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Cheap and Free Produce for Canning

Free Fruit Sources for Canning -

Although I try to pack a lot into my backyard, I have extremely limited space for growing produce.

On just 1/10th of an acre, I have 5 apple trees espaliered around the perimeter, 5 citrus trees in pots and enough vegetables, herbs and berries to keep us happy most of the year.

But I wouldn’t exactly say I get bushels of excess produce from my postage-stamp-sized homestead on a regular basis. From this space, we mostly eat the food fresh and I do some small batch canning projects and freezing.

Although I am also lucky enough to be able to preserve produce at our family’s 1892 farmstead, that is a very recent addition. Prior to that, I had to find extra produce for canning from different sources. And I still do!

There are several places you can look for wholesome, delicious produce that is either cheap or completely free. Here’s my list of where to look…

Free Fruit Sources for Canning -

Where to Look for Cheap & Free Produce

1) Grow It Yourself:
Naturally, growing it yourself is the best option. I couldn’t make a list without including that. But if you are like me with limited space, growing it yourself is not always enough.

2) Barter & Trade:
I have gained some of my best canning produce from my neighbors. A few of my neighbors grow food like me and we trade or barter when one of us has excess. This can mean fresh eggs traded for plums or jam traded for onions.

But it always means deliciousness traded for more deliciousness!

However, what if you don’t know anyone growing food in your area?

Well, that’s when you start learning to spot fruit trees while driving your car!

It is an important skill because everyone with a fruit tree gets a harvest that comes on fast. And when it does, it is nearly impossible to use all that fruit on your own. So much of it can go to waste.

If you see a neighbor with a fruit tree in their front yard (or peeking over the backyard fence), go knock on their door and ask!

A friend of mine showed up on a neighbor’s doorstep with few jars of homemade jam, made the connection and came home with bags of pomegranates. Most fruit tree owners are more than thrilled to have someone harvest their tree so they don’t have a mess of waste on their hands.

3) Connections:
Tell everyone you know that you are looking for produce to can. Just about everyone has a relative (or a friend of a friend) with a fruit tree.

Once the word is out that you have a canning pot and are not afraid to use it, you will be offered free fruit on a regular basis. Really!

The most common offer I get is, “Hey, my mom has extra {fill in the blank}. You can have it if you want it. Oh and do you think you could share a jar of the jam, sauce or preserves you make from it?”

Tee hee hee. They always have an alternative motive but the offer is still a good one!

Free Fruit for Canning -

4) The “Bad” Produce at Market:

This is one of the best untapped resources for extra produce. The American culture demands perfect produce without blemishes, bruises or bug marks. The rest usually gets thrown out. But that produce is still perfectly good. In fact, extremely ripe fruit is the most flavorful for preserves AND it is the fruit most likely to get bruised or crushed in transit.

If you get to know the local grocery store produce manager, you can arrange to take that produce off his hands. Set it up ahead of time and then make sure to show up for pick up.

But you can also find crushed produce at the farmer’s market. If you get to know the farmer’s selling, you can check in with them at the end of market day to see if there is any produce that didn’t travel well to market. They have to throw it out and you can usually have it for free – especially if you had made the connection ahead of time so they save it for you.

Important: What I do NOT recommend doing is coming at the end of the farmer’s market day and asking if they you can have their good produce at discount. A lot of people try this tactic and it is not really polite. In fact, it sort of undermines the relationship. It is better to come buy some produce at regular price and if you have a relationship with them, they are happy to throw in a few damaged fruit for free. But don’t try to shortchange these hard working farmers. They are the good guys and we need to support them.

Free Fruit Sources -

5) Dumpster Diving:

Okay, seriously – this is NOT my thing.

But I know a few people who swear by this. They go behind the grocery store on a regular basis and dig through the dumpster for boxes of damaged produce.

Now, I love a good freebie, but I would rather create a relationship with the store manager and get the produce before it hits the dumpster. However, this is an option if you are up for that sort of thing.

6) You Pick Farms:

I live in Southern California and we have some tremendous you-pick farms along the roadsides. So this is a great option for me. But it may not be an option for everyone. If you are ever traveling, keep an eye out for roadside stands and you-pick farms during the travel trip home. The flavors are incredible.

What about you?

Do you have any cheap sources for canning produce?

Do tell! (In the comments)

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About the Author:

Theresa Loe is the founder of Living Homegrown® and the Canning Academy®. For 9 years, Theresa was the Co-Executive Producer & Canning Expert on the national PBS gardening series, Growing A Greener World®. Theresa homesteads on just 1/10th of an acre in Los Angeles with her husband, two sons and several disorderly but totally adorable chickens. Learn more about Living Homegrown here and about the Canning Academy here.