After a sweaty afternoon spent laboring over pots of boiling water and green beans, I can’t help but ask myself: is it worth it? Is it worth a couple of hours on my feet–fingertips turning to prunes as they’re plunged repeatedly into the rinsing water–to turn 6 1/2 pounds of fresh beans into 5 quarts of canned ones? I mean, granted, these are the best canned green beans I’ve ever tasted. Though it’s not through any fault of mine. They’re Potomac pole beans, an heirloom variety from right here in northeastern Virginia, and the canning brings out their naturally meaty flavors to perfection (umami, anyone?). In the depths of a bitter January, I wouldn’t want any roast chicken to be without its side of homegrown green beans. But aren’t I kidding myself in thinking that I’m actually saving my family money by the hours I spend putting up these beans by hand?
Well, let’s do the math.
Based on last year’s records, these 6 1/2 lbs. of fresh green beans will end up costing about $3.50 for compost and fertilizer. Bought from a farmer’s market, the same beans would likely run me about $2.25/lb., or $13.63 total. So the growing of the beans is most definitely cost-effective. I probably spent about 30 minutes on planting and weeding those beans and 30 minutes picking them. My wage for the garden side of things thus comes to a hair over $10 an hour. Not bad at all.
Now let’s move to the kitchen. Transforming those fresh beans to canned ones will require some equipment. If we ignore the capital cost of the pressure canner, we still have to have jars, lids, and bands. The jars and bands are reusable many, many times, so I’m going to put the cost for this one use of 5 quart jars and 5 bands at $.35. The lids are where the expense is. At best, they cost $.17 apiece, and are supposedly not reusable. To be on the safe side, I always buy new. Which means $.85 for 5 lids. I know there’s some cost for the electricity required to process everything, but I’m not sure how much that is, so for my purposes here, I’m going to assume it’s negligible. Thus, pre-labor costs for the canning process come to $1.20. Not too bad. It doesn’t look like we’re pouring money down the sink or anything.
But now let’s look at what the increased value of those canned beans is. Fresh those beans are worth $2.25/lb., or $2.73 for the beans in each quart jar. But how much are they worth canned? Well, the cheapest green beans at the supermarket are about $2/quart. But I think we can all agree that homegrown and canned beans taste a heck of a lot better than bottom-shelf supermarket beans. So let’s compare homegrown, home-canned beans to the better supermarket brands. Around here, they’re usually $1.75/pint, or $3.50/quart. Now we seem to be getting somewhere. If we multiply that by 5 quarts, we get $17.50. The worth of our 6 1/2 lbs. of fresh green beans was $13.63, and the cost of canning itself was $1.20, so by canning, we have added value. But only $2.67’s worth. My wages for two hours of work look mighty pitiful.
I think there’s something else we should consider, however. Those fresh green beans are only worth $2.25/lb. while they’re fresh. Which means that, if I want to make that respectable field wage of $10/hour, I’ve got to get all those green beans used while they’re fresh. If I don’t, they will quickly decrease in value. If I chose to sell the beans fresh, I could probably get $2.25/lb. for them, but selling them would incur a lot of extra expenses: marketing, transportation, farmer’s market fees, etc. Not to mention that I would then have an actual monetary income that would be subject to taxation. So my actual take-home pay would be substantially less than $10/hour. It might be somewhere around $5/hour when all was said and done. This means that, if I instead choose to can my excess beans, I am keeping that $5 that would have otherwise been lost to marketing expenses and taxes. We can add that to the money saved by canning, bringing us to a grand total of $7.67 for my two hours’ worth of labor in the kitchen, or $3.84/hour.
I admit it’s still not a lot. I certainly wouldn’t work for anyone else for that wage. But I’m not working for someone else. I’m working for myself–in my own home, at my own pace. And, what’s more, I get to enjoy a keen sense of satisfaction this winter each time I pull another jar of green beans off the shelf and open its perfectly sealed lid with a “pop.” Not to mention all the times I’ll open the pantry and spend a few minutes just gazing lovingly at my handiwork. Not all the rewards of canning are reducible to dollars. And when you combine those intangibles with the few bucks canning saves, altogether they just might make it worth it.