Growing a Food Business to Become More Self-Reliant

Homesteaders, farmers, gardeners will often decide to take that next step: taking their food product to market. This often provides more income or a complete income. It can allow for more self-reliance.

When we started out, here at The Mushroom Hut @ Fox Farms, we decided we had to make the farm sustain us. We started out selling fresh mushrooms at farmers’ markets. Then, we started getting requests for dried mushrooms. We were working with the state “food inspectors” and were approved to sell dried mushrooms. They called up and said, “oh by the way, regulations have changed on the dried mushrooms. Because of moisture content they now have to be “sampled” and approved before selling”.

So, that put a stop to dried mushrooms, because the cost of sampling didn’t warrant what sales were made. Anyone who decides to “grow” a food business will realize you do actually “grow” it. You find the markets and demand changes from year to year so you have to diversify to stay in the game. Not necessarily be competitive, because that is hard for a small farmer, but have something different to offer.

Some of our diverse products are Shiitake Mushrooms on logs, hops, heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, berries, honey, Bloody Butcher corn, maple sap, sorghum, aged cheese, crafts and more.

What Is a Food Business?

A food business can mean selling your produce (vegetables, fruits and berries) at farmers’ markets or restaurants. A food business can mean any processed food you’re looking to get to market. It can be a product you want to do in small batches for in-home/farm sales, farmers’ market sales or other retail outlet. Depending on what “food business” you’re looking at there are usually different rules and regulations.

Pick Your Product

After you have decided what you want to market you need to research what requirements there are to get that product to market. Requirements are different from state to state.

If you have chosen one of these: Jams/Jellies; Baked goods: bread, cakes, cupcakes, pies (cannot make/sell pumpkin products due to spoilage). You can use a home kitchen or on-site Kitchen. This requires an initial inspection by the States’ Food Inspector. He/she will ask what you want to make in the kitchen and the inspection will go from there. The Inspector will visit each year to renew the inspection (or not).

Most often, part of the inspection is a requirement that you have a water analysis done yearly. You will need to have that report for the inspector when they come out. You can request a water analysis through the countys’ environmental health office. This is usually a cost of $50.00. The States’ Inspection is “free” but if you have to have State Lab testing for a product, that is not. Lab testing can run around $100.00 per sample and take 6-8 weeks turn-around time. This is for the state of North Carolina.

Alternatives to a Home Kitchen or On-Site Kitchen

Most county Cooperative Extension Agencies have public kitchens you can “rent”. You can get your name put on a list and this gives you a slot to use the kitchen for processing your product. This is great if you need to dry mushrooms, fruits/berries, vegetable or herbs because they have commercial dryers.

Sometimes, depending on your state/county, the fee to use is per use or you can buy membership and just set up your slots ahead of time. If you go this route, make sure you have all the things you will need with you when you go. I have done this and forgot some of my jars for my jellies!

Some Products That Require Testing

• Jellies that are made with “exotic” (according to the States’ opinion) fruits/flowers that don’t contain enough acid content
• Any dried product such as herbs, mushrooms, etc.
• Corn that is going to be sold for human consumption or animal feed (they will need 10lbs. of product) this is a free test by state and sometimes they will pay for the product.
• All products going for retail sale/markets must carry an identifying label that has been approved by the state.
• Labels must carry Sellers/Farm contact information and DBA (doing business as) along with the ingredients (beginning with the largest content listed first) sometimes weight and or volume will be required.
• Packaging must be done on-site or by an approved off-site location. Packaging for each product must be approved.
• You can use your “kitchen” as a point of sales and also online sales.
• If you plan on doing fermentation/pickling you are required to take a class. This can be done at your local Ag office (check with them for dates…usually free).
• If you are planning on liquids/beverages most of this can be done under the same requirements as Jellies/etc but there can be restrictions for some ingredients…always check before going to time and money to produce!
• Ice cream etc. can usually be made if you are buying milk from an approved dairy.
• Catering must have Certification from the Health Department, water analysis also required. The most concern here is where the septic system is located.

Home Kitchen Requirements

If you’re looking for a “cheap” way to build a separate “kitchen” area, look for people wanting buildings to be torn down. This makes a way to re-use lumber and to get the space you need. We found a local couple wanting a garage to be removed. Alan started tearing down bringing home and building back! What is amazing about this is that we found out this garage had belonged to a great uncle of mine.

• For flooring, sinks, dryboard/drywall always look at salvage stores, Habitat Re-Store and thrift.
• You will need a double sink…one side must be designated for “hand washing” and you must display a sign above the sink. So, for the hoarders out there, keep it up! I had been saving an old sink for years and it finally came in handy. Sink must be stainless steel and not have any “nicks” or they must be filled in. This can hold bacteria.
• Floors and walls must be “washable”. Dishes need a stainless rack to dry.
• You need a refrigerator for eggs, etc you will be using in your baking. You will need a refrigerator temp. gauge and keep at 45 degrees. You can use a “used” refrigerator as long as it works.
• You will need an approved cooking/baking source. So we wouldn’t have to install electrical unit to carry for a range, we improvised. We have a large Oster oven (cost $79) for baking small batch which is good on the utility bills as well. We also use an induction cooktop (cost $59) for making jellies.
• You will need an approved “hot water” source. We knew we couldn’t afford the $2,000 for hot water heater and set-up. So, we researched alternatives that would meet guidelines. We found the electric tankless water heater (cost $129) that just heats the water as you need it.

Now that you’ve met your requirements, get cooking and good luck!

Susan Tipton-Fox uses continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting “workshop stays” on the farm (extending the farm experience). Find Susan on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

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