How to Sell Farm Produce Directly to the Public

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw
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Today’s small farmers are finding it difficult to financially survive in the world of corporate food. Some are now attempting to increase their profits by selling directly to customers instead of going through other businesses or corporations. As with selling herdshares for their farms’ milk, selling farm produce requires both building a customer base while following legal requirements.

Legal Aspects:

We only sell seasonally excess produce from our homestead, but some small farmers depend on produce sales to keep their farms financially viable. Whether in small or large amounts, selling produce directly to customers puts us in the world of “cottage food” sales and we come under both federal and state Cottage Food laws. The Cottage Food Laws, as well as the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, can give the required preparation and labeling of produce for each state. As long as our produce-labels include the required information, they can be made as artistic and personalized as we wish.

The most successful farmers begin small and grow their skills and workload as they increase their customer base. Some farmers may begin by selling produce seasonally at a local farmers’ market or road-side stand. This allows them to meet supportive customers who then become the basis for a CSA (community supported agriculture). As the CSA gradually grows, having a designated “farm-market” building at their farm allows goods to be sold to an even larger customer base. This may require larger both financial and time commitments, but small farmers have a better chance of remaining on financially secure ground when they’ve grown to this stage slowly–slowly enough to keep things financially manageable, but also slowly enough to keep their lives enjoyable.

Selling a larger variety of food involves a larger variety of laws. Fortunately, most states’ Cottage Food laws agree that it’s legal to sell “non-hazardous” foods that are produced in our kitchens. These usually include jams, jellies and baked goods that don’t require refrigeration. Before you begin, check online or with your county’s extension office for what’s required in your state.

Selling Meat:

Selling meat is a bit trickier, but not so much so. As with all produce, there are both federal and state laws governing meat sales. If your farm is small and you know customers ahead-of-time who want to buy meat, steers can be butchered at a facility that is USDA inspected and approved, but that doesn’t have an inspector on site. This meat is sold to customers once the animal is butchered and the weight is known. When you receive their money, customers become the “owners” of the meat. They are then responsible for picking their meat up from the butchers and paying the butcher’s fee. Because this meat is marked “NOT FOR SALE,” with the owner’s name on it, it cannot be resold.

The above method is called “custom slaughter.” It works well for small farms that know their customers and have only one or two steers to sell each year. However, when the goal is to sell meat to the general public, a “fully-inspected plant” is necessary. To use Ohio as an example, there is an inspection program that results in each package being marked to allow it to be re-sold anywhere in the state, including directly from the farm. We found it easiest to unravel which facility does what by going to the nearest meat processing plant and letting them advise us where and how to proceed.

Selling meat from chickens has fewer rules than red meat and allows butchering to be done on the farm. For example, Ohio allows processing up to 1,000 birds without an inspector, processing in “open air” and selling directly to the consumer—all without a license. Joel Salatin discusses his method of butchering and selling poultry on the farm in his book, Pastured Poultry Profits. Having a dedicated team and a mechanized chicken-plucker sure does help when processing that many birds!

Long-term success:

The above guidelines on selling produce and meat directly from the farm is about keeping legally safe. It’s equally important to enjoy what we do in order to persist and to be profitable.

Both enjoyment and profit are directly related to the size of each operation. If small farmers grow too quickly or too large, profits will actually decrease along with their enjoyment. It amazes me that well-meaning folks—usually those who have never done the work of farming—have so many suggestions for what else we could be doing! We’re wise if we don’t take the bait. Growing slowly along the path you’ve chosen is necessary for success.

Every farm family varies in their interests and resources so it’s logical that there’s a wide variety of farm-sale models. After just warning you not incorporate every suggestion you’re given, here’s a suggestion I can’t resist sharing; when displaying your farm’s produce, consider increasing your customer-base by enabling other small farmers to sell their home-produced items at your farm. You might agree on receiving ten percent of their profits, for example, for displaying their beeswax products, jams and jellies. At the same time, the increase in your inventory brings you more customers. It feels like a “win-win” if you can effortlessly increase your profit-margin while helping neighbors.

A final part of being successful when selling produce directly to the consumer is getting a fair profit. It’s obvious that we can’t compete with the corporate food system on prices; it’s that system that is bankrupting small farmers. We’ve learned that it’s best to let well-informed customers will come to you. They will appreciate the improved nutrition and flavor of your products as well as your humane treatment of the animals that provide their meat and eggs. There’s no need to apologize to these customers that a fair price, which includes your labor, is higher than the supermarket’s.

The survival of many small farms may depend on our ability to keep both legally safe and long-term enjoying what we do when selling produce directly to the public. Small farmers today have the knowledge, ingenuity and work ethic to succeed. Your success in a world of corporate food allows consumers the choice of healthy food. Your success also preserves the land, knowledge and genetics that will make small farms possible in the future.

Mary Lou homesteads with her husband, Tom, south of Columbus, Ohio. Her book, Growing Local Food, can be bought through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482.

Photo by Gwen Lauren of Fayette County, OH

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