Lodi Canning Company survives and thrives for 100 years

Jan Shepel
The Goeres family, which for three generations has operated the Lodi Canning Company, recently celebrated their 100 years in business in the village of Lodi in Columbia County.

LODI - In an industry that has seen tremendous consolidation, Lodi Canning Company has stood for 100 years – working with local farmers, hiring local workers and providing products for the U.S. marketplace. The company celebrated its 100th anniversary with a picnic, music and tours of its facility in the village of Lodi.

The company began in 1917 when a group of local investors, including dentist T.O. Goeres, raised $100,000 to start the company. Goeres soon became president of the company and made the cannery his life’s work. Eventually his son Ted took over the canning business and now the third generation, Bob Goeres, is at the helm.

Bob Goeres

The steady hand of the Goeres family has kept the business growing when as many as 200 other vegetable canneries across the Wisconsin countryside disappeared or were bought out by larger corporate owners. Many of those eventually closed too. Lodi Canning is said to be the last privately owned cannery in Wisconsin.

Creamed corn is king

When asked about his company’s continued success Bob Goeres pins it on their signature product – creamed corn. “Creamed corn, which we have mastered over the years, is our niche in the industry,” he said. “We produce half of the nation’s supply.”

Over the decades Lodi Canning has mastered the details, making the creamed corn just the right consistency – not too sweet or starchy with the right blend of corn flavors. They sell most of their creamed style corn in number-10 (gallon) cans while other companies have concentrated on retail. Lodi Canning has changed its processes as technology changed in the canning factory.

While gallon cans of creamed corn are the signature product for Lodi Canning Company, some smaller cans are packaged for sale in local stores. Lodi’s Idol -- that’s Lodi spelled backward -- is the brand name for peas that are noted for their tenderness and creamed corn that has kept the cannery in business for 100 years.

When the company started, there wasn’t the best equipment to cut corn off the cob with the right blend of materials to make the creamed corn, but Lodi Canning persisted and by 1925 new equipment made the job easier and the product better.

Though the company produces some small retail-sized cans of their signature product for sale in local stores, those large cans of creamed corn are their bread and butter; Lodi Canning is the exclusive supplier to several large wholesale food distributors. From there, that Lodi corn goes to food-service kitchens across the country.

Bob Goeres said there’s a trick to making the product which starts with the corn varieties. The corn, grown by as many as 50 local farmers within a 25-mile radius of Lodi, needs to have skins that don’t get tough as they mature and other characteristics that provide the right blend of flavor, crunch and creaminess.

There are four different sweet corn varieties used by Lodi Canning, Goeres said, and all have been bred for the special needs of their final product. They have also developed a special pea variety, grown and produced by a locally owned seed company, he added.

Cash crops

“It isn’t the most profitable business at times,” he said, “like all of agriculture. It mirrors the farm economy because our farmers need to make money.”

In addition to providing a cash crop for local farmers, Lodi Canning provides jobs for 35 people year-round. An additional 100-120 people come on board for seasonal work.

That work begins with the pea harvest and packing season in June, which starts early since peas grow best in cooler temperatures. These days peas are harvested by large “combines” in the field, a contrast to earlier days when vines were harvested and run through stationary viners placed around the countryside.

Visitors to Lodi Canning got a tour of the 100-year-old cannery as well as the new field equipment that makes harvesting peas and corn easier than it was in the “old days.” New pea combines do all the work in the field but when the cannery started, vines were harvested and hauled to stationary viners where the initial processing took place.

Then and now, the pea harvest winds up about the time the corn begins to mature. Some of the equipment in the venerable packing facility dates to the early years of the cannery but some of it is state-of-the art, like an optical scanner that picks out foreign materials from peas.

Cans are identified with printed numbers as they are filled and readied for processing. In some cases Lodi produces the product and sells it for others to put their own labels on.

But some of their peas, like the small cans of creamed corn, are sold under the Lodi’s Idol brand – that’s Lodi spelled backward. The peas are known among local consumers for being smaller and more tender than other brands.

Once the pea harvest ends, generally when hotter weather arrives, some of the canning lines are removed and converted to equipment that is used for canning the sweet corn.

John Wells, in his sixth year of working at Lodi Canning Company, was on hand to show visitors the cooking room, where baskets of cans are loaded into pressure cookers for steam processing. The large cooking room sees use during the pea pack and making of cream style corn at the cannery.

 A cooking room, where large baskets filled with cans are hoisted into deep steaming pressure cookers during the canning season, has screened sides to help dissipate some of the heat that’s generated there. Corn takes longer to cook than peas. For either product a water-cooling bath reduces the heat when they are done cooking.

Employees and POWs

Besides keeping a local business alive and thriving, the Goeres family is proud to have employed hundreds of local kids, housewives and other workers through the years – helping many a teen earn money for college. Bob himself worked as a young man in the canning factory just as his father Ted did when he was young.

The canning company had an interesting chapter during World War II when German prisoners of war were housed locally at the Lodi Agricultural Fair’s grounds on the north edge of town. Those Germans were marched each day down to the canning factory to work and marched back to the fairgrounds each night. T.O Goeres, with his knowledge of German, was able to serve as a translator for those workers, who took the place of many locals who were off fighting the war.

Community supporters

The Goeres family has taken seriously its place in the community, funding a city pool that remains free for local residents in a park that bears the family’s name. Back during the depression, T.O. Goeres was influential in bringing in the Works Progress Administration to Lodi to engineer and construct the park and the stream that runs through it.

In Ted’s and Bob’s generations as well, the family has continued to support local philanthropic efforts like a community endowment program and many other projects in Lodi.

The 100-year-old Lodi Canning Company’s factory served as a backdrop for a festive celebration June 2 during which visitors got to taste local favorites like Bob Goere’s famous cornbread, made with his company’s canned corn.

To thank the local community and commemorate their 100 years in business, Lodi Canning Company threw a community-wide picnic June 2 with tours at their facility, located on Canning Street, with live music and a picnic that included Bob’s famous cornbread and Lodi’s Perfect Pea Salad. They offered visitors cans of peas and corn to take home with them along with their thanks for all the support throughout 100 years.