Organic Broadcaster

Access new markets under cottage food laws; boost sales with improved packaging

By Lisa Kivirist & John Ivanko, Inn Serendipity

Hand-trimmed fabric toppers and twine bows along with custom-printed labels position Inn Serendipity’s product as homemade yet professional.
Photo by John Ivanko

Cottage food laws open doors to new sales opportunities for farmers by enabling us to create value-added products in our farm kitchens for public sale. Crafting high-acid canned products in particular works well for farmers to use extra vegetables or fruit, producing small batches of food products like jams, jellies and pickles for farmers’ market sales. But “small batch” doesn’t have to mean super homespun with hand-written labels affixed with packing tape. With just a little more work, your packaging can look professional yet communicate the hand-crafted nature of your product and, bottom line, help increase sales and diversify your farm operation.

Cottage Food Law Primer
Nearly every state in the country, including all Midwest states, have some form of cottage food law on the books that allows us to create specific, non-hazardous food products in home kitchens for sale at certain direct-to-the-consumer venues such as farmers’ markets. In most cases, the state law covers high-acid food products—canned items with an equilibrium pH value of 4.6 or lower, such as salsas, pickles and jams.

As we write about in our book, Homemade for Sale: How to Set Up and Market a Food Business from Your Home, each state law is different. So it’s important to read the specific regulation and requirements via your state’s department of agriculture. These will include gross sales limits (if any), labeling requirements, where you can sell and what you can produce. Check out to connect to your state’s original legislation, and network with others operating under your state’s cottage food law.

In Wisconsin, for example, under our current “Pickle Bill,” we can produce high-acid foods for sale at public venues such as farmers’ markets and community events, and gross up to $5,000 in sales. At our farm, Inn Serendipity, we produce small batches of sauerkraut, bread-and-butter pickles, and pickled pumpkin (our best seller!) annually. Operating in a commercial kitchen would increase cost and subject us to more complex regulatory requirements. Cottage food laws open up opportunity for us to get started without such initial barriers.

“As a beginning farmer, the fact that I could sell my products right away during my first season was valuable in so many ways,” shared Betty Anderson of The Old Smith Place in Brodhead, Wis. She sells various high-acid items at local venues like the New Glarus farmers’ market. “Making one small batch at a time, it was easy to respond to the desires of my local market,” she added.

Branding Your Product
The quality of what’s in your product remains paramount to sales, especially to encourage repeat customers. But if you want to charge a price that accurately compensates the time and high quality organic ingredients that went into those pickles—from the organic seed to hand-pulling each jar from the hot water bath canner—that jar needs to have the look that reflects quality and professionalism and communicates your farm brand.

“Think carefully about what message—what story—you want to communicate about your farm and how that can play out in the packaging of your product,” counseled Brett Olson, Creative Director at Renewing the Countryside, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that supports farmers through a variety of programs. Are you more minimalist and modern, or playful and informal? “From the font you choose for your labels to the colors of additional elements like ribbon or fabric, these choices communicate to potential customers what you are all about,” Olson explained.

Regarding what needs to be on the label, be sure to check out your state’s requirements. Your state’s law will likely give you specific wording that needs to be on the label that identifies your product as produced in a home kitchen and, depending on your state, may not be subject to inspection. In Wisconsin, the line reads, “This product was made in a home not subject to state licensing or inspection.” The state also requires the label to list the name and address of the person who did the canning, date of canning and ingredients in descending amount by weight.

Just because you must follow these legal requirements doesn’t mean you can’t craft attractive packaging. Most often, state requirements will specify what needs to be included but not dictate the font size or how it specifically appears on the package. This opens up the opportunity to get creative.

For example, we use Avery Print-to-the-Edge Glossy Oval Labels, True Print™ 22820—the larger 2” x 3 1/3-inch size that fits nicely on both half-pint and pint-sized jars. We then add the required state verbiage “around” the perimeter of the label (something you can readily do with the Avery template). This meets the state requirement yet minimizes this legal verbiage and enables us to focus more on the actual product. Another option may be to place the legally required verbiage on the bottom of the jar, thereby showcasing the colorful appeal of the product inside.

“Remember you don’t necessarily want your product to look too slick and professional either because the fact that your pickles were personally made by you in your home kitchen is something to showcase and celebrate as well,” Olson added. While you will want to computer-print labels for time efficiency, you could still add in a hand-written note on each label of the jar number within the batch: Jar 10 of 14. “Such a small, personal addition adds instant value to your product as customers know it’s limited and rare, just like fine art prints are numbered and signed,” Olson said.

Jar Appeal
Strategically adding elements of color and texture to your jars adds visual appeal along with the opportunity to communicate your farm brand. The new free toolkit, Cottage Food Success:
A Labeling Guide and Toolkit for Creating Canned Food Products that Sell, details step-by-step processes for adding easy decorative elements to your jars such as:

• Fabric toppers
• Paper toppers
• Washi tape (decorative fiber tape)
• Seasonal elements

Additionally, the labeling toolkit covers time management, including how to label and package efficiently, as well as increasing market sales through display design, sampling and inventory transport. It can be downloaded free at (Click on the jar on the top left.)

Because your batches are small in number and scale, you can readily adapt and change elements for specific markets such as holiday sales. The growing number of winter and holiday-focused markets prove to be fertile ground for increased pricing that ups your profit margin. When someone shops the weekly farmers’ market, he or she probably has a maximum they are willing to pay for a jar of pickles for a family supper. But when that same person shops a holiday market seeking something special to give their pickle-loving mother-in-law for the holidays, the price point may be higher.

Maximize this opportunity by changing up a few key elements to attract holiday sales, such as fabric toppers in a festive winter-themed pattern. Grouping items together in ready-to-give gift baskets also increases sales and profit margins. Collect inexpensive baskets at thrift stores and reuse them for holiday gift baskets.

“I can a variety of high-acid products using our CSA farm surplus all summer long, and especially find my salsas and spicy items sell well when folks are looking to stock for holiday gifts or their winter larder,” shared Erin Schneider of Hilltop Community Farm in LaValle, Wis. “I’ll package a few together in a basket and sell it all together at a premium price, ready to give as a gift.”

Tap into the more dormant winter months to research and plan your cottage food enterprise for the upcoming growing season. It’s the perfect time for getting supplies in place, designing labels and cutting fabric toppers while dreaming of planting those cucumber seeds in just a few short months for your new pickling enterprise!

Grant Opportunities
This article and the online resource, Cottage Food Success:
A Labeling Guide and Toolkit for Creating Canned Food Products that Sell, evolved out of a Farmer Rancher Grant from North Central SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education). These grants support individual farm projects or cooperative ventures involving two or three farmers to explore sustainable solutions to problems through on-farm research, demonstration, and education projects.

“This labeling toolkit project is an example of how farmers can identify their business and marketing needs and issues, research and create solutions, and then share their findings with other farmers,” explained Joan Benjamin, Farmer Rancher Grant Program Coordinator and Associate Regional Coordinator for North Central SARE. “This collaborative, resource-sharing approach is the core of what SARE and specifically these Farmer Rancher Grants are all about, collaboratively learning together to advance sustainable agriculture.”

Other examples of recently awarded Farmer Rancher Grants include testing apple varietals for cider-production, field testing mulberries for commercial production and developing local marketing coalitions for value-added meat production.

Learn more about the opportunities offered by a SARE Farmer Rancher Grant by visiting the website Even though the deadline for the next Farmer Rancher Grant application is toward the end of the year, start planning now so you have time to prepare a winning application for this competitive program.

Lisa Kivirist and John D. Ivanko are the authors of Homemade for Sale: How to Set Up and Market a Food Business from Your Home, the first authoritative national guide on setting up a food product business under cottage food law. Kivirist also leads the MOSES Rural Women’s Project.

From the January | February 2017 Issue

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