the jar with a clean and sterile lid. This only works for jams and jellies, nothing else, and you need to make sure that the paraffin completely covers the food and makes a complete seal to the edges of the jar. Do not use on vegetables, pickles or salsas! When you want to use the jam, just open the jar and press on one edge of the paraffin and it will tip up and you can lift it out.
Freeze fruits and vegetables instead of canning
If you have freezer space, freezing fruits and vegetables is a good way to go. Blanch vegetables in a boiling water bath for a couple of minutes and let cool completely. Bag up the vegetables, pressing out as much air as possible and stack in the freezer. Fruit should be washed and cut into bite-sized pieces, packed in bags and frozen as well. Label your bags with the date and how much each one contains. I usually freeze in increments of one or two cups. One cup is enough to add to soup, two cups is enough for a family meal. Put enough apples or other fruit in a bag to make a pie or cobbler. This way, you have everything pre-measured and it makes cooking later much easier.
Dry your harvest of fruits and vegetables
Drying is another way to preserve your harvest if you do not have access to canning or freezing supplies. We've all seen dried fruits in the supermarket and they are quite easy and sun dried tomatoes are an expensive luxury that you can make at home. Slice clean fruit an equal thickness and place on trays. You can dry fruits in the oven set on low (170F to 200F) and depending on the moisture, it may take a few hours or overnight. Store in air-tight bags or jars. Vegetables can be dried as well. In fact, it was the main way that our forefathers and mothers preserved their harvests for the winter. They dried corn, cut off the cob, strung green beans on a thread and hung them in the attic and of course, you can just let your beans mature and dry right on the plant and shell them out for dried beans. Vegetables like corn, okra and squash do better if blanched first. Blanching is a process where you place the food in a boiling water bath for a couple of minutes to stop the enzyme action and kill micro-organisms. Drain and place in a single layer on trays and dry just like the fruit. A dehydrator might be a good investment, however I'm betting they are in short supply this year too.
Create a root cellar area in your basement
Before electricity was common in every household, people had root cellars. They stored potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, winter squash and other vegetables in these cool, dark, underground areas. The temperature remained constant, and these vegetables stayed firm and edible for months at a time. If you have a cool basement closet that you can re-purpose for a root cellar, you can keep root vegetables handy and fresh all winter. We stored potatoes in our barn covered in straw. It was one of my jobs each week, to go to the barn, uncover some potatoes and haul them back to the house for the next week's meals. With a little preparation and planning, most households can find an area that will serve as a small root cellar. Just remember that you need to store your apples in a different area than the other fruits and vegetables. Apples produce ethylene gas which accelerates ripening in other crops when they are stored together.
Your County Extension Service can help
You can also contact your local County Extension Service for help if you need it. Each county in the U.S. has an office staffed by someone from that state's agricultural college. They are also responsible for the Master Gardener program. Master Gardeners often staff helplines or manage a social media page where they answer questions and give advice. They not only advise people on how to properly grow and tend their gardens, they are there to help you learn to harvest and preserve it too. The Extension Office also has literature and pamphlets on safe food storage and can help a newbie understand the process of preserving food. They are a wonderful resource and are there to help.
Plan ahead for next year's harvest
The Great Mason Jar Shortage of 2020 doesn't have to be a disaster if you take advantage of alternate ways to preserve your harvest and reach out to people who know how to help. Buy next year's supplies early and if by some chance you catch something on sale, by all means get extras. I bought all of the lids I would need this year last fall. With a little planning and some good information, you can still feed your family well into the winter from your garden.