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Dorthy Stainbrook's home-based preserves business expanded enough to fund (and necessitate) the construction of a larger-scale, on-farm commercial kitchen.
Launch Your Home-based Food Business
If you think you’re ready to go public with your food business, here are six key steps to launch your home-based start-up:
1. Identify your food business’ purpose.
“As a first step, put some time into thinking about and defining what it is that you want to make and who you want to sell to,” advises Quincella C. Geiger, author ofBringing Home the Baking: How to Start a Licensed Home-based Baking Business(self-published, 2007) and a national expert on home-based baking start-ups. “This may determine if your state’s cottage food laws even cover what it is you envision and are passionate about doing.”
For example, a wedding- or birthday-cake business is more likely to be included in state laws that allow home-based baked-goods businesses, as these products are sold directly to one person. On the other hand, if you envision selling your jams to a local food co-op for distribution, you’ll discover that most legislation does not include wholesale.
“My motivation to start doing home-based processing of jams and breads came from seeing other folks at the farmers’ market I sell at,” explains Regina Dlugokencky, an organic and sustainable farmer who runs Seedsower Farm in Centerport, N.Y. “I noticed their jams were flying out of their booths, and in talking to my farmer friends about their experiences, the process to start such a business didn’t seem that hard.”
Bounty also motivates: Dlugokencky harvested an abundance of raspberries and realized she could diversify her off-season income sources by selling jam at winter markets.
2. Understand your state’s cottage food laws.
While each state’s laws will vary on specifics, they generally include some form of the following:
Labeling requirement:Most states require labels notifying the consumer that the product was processed in a home kitchen. For example, according to Wisconsin’s cottage food law, the label needs to include the sentence: “This product was made in a private home not subject to state licensing or inspection.” Additionally, the label must include the name and address of the person who prepared and canned the product, the date it was processed, and an ingredients list.
Market specification:Cottage food legislation generally supports sales venues where the producer has direct contact with the customer, such as farmers’ markets, community events and on-farm stands. Wholesale or online sales are typically not included.
Registration:Registration may be as simple as filling out some paperwork (as is the case in Michigan) or as intense as an on-site kitchen inspection (like Dlugokencky needed in New York).
Submitting your recipes might be required as part of the registration process. For example, your state might require the use of specific extension-approved recipes. Don’t assume you can sell a product made using Grandma’s 50-year-old pickle recipe under cottage food legislation. Ask questions and adhere to all recipe requirements.
Food safety: “To sell my products direct from my kitchen to my customers is really the ultimate form of trust,” Erin Schneider says. She and her husband run Hilltop Community Farm in LaValle, Wis., and have been selling a variety of high-acid foods approved under the state’s cottage food legislation, including sweet pickle relish, salsa and jam. “I make sure to adhere to all the needed safe food-handling procedures, like good hygiene and proper canning procedures; keep all required records and use approved recipes.”
States may designate certain ingredients as “potentially hazardous” and not allow them. For example, pies, such as banana cream, lemon meringue or custard, that require refrigeration to assure safety are not included.
“Think about how to frame your questions and get in the right frame of mind before calling your state agencies for information on legislation and requirements in your state,” Geiger advises. “Remember you are calling an overtaxed governmental agency. Patience and kindness on your part can go a long way in getting the information you need.”
3. Get down to business.
If you’ve always loved making jam or baking cakes and sharing yummy results with neighbors or generously donating them to local bake sales, you need to keep in mind that you’ll be moving from “hobby” to “business” and will need to treat your venture accordingly.
“Farmers can grow beautiful produce, but they do tend to underprice the value of what they are selling,” Cantrell says. “Remember to price [your] products accurately, taking into account everything from your labor in the field to the cost of the jars and containers.”
With that in mind, a cottage food business can add a healthy boost to your farm’s bottom line. Schneider grosses approximately $1,500 to $2,000 in annual sales, and she finds canned goods a particularly strong seller at winter farmers’ markets, when folks are looking for holiday gifts.
4. Brand your product.
Even after you adhere to your state’s regulations, there is room to add creative, personal touches to your products. A colorful label with a photo of the farm or a ribbon tied around a jar or package is an inexpensive yet distinct and memorable way to brand your product. We called the pickles we processed under Wisconsin’s cottage food law “Pucker Ups” and included a funny photo of our 10-year-old son making his “pucker” face.
To increase potential future sales, share recipes and ways to use your product. Most folks know to spread jam on toast, so offer unexpected uses and ideas for your product, such as a layer-cake filling or a sweet fruit dip made with cream cheese. Give your customers a recipe for homemade croutons, and they may go home with an extra loaf of your bread.
“We give our community-supported-agriculture members an order form so they can stock up, and we can easily add it to their weekly delivery,” Schneider says. “Producing and selling these canned goods is a win-win for us: We have an added income source that keeps us diversified, but it also helps support our bigger mission of helping our members and community eat seasonally year-round.”
5. Grow, if you want to.
At its core, cottage food legislation intends to help micro food businesses launch without the cost of a commercial kitchen. You’re the one managing and directing your business and shaping its future. Sometimes, especially if you have a consistently yummy product and loyal customer base, your volume might reach the point that you outgrow what your state’s regulations will let you produce in your home kitchen.
Dorothy Stainbrook of Forest Lake, Minn., ran into that problem after she started HeathGlen Farm in 1998. “I wanted HeathGlen to be more than a hobby; I wanted to make a living on the farm,” Stainbrook explains. “I got into fruit preserves because I wanted to develop a part of the farm business that would take me through the whole year financially, especially the winter months.”
Taking advantage of her garden abundance and Minnesota’s cottage food laws, Stainbrook started making fruit preserves to sell at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market.
“I did a ton of sampling at the market to get feedback from customers on what they liked and developed a unique distinction by keeping the sugar as low as I can, which really accents the fresh-fruit flavor,” she says.
Stainbrook also tapped into her former bartending expertise and blended liqueurs into the preserves to further enhance the fruit flavor. Volume and sales snowballed to the point that Stainbrook eventually needed to build her own on-farm commercial kitchen.
“My preserve business succeeded because I could start out processing at home,” Stainbrook adds. “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. I found Minnesota’s laws very straightforward and easy to understand.” Even when Stainbrook eventually needed to build her own commercial kitchen, she remained committed to building it on-farm and continued to work at home, avoiding the fuel costs and the need to lug equipment and product to an off-farm setup.
6. Raise your voice.
The motivation behind every state’s cottage food legislation comes from individual citizens and grassroots organizations passionate about supporting home-based food businesses. If your state does not currently have such laws on the books, consider taking a leadership role to make it happen. Even if your state does have legislation in place, keep connected to these issues, as laws can change at anytime—whether expanding cottage food opportunities or scaling them back. Ask questions and get involved.
“I’m curious why my New York regulations do not allow me to include fruits or vegetables in my breads,” Dlugokencky says. “During the winter when I have more time, I want to investigate this further and perhaps see what it would take to change that. I would love to do something like zucchini bread and showcase more of what I grow on the farm in my baking.”
Remember, legislators need your eyes and ears on the farm to help inform their decision-making.
“We all tend to think our elected officials are as well-educated on issues as we are, but in reality, farmers are the experts on issues like these cottage food regulations because they are the ones who use and are intimately familiar with the situation,” says Kara Slaughter, government relations director with the Wisconsin Farmers Union, an organization that champions farm-enterprise issues. “Legislators can’t study all the issues themselves, so they rely on experts to help educate them on what to do. If we do not step [into] this role, someone else will, and it may not be the outcome we want.”
The cottage food movement represents more than just a diversified farm-income stream. By growing the ingredients and processing these items on your farm, you’re directly contributing to growing the local-food movement and increasing the opportunities for your neighbors to support community agriculture, one jam jar or bread loaf at a time.
About the Author:Lisa Kivirist is the co-author ofFarmstead Chef(New Society Publishing, 2011), along with the award-winningECOpreneuring(New Society Publishing, 2008) andRural Renaissance(New Society Publishing, 2009). She and her family run Inn Serendipity bed-and-breakfast on their Wisconsin farm, completely powered by the wind and sun.
This article first ran in the March/April 2012 issue of Hobby Farm Home.
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