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January 23, 2020

Good news: Just about every state in the country now has a cottage food law legalizing the sale of nonhazardous home-baked goods for public sale.

That cooks up sweet opportunity for farmers to diversify income by selling fresh-baked goods at the farmers market, via CSA (community supported agriculture) shares or other ways direct to their community.

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Baked-Good Basics

“A state’s cottage food law can open up easy diversification opportunities for farmers to add value-added products to their sales mix,” says Jan Joannides, executive director of Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit that champions healthy and vibrant rural areas.

“Keeping things local with farmers selling directly to their community enhances our rural economies and food system overall by providing tastier, farm-direct options for consumers. Farm-fresh baked goods in particular offer lots of potential for expanding sales because they’re easy add-on sales and everyone loves an authentic home-baked treat.”

For farmers to truly create baked products that increase farm value, the items need to include ingredients raised on the farm. Sure, you can bring chocolate chip cookies to the market, but that doesn’t help support the items you are raising in the field.

Zucchini or pumpkin muffins that use what you have in seasonal abundance? That’s a farm-fresh product unique to your farm. Read on for more on cottage food business basics and how to create successful farmstead bakery products.

About Cottage Food

Cottage foods laws have largely come about as a result of the Great Recession of the late 2000s, as a way to encourage small, home-based entrepreneurs.

Depending on your state, these laws enabling you to sell out of your home versus a commercial kitchen only apply to “potentially nonhazardous foods.” These items are either low-moisture products—cookies, cakes or breads—or high-acid foods—jams, jellies and preserves. Some states also include items ranging from candies to dry mixes. Your first step is to read your state’s specific law and see what is allowed.

Additionally, most states clearly define the venues where you can sell and how much you can earn each year.

Each state typically also requires certain information be printed on your product label. This often includes a line that says something like “Not prepared in a state-approved commercial food facility nor subject to state inspection.”

Our book, Homemade for Sale, goes into more details on cottage food business start-ups, and Forrager.com will connect you with your state’s legislation.

Home Bakery Requirements

Baked goods in particular provide an easy on-ramp to diversify your farm business. You probably already have the needed equipment in your kitchen to get started, and baked goods are always an appealing sale.

But it’s key to understand what “nonhazardous” baked goods are.

“Nonpotentially hazardous food is food that is either dry enough—or high enough in sugar, salt or acid—that it does not allow disease-causing organisms to grow and reproduce in the food,” says Jane Jewett, associate director of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.

“It’s important for cottage food producers to stick to nonpotentially hazardous food for the safety of their customers. Selling potentially hazardous food brings with it detailed and stringent requirements for sanitation, temperature control during storage and transport, and protocols for safe food production. In exchange for not having those requirements, cottage food producers are limited to nonpotentially hazardous foods.”

Check the Water

Check your state’s specific definition of nonhazardous. Often this will entail a “water activity (aw) level” below 0.85, meaning the amount of moisture is reduced to a point that will inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeasts and mold and is safe to sell.

Some items such as cheesecake or a whipped cream pie are clearly hazardous and needing refrigeration. Most basic breads and cookies are nonhazardous.

However, if you add fresh vegetables or fruits that typically have higher water content to a baked good, you need to make sure your water activity is below 0.85 or meets your state’s requirement. It’s best to have any recipes you are not sure of tested in a laboratory that does water activity testing. (This typically costs about $35.)

“Selling baked goods out of my farm kitchen enables me to do true value-added products because I can effectively and creatively use up extra ingredients I have from the field,” says Dela Ends of Scotch Hill Farm/Innisfree Farmstay in Wisconsin.

“I run a B&B on my farm which also provides a great opportunity for baked goods sales. I can serve different things at breakfast, and then guests can place orders to take home.”

Ends also prioritizes supporting other local businesses to purchase the ingredients she does not raise on her farm, such as flour from Meadowlark Organics and Wisconsin-made butter.

In addition to your state’s requirements, check with your local farmers markets to see if they have any additional rules you need to follow to sell baked goods.

Most farmers markets welcome new vendors and love having baked goods offerings as they are of high appeal to shoppers. But occasionally markets require that all products be produced in a commercial kitchen.

Attractive Packaging Increases Sales

“Packaging and display are important elements to make sure your farmstead baked goods look professional and attractive for sale,” says Ashley Wegmueller of Bo & Olly’s Produce and Wegmueller Farm.

“Avoid using plastic wrap or baggies you would buy at the regular grocery store. This doesn’t effectively show off your product, and it looks too homespun and informal.”

Cellophane bags, for example, come in various sizes and shapes to fit your product and look nice on the table.

In addition to following any requirements from your state on what to put on the label, use your packaging and label as a marketing tool to encourage repeat sales and special orders. Include information on how to order more.

New Value-Added Opportunities

Adding baked goods to your farm’s sales mix positively cross-pollinates with other elements of your business. This can include promoting other items you have for sale.

“We see increased interest in cottage foods sold at farmers markets when the baker’s signage includes things like ‘Pumpkin Muffins, with pumpkins from Jan’s squash patch’ or ‘Monster Cookies, made with eggs from Lisa’s farm,’” says Kathy Zeman, executive director of the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association and owner of Simple Harvest Farm Organics.

“And then those farmers help cross-market the baker’s goods while selling their berries and eggs at market. Folks grocery shopping at farmers markets love to support their local food shed in multiple ways.”

“Baked goods that clearly highlight farm-fresh produce are a natural at farmers markets. And shoppers go wild for fresh fruit pies and tarts,” says Catt White, director and market manager at San Diego Markets and the founder of The Farmers Market Pros.

“Make a few hand pies while you’re at it, and shoppers will buy those, too, to tuck in lunch bags or just to nibble as they walk through the market. Granola and breakfast bars that use ingredients raised on your farm provide another opportunity to fill your customers’ needs all day long, while increasing your sales.”

With food sensitivities top of mind nowadays, gluten-free options and desserts made without refined sugar are big sellers, White says.

Extra Incentives

Additionally, diversifying your farm sales mix to include baked goods may be the perfect launching point to involve older kids in the business and garner entrepreneurial training.

Alicia Razvi of Wooly Thyme Micro Farm outside Stevens Point, Wisconsin, found a great opportunity to involve her teen daughter in the baked goods side. Her daughter bakes items to sell alongside her mom at their farmers market stand.

“Beyond adding to our farm’s income, cottage-food baked-goods sales support family connections and give my daughter a fantastic real-world training in running her own business, from developing customer service skills to setting profitable pricing,” Razvi says.

“Most importantly, selling baked goods gives a farm mom and her teen daughter terrific opportunity to share and do something together.”

By adding a baked goods element to your farm business, the benefits quickly blend together to reach way beyond the bottom line.

“By bringing muffins to the market made with your zucchini, you are building deeper community connections and strengthening the direct ‘know your farmer’ connections, something only you can uniquely do,” Joannides says.


Try These Recipes!

These recipes have all been lab-certified as under 0.85 water activity. They are part of a larger project led by a Wisconsin-based farmer team under a North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Farmer Rancher grant to develop a toolkit for farmers interested in launching home kitchen bakery businesses.

Zucchini Raisin Muffins

This is not your average zucchini recipe, as it meets the “under 0.85 water activity” level requirement for most states to qualify as a nonhazardous baked good.

“A key element to making this happen is to drain as much of the water out of the vegetable as possible,” says Danielle Matson, a Wisconsin-based pastry chef and member of this North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education team developing these tested recipes using farm produce.

Yield: 18 muffins

Water Activity: aw 0.8343 (Water activity test conducted by Deibel Laboratories in Madison, Wisconsin.)

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups shredded zucchini, water removed (see notes)
  • 1 2⁄3 cup sugar
  • 2⁄3 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 4 eggs
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1⁄2 teaspoons ground cloves
  • 3⁄4 cup raisins

DIRECTIONS

  1. Whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and clove.
  2. Combine zucchini, sugar, vanilla, eggs and oil.
  3. Add dries to wet. Mix until almost incorporated. Add raisins.
  4. Using a 1⁄4-cup scoop, portion into a paper-lined muffin tin.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees for 17 to 20 minutes until a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean. Remove from pan to cool.

Notes:

  • To remove water from zucchini, place shredded zucchini in a bowl and sprinkle with salt. Let sit 30 minutes and place in fine-mesh strainer to drain out any remaining water. You can also place in a lint-free dishtowel and ring the dishtowel out to remove water from zucchini. Doing a small amount at a time will yield a better result.
  • Any dried fruit will work in this recipe.
  • Try different spices, such as allspice, ginger, etc.

Cream Cheese Frosting

This recipe, also tested to meet nonhazardous requirements, adds a nice moist and sweet topping (as well as value) to the overall product.

Yield: 5 cups, 8 or 9-inch cake or 24 to 30 cupcakes

Water Activity: aw 0.8375 (Water activity test conducted by Deibel Laboratories in Madison, Wisconsin.)

Ingredients:

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1⁄2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Cream together cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy, 4 minutes.
  2. Add powdered sugar on low for one minute.
  3. Increase speed to high and cream for 5 minutes, until light and fluffy.
  4. Add vanilla on low.

Pumpkin Muffins

This recipe, like the zucchini raisin muffin recipe, meets the “under 0.85 water activity” level requirement for most states to qualify as a nonhazardous baked good.

Yield: 12 muffins

Water Activity: aw 0.8212 (Water activity test conducted by Deibel Laboratories in Madison, Wisconsin.)

Ingredients:

  • 1 1⁄4 cup sugar
  • 1 1⁄2 cup flour
  • 1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3⁄4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 12 teaspoons ground clove
  • 1⁄4 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 3⁄4 teaspoons salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
  • 3⁄4 cup pumpkin puree, drained (see notes)
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup chocolate chips

Directions:

  1. Whisk together sugar, flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger and salt.
  2. Combine eggs, oil, pumpkin and apple cider vinegar.
  3. Add dry ingredients to wet. Mix until just incorporated.
  4. Using a 1⁄4-cup scoop, portion into greased muffin tin.
  5. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 to 22 minutes. Check them at 15 minutes. When done, muffins should spring back when pushed gently and a toothpick should come out clean. Remove from pan to cool.

Notes:

Use roasted fresh pumpkin or other varietals of winter squash. Cut a pie pumpkin in half. Place cut side down on a foil-lined pan. Roast for 45 minutes at 375 degrees. Remove from oven and scrape out seeds. Return to oven for another 15 minutes to finish roasting until soft. Remove pumpkin flesh from skin. Puree and place in fine-mesh strainer to strain out any remaining water.


This story originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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