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Securing or Expanding Your State Cottage Food Law

Lisa Kivirist, co-author of Homemade for Sale, eager to sell her baked products in Wisconsin

Nearly every state in the country has some form of cottage food law on the books, allowing you to sell “non-hazardous” food products made in your homestead kitchen.

As I write about in my previous blog, many homesteaders take advantage of the growing number of farmers’ markets to sell their products, one of the most widely accepted venues for sales of cottage food products.

However, while some of the laws can be broad and sweeping, others can be narrow and restrictive.

If you live in a state with no cottage food law, don’t throw in the kitchen towel. Get active with the cottage food movement in your state. Every cottage food law passed in the last decade has resulted from an initial individual citizen organizing others in their state to come together to get the bill passed, with the help of the state representative who sponsored or co-sponsored the bills. The laws are inspired by the artisan bakers, picklers or jammers, just like you.

Likewise, if your state law is limited — if, say, you want to sell cookies but your current law only allows you to sell high-acid pickles and preserves — then you too will need to take democracy by the horns and advocate, lobby and amend an existing cottage food law to include such items. Or, depending on your state’s legislative protocol, this expansion may require a full new cottage food law.

Whatever your goal, make sure you have these three elements in your toolkit before diving into the democracy pool:

1. Collaborative Spirit

Consider collaboration the yeast that rises to the occasion and brings cottage food legislative change to life. We home cooks harbor business dreams and kitchen expertise, but we lack the deep pockets and big checkbooks others might have to influence politicians. Therefore, we need numbers. Numbers of people, people who vote. We need to demonstrate to our elected representatives the strong and widespread interest in cottage food law and the positive entrepreneurial impact it will have on our state’s economy.

Some key places to seek collaborative partners include:

Your State Representatives

Your first call should be to the representatives in your district. In most states, this consists of two elected officials: one from the state senate and one from the state house of representatives, just like on the federal level. Whether or not you voted for them, these elected officials should be your most loyal champions, since you’re their constituent.

You’ll probably deal with your representative’s aides and not him or her directly. Don’t feel slighted. The legislator’s staff forms the influential group that gets things done in that office. Staffers can also give you a snapshot of any pending cottage food legislation and other history, like past failed attempts at passing a similar bill. Your state representative most likely will have a small staff of a few people. The best option would be to connect with their chief of staff or the person who covers issues related to the department of agriculture or commerce.

Connect with Supportive Organizations

Is there an existing statewide group that could adopt and champion your cause? This will help tremendously to provide both organizational strength as well as legitimacy to your proposed legislation. The more you can prove to representatives that the cottage food movement is a big deal with strong impact potential to your state’s economy, the better your odds. Affiliating with a kindred-spirited non-profit group will help. This will often be a sustainable agriculture advocacy group, since cottage food fits their mission of supporting family farms. Such an organization may also bring experience in the lobbying front and have a policy or government relation’s person on staff to assist and advise.

Network with other Food Entrepreneurs

The pulse of your plan for cottage food law change comes from others just like you: fledgling food entrepreneurs who need this legislation to bring their kitchen business dreams to life. Do a thorough check to see if anyone is already organizing in your state and join forces. Start a Facebook page or a webpage to connect and keep an e-mail contact list to get information out in a timely manner, especially when the bill is up for a vote and you need volumes of calls urging support to representatives across the state.

2. Plan

When you gather these partners, particularly your state representatives and kindred organizations savvy in the legislative process, get an immediate sense of the legislative schedule and how your proposed bill fits in. Most state governments operate under a fairly tight and specific schedule dictating when they meet for a vote and approximately how long it takes to shepherd a bill through the vetting process beforehand.

This vetting process often includes committee meetings where the bill is discussed and the pubic is invited to provide testimony. Of particular importance, these committee meetings provide an opportunity to organize supporters who, with their oral and written testimony, influence the committee to support the bill. If the committee does vote for it, the bill then moves to a full vote in either the state assembly or senate.

3. Patience

Realize your state legislature might only meet once or twice a year to vote on bills. If your bill doesn’t make it through committee in time, it may have to wait a year, only to start the process all over again. The democratic process can really drag. Occasionally, however, bills are “fast-tracked,” usually because the process has been greased by outside campaign donations, political maneuvering or other monetary influences.

The cottage food movement by its very nature does not have big lobbying bucks or deep pockets behind it, so it may creep along like a glacier. We can foster patience and determination while simultaneously advocating and championing the grassroots, people-driven story. Get your inspiring tales of food businesses that such legislation would jumpstart out to the media. Write an op-ed for your local or state newspaper, a sample of which is featured on the Homemade for Sale website.

Apply a supersize dose of patience if your proposed legislation fails. Ready yourself for a good fight on the next round.

4. Take it to Court

Another route you can go in your state is to pursue the third branch of government: the judiciary. You can work toward making a case in front of a judge and seek a “court opinion” or “ruling” that strikes down an unconstitutional state law preventing you from selling cookies or another “non-hazardous” food product.

Lisa Kivirist (co-author of Homemade for Sale) has joined forces with two other women farmer friends to work with the Institute for Justice to bring a lawsuit against the state of Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture over the right to sell cookies and other baked goods made in a home kitchen.

Here’s their story captured in a video produced by the Institute for Justice that is representing the three women farmers:

For more about how to start a food business from your home kitchen, pick up a copy of the September/October 2015 issue of GRIT Magazine that contains a more detailed article about doing so. Or you can catch one of our talks at an upcoming MOTHER EARTH NEWS Fair in 2016. We'll be both speaking at the Fairs in Asheville, North Carolina, West Bend, Wisconsin, Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, and Kansas.

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.


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