Cottage foods, like homemade preserves, can be a great value-added farm business if you adhere to state and federal laws.
If you regularly have an abundance of tomatoes that you’d love to turn into salsa to sell at your local farmers’ market or you make an amazing strawberry pie that your neighbors and friends clamor for, you might be able to launch a business producing these items in your home kitchen. Thanks to increasing state legislation supporting small-scale food businesses based in home kitchens, a new movement of entrepreneurs is savoring sweet success.
These state-specific laws are typically referred to as “cottage food legislation,” meaning they focus on regulations that enable one to make various forms of nonhazardous, processed food items in home kitchens for public sale. Typically, such businesses are small-scale, independent and family-run and use their own equipment. The key advantage for producers operating under cottage food legislation is the cost savings and ease of working from home versus renting or building a commercial kitchen.
“While everyone from the media to Capitol Hill keeps spinning wheels trying to find the perfect panacea for job creation, especially in rural areas, they really need to look no further than our nation’s kitchens,” explains Patty Cantrell, founder of Regional Food Solutions LLC, a Michigan-based consultancy that supports cottage food legislation in Michigan. “Our American history [has] roots in this idea of cottage businesses, from the butcher to the baker and other food artisans who create things at home that service their local community.”
More than half of U.S. states currently have some form of cottage food legislation in place, with many of those only becoming laws within the last two years or so.
“It is inspiring to see an entrepreneurial movement gaining momentum nationally that has such a potentially positive economic [impact] on small-scale farmers,” says Wes King, policy coordinator for the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, a grassroots nonprofit organization that championed cottage food legislation in Illinois. “These new cottage food laws, like we now have in Illinois, remove barriers that historically have impeded farmers’ [abilities] to launch small-scale, value-added businesses. It is now much easier for aspiring entrepreneurs to start new local-food enterprises and tap into selling at one of Illinois’ over 300 farmers’ markets.”
Know Your States Cottage Food Laws
Cottage food regulations vary tremendously among states, from what you can and can’t produce to how much income you can gross. It’s a patchwork of different rules and regulations, and not all states have laws in place.
“Individuals need to research, understand and operate under their specific state regulations,” advises Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, which worked on the legislation in Texas. “Start by reading the specific law, and then connect with like-minded organizations familiar with your state’s situation, such as local foods groups or farmers’ market associations, for advice. Ask people already producing under your state’s laws about their experiences and advice.”
Food-safety issues comprise one of the loudest complaints against cottage food legislation, stemming from concern that most of these laws do not require home kitchens to be inspected or regulated; however, such issues have not yet been documented.
“I have not seen any significant problems or uptake of food-borne illnesses within the states that have cottage food laws in place,” McGeary adds.
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