Like many Oregonians, Nellie Oehler is missing county fairs right now. “I love fairs. It’s part of my life. I grew up at the fair,” said Oehler, who grew up preserving food from her family’s farm near Coos Bay, where the county fair was a major part of her life. Her family entered their dairy cows, homemade breads and preserved foods.
Today, Oehler is a food safety specialist for Oregon State University’s Extension Service in Lane County, though she lives in nearby Benton County. An expert in canning, drying, pickling and freezing food, she coordinates the service’s Master Food Preserver Program, which she created 40 years ago.
As a young woman, “I put myself through college with all my premiums from the county fair. I lived at county fairs,” Oehler said. “I’ve judged a lot of canning. Oh, my gosh, in the old days, my mom used to compete. We’d probably enter a hundred jars. Every year, every time you were canning something, you’d put your jar away for the fair. And I’ve taught 4-H food preservation for umpteen hundred years to kids.”
Oehler said that as a child, she believed everyone canned and froze their food.
“In the old days, canning was just part of everybody’s life because we didn’t have but one grocery store in town,” she said. “My mom went shopping once a month. My dad gave her 20 bucks, and we had to feed the whole family.”
“We canned everything. We froze things. We did everything. I’ve been doing it all my life, and I just thought everyone did that until I got out in the real world,” she said, laughing.
Oehler said that food preservation had once been a major part of many Americans’ lives, but believes our common knowledge about how to do it dropped off in the wake of The Great Depression and World War II.
“Everybody went back to work, and (said) ‘Oh, well, we don’t need to do that. We can go to the store and buy it.’ I think that’s kind of what happened, and people kind of got away from it. Now, people are getting back into it.”
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the real world, in one small way, is starting to resemble the one she imagined in her childhood: More folks are gardening than ever. USA Today called it “coronavirus gardening” in an April article.
And what you grow must be eaten fresh or somehow preserved. That’s where the Master Food Preserver Program can help. In its early years, the program mostly emphasized the means of preservation — canning, pickling, smoking, drying and freezing — but has expanded into food safety over the years.
“Food safety’s become a huge issue,” Oehler said. “Your area, it’s really important if people are going to do it because you’re at a higher elevation. If you’re going to can there, you need to make some adjustments because water doesn’t boil at the same temperature, as you well know, as it does down here in the Valley.”
As it turns out, this reporter did not know that, but that’s OK, because OSU Extension Service has plenty of info and resources to help get a would-be canner canning.
It’s critical to use reliable preservation information to avoid mistakes that could lead to food poisoning, Oehler said, and the OSU Extension Service is a great place to start (visit extension.oregonstate.edu/deschutes). The OSU Extension Service also has brochures and volunteers available to those looking for help. Other resources Oehler recommends include “The All New Ball Book of Canning and Preserving.”
The Extension Service also has an app to help with canning, and if you patronize Bi-Mart or Wilco, you might notice the Extension Service’s partnership with the stores in the form of posters and brochures conveying food safety and preservation info.
During a normal year, the Extension Service “would have classes and do lots of things for the public via farmers markets and produce stands and all that, but you know, we can’t be out either,” Oehler said. “It’s different this year. We can’t do classes like we used to do. … So we’re trying to partner with places that are selling food preservation information or supplies.”
Though she continues with her Extension Service work and her own preservation efforts, Oehler is missing summer fairs this year, including the Oregon State Fair, where she served as a 4-H dorm mom for 20 years.
“I miss the kids, I miss the fair, and the fun about the fair,” she said. “We’re trying to get people back into the fair because it’s a wonderful community thing — and maybe after this we’ll get more people to fairs, if we can ever have them again.”
“I know my 4-H kids are really sad because that’s what they look forward to — the camping, and the get-together,” Oehler said. “It’s sad that we’re not doing it this year, but we’d better be safe. But I’m hoping next year we can do it again, if everybody behaves themselves.”