If you told anyone unfamiliar with MCC that you serve as a "canner," you would probably receive very puzzling looks. And if you happened to mention that what you actually do is "can meat," they might start to laugh. However, meat canning is just one of the many things that make MCC’s relief work unique.
Canners travel with the mobile meat canner to 34 different locations across the U.S. and Canada, annually canning 450,000+ lbs. of chicken, 450,000+ lbs. of turkey, 40,000+ lbs. of pork and 20,000+ lbs. of beef. Shipped across the world to places like Ukraine, Ethiopia, Uganda and Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), canned meat provides important nutrients where meat is hard to purchase. Canners work long hours, responsible for all aspects of canning including operating steam and pressure cookers, coordinating volunteers, maintaining and communicating USDA regulations and the maintenance of all machinery in the process. It’s not an easy job.
This year’s team again includes two men from Paraguay and two from the U.S. Before joining the canning crew in August, Lucas Hiebert, 19, was an electrician who also worked on a farm. Matthew Blosser, 29, and in his second year, worked at The Depot MCC Thrift Shops in Goshen, Ind. Claudio Regier, 23, also in his second year, worked as a veterinary assistant and Carsten Wiebe, 29, who joined in July, worked as a farmer raising beef cattle and crops.
After spending the summer getting to know these four men, a corny title seemed to fit this story. After all, I laughed harder during this interview than I have in a long time. Get to know the entertaining and hard-working men that make up the 2016-2017 canning crew.
What’s it like being a canner? What’s a typical day of canning look like in peak season (October-April)?
Claudio (CR): "A normal day would be getting up early in the morning. An hour before you start actually canning you would get up, start everything and make sure it is sanitized and ready to go. The volunteers come in and cut up or grind the meat. As soon as they have enough meat to start, we’ll get people on the canner filling, sealing and cooking cans. Two of us work in the morning and two in the afternoon. We switch in the middle of the day, sometimes doing six rounds a day."
Matthew (MB): "The first shift sometimes starts at 5:00 a.m. or 7:00 a.m. and the last shift sometimes ends at 2:00 a.m. or earlier like 10:00 p.m."
What do you do from May-September?
Carsten (CW): "First we drink a lot of mate… Here (in the Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pa.) we help bale clothing, paper or cardboard. We inspect cans. We repair the canner and replace things that need replaced."
Lucas (LH): "No day’s the same… I like to be able to work with my hands. It’s very relaxed… as of right now." [Laughing.]
Photo by Jonathan Charles
You mentioned "mate." I know that it’s a common Paraguayan drink typical amongst the canners, but what exactly is it?
MB: "'What is that stuff, silage… with smoke coming out of it?' 'What’s that cup made out of?'" [Laughing, as he imitates the questions they constantly receive on the canner.]
CR: "It keeps you busy. You sit there (in a circle), pour water and give it, pass it back, pour water and drink it, while you wait for an hour for the boiler to fire up."
CW: "It’s a social thing."
MB: "Some people take a sip and say, 'Oh, this is good' and then they don’t want any more." [Laughing.]
LH: "The first time I tried mate was the last time I tried mate."
A traditional South American drink, mate (hot) or tereré (cold) is a social activity enjoyed in large groups. Ground yerba leaves taste similar to a green tea and can include additional flavors like citrus or mint. The cup (guampa) is often made from cow horn or wood and the straw (bombilla) is metal. Find out more.
So why did you decide to serve as a canner operator?
CW: "Because of Claudio…" [Laughing.]
MB: "I helped with the canner in January 2015 and after talking to the canner guys I thought it was something I would enjoy doing."
LH: "I had two guys in my community that served as canners. I worked for a year; I was ready to do something else. I also didn’t know what I wanted to go to college for yet… This sounded like something that would be fun."
What have you learned about life in America since moving here?
CR: "When you look at the news about America in the last 2 years… [Laughing.] Politics and war. Once I came to America, I saw the Amish people in Lancaster County that drive horse and buggy and work on the fields with a horse. I never thought it would be like that in the U.S. I also figured out they speak almost the same language as my mother tongue (German)."
What’s the biggest challenge about being a canner?
MB: "Staying up until midnight on Saturday to can on the last shift only to get up on Monday at 4:00 am for the first shift…"
CW: "To fix things if something breaks or gets broken. I know some things about mechanics but not electrical as much. I don’t have as much responsibility as they have (Matthew and Claudio) my first year. But I’m thinking already about next year..."
LH: "There’s so much stuff to remember. There’s so much stuff to do. So much paperwork… It’s overwhelming. I’m 19, I’ve never told a group of people what to do… It’s intimidating."
What do you enjoy most about being a canner? Or what are you most excited about experiencing as a canner?
CR: "To actually can meat, not just talk about it. Right, Carsten?" [Laughing, as Carsten hasn’t experienced a canning season yet.]
LH: "Meeting people. Seeing new places. That’s one of the biggest reasons I wanted to come. I’ve never been east of Missouri or Iowa; I’ve never seen this part of the country."
MB: "Seeing the people that I saw last year, that’s what I most look forward to. And to find out what’s going to happen after canning… I haven’t figured that out yet."
Photo by Jonathan Charles
It takes over 30,000 volunteers at over 30 stops across the U.S. and Canada to can nearly one million pounds of meat a year. Is there anything you want to say to the volunteers?
CR: "Last year we heard a lot, 'Oh, you do such a good job.' But I say, 'Without all of you we can’t do this.' Nothing will happen if it was just four guys going around. We need lots of help to do all of the work."
Please join us in praying for the meat canning crew traveling across the U.S. and Canada. Pray for the volunteers who help at the different sites and for the people who will receive the canned meat.
For more information on the 2016-2017 canning season, and to find out when they’re going to be in a town near you, visit canning.mcc.org.