The Kennewick Cannery: Converting the Saints


The Church cannery teaches lessons in faith, compassion, and self-sufficiency.

It’s a few minutes before 2:00 P.M. The workers enter through a door modestly marked Cannery Entrance. Inside, they don paper hats, plastic gloves, and aprons and take their places beside a motionless conveyor belt: Wayne Johnson, an electrician; Tom Blodgett, an accountant; Sherri Blodgett, a homemaker; Jan Hadley, a dietician; and assorted farmers, scientists, and secretaries.

Shoulder to shoulder they stand, quietly talking, waiting. A few minutes after 2:00, someone quips, “Well, you can tell they aren’t paying us by the hour.” Everyone laughs, and then the belt begins to move. Soon steaming-hot tomatoes roll out, ready to be cored and peeled. The afternoon shift at the cannery has begun.

The Kennewick, Washington, cannery serves twelve stakes in the Northwest welfare region. Housed in a modern building complex along with a Church employment office, social services agency, and regional bishops’ storehouse, it is one of fifty-three canneries in the Church welfare system.

Fresh produce comes from local stake welfare farms. After processing, it either stays at the bishops’ storehouse in Kennewick or is sent to the bishops’ central storehouse in Hermiston, Oregon, for further distribution in the welfare system.

But it is volunteers, assigned or recruited by way of pass-around lists in priesthood and Relief Society meetings, who keep the cannery running. Brother Dave Young, bishops’ storehouse and cannery manager, is the cannery’s only full-time employee. According to Brother Young, recruiting volunteers for a canning shift isn’t always easy. Cannery work is far from glamorous. It is sometimes wet and messy, and many shifts are in the evenings and on Saturdays. Often, members need to be “converted” to the temporal and spiritual purposes of the welfare program, as was Brother Young.

Growing up, Brother Young lived with his grandparents in Arizona. His grandfather was not a member of the Church, and his grandmother was inactive. In fact, Dave knew nothing about the Church until the day his grandfather was patching the roof and fell off, breaking both legs. It was bags of groceries brought to them via the welfare program that introduced Dave and his sister to the Church. Welfare assistance continued for several months and, together with the dedication of the Saints who helped the family through the difficult times, it sparked the children’s interest in the Church. Eventually, they were baptized. Dave considers himself a welfare program convert.

While Dave’s conversion story is more dramatic than most, he feels that most Saints need some kind of experience with the welfare program to be truly convinced of its importance.

This experience can come from working at the cannery. He cites as examples two people who have provided valuable service to the Church and its members through the work they have done at the cannery.

Serving in eighteen-month callings as cannery operators are Gloria Gale and Alma Baird. Gloria is a single young adult who, as ward canning chairman, discovered that she enjoyed working at the cannery and had skills needed by the fledgling operation. Gloria is a hard worker whose ready sense of humor eases the stresses of cannery work. Says Alma, “People come here after a hard day at work. Often, they have had to leave children with a babysitter. Gloria enjoys the work and makes it enjoyable for others.”

Gloria’s ability to give instructions without offending is also well known. Cannery workers laughed the time Gloria sent two burly men to squeeze tomatoes for juice. When asked if she knew the two men were a stake president and a chemical engineer, Gloria said, “No, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.”

Identical hats and aprons eliminate distinctions between stake presidents and ward clerks, Relief Society presidents and visiting teachers. Gloria Gale finds this warmth and acceptance refreshing. “Without a family, I sometimes feel I don’t quite fit in an ordinary ward. At the cannery, I am accepted for what I do. I am an important part of the work here.”

The man who keeps the cannery’s forty-year-old equipment in running order is Alma Baird. A retired chemical technician, Alma was widowed in 1979. After being appointed as cannery operator, he attended the University of Washington to become a certified cannery operator. Because the mechanical maintenance of the cannery demands so much time, Alma says the cannery has become like a second home to him and that those who work there are like a second family.

He speaks lovingly of the part the cannery plays in his life and of the part he wants it to have in the lives of others. “I think the cannery captures the essence of the welfare program. It is members working together to provide for all in time of need. And we all receive blessings for the work we do there.”

These blessings come not only in the tangible form of such items as canned peaches and pears. Faith and humility are another product of the Kennewick cannery. Each shift begins with the crew bowing their heads together in prayer. They pray for safety, for good attitudes and proper conduct. They also pray for the canning equipment.

More than once these prayers have provided help at critical times. When the cannery began operation in 1983, Lola Scalley Yale became the cannery supervisor. Though she had extensive experience in food processing at another cannery, she and her staff knew little about the boiler, steam closure machines, and labeler at the Kennewick cannery. One night the asparagus, painstakingly washed and trimmed, was lined up in cans ready to cook when the boiler broke down. The asparagus wouldn’t keep until the next day, and at 10:30 P.M. Lola couldn’t reach anyone who could fix the boiler. So she gathered the crew together to pray for the Lord’s help. A few minutes later, the boiler fired up and the asparagus was saved.

Another time, the pulping machine stopped working during the process of canning applesauce. Silently, Lola prayed, “Please, send someone who will know what to do.” She soon turned around to see a brother who had worked at the cannery and knew the equipment. He had the pulper working within an hour.

Brother Young claims that operating a cannery completely with volunteer labor is nothing short of miraculous. But, because of the faithfulness of the Saints, he has learned to expect miracles. One woman who is legally blind found that she could place cans on a pallet right side up by feeling for the code imprinted on the lid. Another sister from Hermiston, Oregon, leaves her own work to make the trip to Kennewick whenever her ward is short in filling a shift. A ninety-three-year-old sister from Walla Walla, Washington, is so anxious to do her part that she stands by her daughter and works as long as she can, then sits down to rest before resuming her work.

The young as well as the old come to help. At first there was some hesitation about letting teenagers work at the cannery. The supervisors questioned their ability to take the job seriously until a group of sixteen-, seventeen-, and eighteen-year-olds from Othello, Washington, convinced everyone of the contribution youth can make.

The youth had come on a family canning project. Family canning is different from canning for the welfare system. Its purpose is to help the Saints fill their own pantries. Wards or stakes choose an item they want to can together for their year’s supply. They provide the ingredients; the cannery provides the equipment and cans.

The Othello Stake decided to can beef stew—with one family providing a steer, another potatoes, another carrots, and another onions. When the youth arrived for their shift, adults were ready with strict instructions and a firm hand. But they never once had to warn the youth about keeping their hats and aprons on, never had to reprimand them for throwing carrots or potatoes at each other. The youth approached their tasks with energy and enthusiasm. At the end of the day, they watched with pride as their cans of stew were boxed to be taken home.

Canning for the welfare program is an assignment each ward is expected to fulfill. Family canning is strictly voluntary, yet it is catching on. More and more wards and stakes are requesting family canning projects of their own. They come to can tomatoes for the bishops’ storehouse, get enthused about it, and come back to can chili together.

Occasionally, the cannery provides an opportunity to introduce others to the gospel. Late one Saturday the Richland Washington Stake was canning Ranier cherries when Sister Lola Yale, who was supervisor at the time, noticed the smell of burning plastic. Then Earl Wheelwright, regional canning chairman, noticed a large blister on a wall. Immediately, Lola realized that they had an internal wall fire, sent the workers out of the building, and called the fire department.

When the firemen arrived, smoke was coming from the roof. They quickly found the source of the fire, cut a hole in the wall, and put out the fire with little damage to the building and none to the equipment. To the amazement of the firemen, the members returned to the building and finished the cherries. Who were these people so determined to work on a Saturday afternoon? When Lola told them they were volunteers, the firemen had to know more. She took the firemen on a tour of the cannery and bishops’ storehouse. She explained the Church’s welfare program, told them about tithing, and answered their questions. The six young men left with a positive introduction to one aspect of the gospel.

For the firemen, the welfare program cannery provided an introduction to the Church. For members who work there, it provides an opportunity for serving their fellowmen. The end result of this service is something Dave Young wishes the Saints had more opportunity to see.

Usually, the products from the cannery are obtained for needy members by the ward bishop who writes up “orders” for the people in his ward. The ward Relief Society president then distributes the food where it is needed. But occasionally Brother Young has had the chance to deliver the food himself. And on these occasions his testimony of the welfare program and his gratitude for it have been reconfirmed.

One day he was making a trip to Walla Walla, and a bishop requested that he drop off some food to a family in a migrant labor camp on the way. A father, mother, and three young children answered his knock at the door. Cautiously, they let him inside. What he saw made his heart ache. The living room was bare except for a small table, there were no curtains, and the cupboards were painfully empty. He couldn’t speak Spanish, but he could clearly understand the parents’ humble gratitude and the excitement in the children’s eyes as he began to bring bags of groceries into their home. As he realized how his life had come full circle in the welfare program, he fought back tears of gratitude for those Saints who had made the answer to this family’s prayers possible.

Dave Young and those who help him operate the cannery speak with admiration of the faithful members who keep the cannery running. Together, they are meeting the challenge of having a cannery in their area. Whenever there has been a problem, there has been a member to solve it. Whenever a crew is needed, the members have filled it—with love, with faith, and with growing dedication.

[photos] Photography by Eldon Linschoten and Marty Mayo

Brenda Taylor Peterson, mother of three, is the Relief Society Home Management teacher in her Kennewick, Washington, ward.