When Russell Laughmiller first decided to work for Muirhead Canning Company, located on Mill Creek south of The Dalles, he was working on a farm growing sweet corn and peas for Del Monte.
“I told my representative that I was going to compete with him. He asked how much we produced in a year, and I told him 20 to 30 thousand cases.
“He said, 'We do that many in two or three hours.' We are tiny, compared to the big guys,” Laughmiller said.
Instead of trying to market their product based on price, the cannery focuses on quality. “We're selling directly to the consumer. We're selling based on quality, not price or volume. Our product tastes better — we compete with the home canner,” he explained.
Laughmiller purchased the cannery in 2006.
“I looked into buying a farm, and I didn't have the money,” he said.
The cannery was a related business he could do.
“It's a challenge though,” he said. He is working with older equipment, some of it dating to the 1950s, purchased from the Seufert salmon cannery in The Dalles. The cannery itself was established by Sam Muirhead in 1946, when Muirhead returned home following World War II. In the 1970s, it was sold to Dawn and Randy Barrett.
Although his father warned him the cannery would be a “mechanical nightmare,” Laughmiller has made it work and is gradually adding product and capacity. “I like trying new things, learning new things,” he said.
At the core of its business is a list of 13,000 customers, and the cannery sends out a product list and order form each year. Orders are made, and shipped or available for pickup after the first of November.
“A lot of people drive out to pick up their orders, its something of a tourist attraction,” he said.
A truck makes deliveries in the Portland area, as well as eastern Oregon and central Washington.
A gift box of canned fruit, sold over the counter at the company's office, 5267 Mill Creek Road, The Dalles, offers a sample of all the many products canned through the season: Elbert Peaches, in halves and slices; Bartlett Pears, in halves; Apricots, unpeeled in halves; light sweet cherries, unpitted and dark sweet cherries, unpitted.
“This year, it's all from the Northwest,” Laughmiller said.
The light sweet cherries are from The Dalles, the dark sweet cherries from Parkdale. Pears are grown in Hood River. He also cans plums from Portland
In recent years, Laughmiller has added a number of items to the mix of products he offers. One is maple syrup from a producer in Wisconsin. It's better syrup than most, he said.
“The producer has a very clean process, he cleans every day. I don't know if that is what makes it taste better, but it does taste better,” Laughmiller said.
The syrup arrives at the cannery unprocessed. “We heat it up, separate out the sugar sand,” Laughmiller said.
“Sugar sand” is a cloudiness evident in the unprocessed syrup, and once it has been filtered out the syrup is a clear, rich color.
The cannery has also added fruit spreads to the mix.
The spreads are made without pectin, typically used to thicken jam and jellies. “It is not as thick, but it can be used for a lot more things,” Laughmiller said.
The spreads can be used in cooking, for example: When pectin is used, the spreads gel up when heated. Without pectin, the fruit spreads soak into the dish — they are often used with meat, for example – as a marinade.
Muirhead currently offers a gift box that includes spiced peach, dark cherry, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, strawberry-rhubarb, apricot and vanilla pear spreads.
The spreads are made from a recipe created by Susan Depaolo.
“Once we had the first recipe, we were able to do the rest,” Laughmiller said.
It's a fairly simple recipe, a mix of fruit, sugar and citric acid where needed and arrowroot as a thickener.
The company has also added equipment for canning large, institutional sizes. These 108-ounce cans, in contrast to their standard 28-ounce cans, can be marketed to hospitals, schools, retirement facilities, prisons and other institutions. The larger cans are currently being used primarily for pears, which can be stored and therefore canned in greater volume than other fruit.
“We can do a lot more pears than we have been able to do in the past,” he said. “It extends the canning season for us.”
The canning season is not unlike that of the farms that provide the fruit, he explained.
“It's seasonal, just like a farm would be.”
Work begins at the cannery around July 1, and traditionally continues through November.
Now that they are canning more pears, they work into December early January.
Employment varies through the season.
Peaches require more workers, about 25, because they are peeled by hand while plums, for example, require only about 15.
Once peach harvest starts, the work is pretty steady, he said. When harvest ends, the fruit is labeled and packaged.
Looking to the future, Laughmiller is considering adding applesauce, which he could make in the spring. “We're thinking on it. It would extend the season for us.”
He sees future growth in the large-sized cans, and will continue to look for ways to maximize the products he can create with the equipment he already has.
The cannery is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday through the end of December. January through May, hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.