By Lisa Kivirist
For most of us women in sustainable agriculture, we actually have two favorite spots on our farms: our growing fields and our farmstead kitchens. If you both love to raise produce as well as transform it into something delicious like jams and salsas or baked goods, such diversification can boost your bottom line, extend your cash flow year round and diversify your farm income sources.
The big change today is that you don’t necessarily need to rent a commercial kitchen or hire-out a co-packer to turn your strawberries into jam, tomatoes into sauce or raspberries into muffins for selling direct to your customers. A growing movement of farmers and other home-based entrepreneurs are starting small food businesses direct from their home kitchens. No capital needed, just good recipes, enthusiasm and commitment, plus enough know-how to turn fresh ingredients into sought-after treats for your local community. Everything you require is probably already in your home kitchen. Best of all, you can start tomorrow!
In general, “cottage food laws,” as they’re commonly called, allow you to sell certain food products made in your home to customers in your community. By certain foods, the laws mean various “non-hazardous” food items, often defined as those that are high acid, like pickles, or low-moisture, like breads. Depending on the state, some laws also permit the sale of other non-hazardous items like dried herb mixes or chocolates.
Cottage food laws are relatively new, with most states passing such laws since 2008 as a reaction to the Great Recession as states sought to create opportunities that support small-scale food businesses to get started. Over 42 states currently have varying forms of laws that encourage home-cooks to create and sell to the public specific, “non-hazardous” food items, often defined as those that are high-acid, like pickles, or low moisture, like breads.
Such opportunity to launch food businesses from home kitchens inspired my husband, John Ivanko, and I to co-author our new book, Homemade for Sale, the first authoritative guide that provides a clear roadmap to go from idea and recipe to final product. While no one is tracking statistics on the cottage food industry nationwide, in my research for Homemade for Sale this is a clearly women-driven movement. All of the case studies in the book are women-owned businesses and are women are most often behind the grassroots efforts to get such cottage food laws passed or expanded on the state level.
I myself first connected to cottage food law opportunity when I realized our law in Wisconsin covers high-acid canned items but not baked goods and have been active working with the Wisconsin Farmers Union to expand the legislation so I can sell muffins and other baked items I already produce in my home kitchen and can serve to guests at my on-farm B&B, Inn Serendipity. In the meantime, I’ve embraced my inner pickler and make pickles, sauerkraut and pickled pumpkin for sale are farmers’ markets and community events.
Interested in learning more about cottage food law opportunities in your state? Your first stop is most likely your state’s Department of Agriculture, the agency usually responsible for administering the law. There are four key questions you need answered in your state’s cottage food law before you get started:
• What products can you sell?
• Where can you sell your products?
• How are you allowed to sell your products?
• How much can you sell of your products?
Most states will have basic fact sheets online to help you understand and navigate your law. Be sure to connect with and only use primary information direct from your state’s appropriate agency and not what someone told you or something you saw on a personal website. Unfortunately, there is much misinformation shared anecodotally about cottage food law so ensure what you have is accurate.
To complicate matters, laws in some states may cover both cottage food operations and more restrictive “home kitchen operations,” the latter of which often requires more fees, regulatory requirements and a home kitchen inspection. Home kitchen operations, however, can provide a greater selection of outlets for your products as well as the types of products you can produce. In Illinois, for example, the cottage food operator can only sell at a farmers’ market but a home kitchen operator can sell at other venues.
For a nice summary of the patchwork of individual state laws, join a community of food entrepreneurs in your state or list your cottage food operations, forrager.com is a great resource. You’ll still need to consult the Department of Agriculture within your state and review and adhere to the specifics related to your operations.
For farmers like Erin Schneider of Hilltop Community Farm in LaValle, Wisconsin, processing under cottage food law provides an opportunity to use up excess produce or slightly blemished items not perfect enough for her CSA boxes and increase income off-season into the leaner winter months.
“I make various salsas, pickles, and jams from whatever I have in abundance under Wisconsin’s cottage food law known as the ‘Pickle Bill, which also allows me to effectively use up seconds or produce that isn’t quite up to quality level for our CSA” shares Erin Schneider. “The summer heat extends into the evening hours as heaps of chopped peppers await the salsa pot, but I enjoy the process of canning. It’s gratifying to pause and witness the palette of colors that line the larder and am then fully stocked for winter farmers’ markets, where I find folks like to buy these kind of products as food gifts.”
The best part of such cottage food laws is you can get started in a food business on a micro-scale with very low cost and see if you even like doing it at all. For some farmers, like Dorothy Stainbrook of HeathGlen’s, operating first under cottage food law gave her the successful springboard to build an on-farm commercial kitchen and launch in a larger venture for her preserves, syrups and shrubs made from the organic fruit from her farm.
“With the success of my preserve business, it led to the expansion and the advent of the new product lines of syrups and shrubs because I could process these at home,” Stainbrook adds. “I’m thankful for cottage food laws. As a farmer, I didn’t have the money or the time resources to go into the city and rent a commercial kitchen when I got started.”
For more information and resources to launch your cottage food business, visit our website.
Lisa Kivirist is co-author of Homemade for Sale, along with Farmstead Chef, ECOpreneuring and Rural Renaissance. Lisa also coordinates the award-winning Rural Women’s Project of MOSES.