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Cottage food law gives Minnesota bakers and canners freedom to sell

The 2015 law, amended in 2021, outlines just what can and can't be sold at farmers markets and the like without a license.

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Rosy Petersen, of DeGraff, sells her home-grown and home-canned pickles June 24, 2021, at the Benson Farmers Market. Minnesota passed its cottage food law back in 2015 and amended it in 2021. The law allows residents to produce and sell a wide range of food โ€” such as canned vegetables, pickles, jams, jellies and baked goods โ€” without a license.
Carolyn Lange/ West Central Tribune file photo

WILLMAR โ€” Customers to any of the dozens of farmer's markets that pop up across the region during the growing season are bound to find a cornucopia of not only vegetables but jams, jellies, salsas, sauces and baked goods to match any sweet tooth.

Prior to 2015, it was a different story. It was rather challenging to sell homemade goods in Minnesota without a license, which could add many layers of rules and regulations to the process. However, that changed when the Minnesota Cottage Foods Law was passed.

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Amy Johnston
Contributed / University of Minnesota Extension

"The passage of the law opened up opportunities for Minnesota growers and entrepreneurs to contribute to their livelihoods," said Amy Johnston, University of Minnesota Extension food safety educator.

Johnston and fellow food safety educator Cindy Hale gave an overview of the Cottage Food Law at the 2023 Extension Women in Ag Network Conference held Feb. 7 in Willmar.

"There are a lot of shoulds," Hale said. "You need to know what are the musts, what are the things you have to do."

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Dale Highlander, left, Heather Flynn, right, and 5-year-old Abegayle Highlander select jars of pickles June 24, 2021, at the Benson Farmers Market. The cottage food law not only provides revenue opportunities for farmers but also puts rules in place to keep consumers safe from foodborne illnesses.
Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune

Safe for eating

The law allows people to produce homemade goods in their own kitchens and then sell them directly to consumers without having to have a food handlers license. There are rules a cottage food producer must follow โ€” and training to go through โ€” but it is a far easier process to go through than other food licensing.

"It is not a high bar, but gives you the skills you need to feel you are doing it right," Hale said.

For starters, cottage food producers are only allowed to sell what are considered non-potentially hazardous (NPH) foods. This means the finished products don't support the growth of bacteria or don't have to be kept at a certain temperature (either hot or cold) to remain safe. Goods that are considered NPHs are usually acidic, dry or contain high amounts of sugar or salt.

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Cindy Hale
Contributed / University of Minnesota Extension

"It is food that doesn't make somebody sick when they eat it," Johnston said. "There is a whole range of non-potentially hazardous foods."

To make sure a food product is a NPH, the state has two ways of measuring it, and a cottage food producer must follow at least one of them. The first is that the finished product as a pH level of 4.6 or lower, meaning it is acidic. The second is water activity of 0.85 or less. This is usually doable for food that is dry or has a high sugar content.

"Most baked goods, they meet the criteria of being NPH by meeting the low water activity," even though they usually contain eggs and dairy, Hale said.

PH can easily be tested at home with an affordable tester. Water activity can be a little bit more difficult as water activity meters can be very expensive. Instead, Hale recommends finding a lab that will do the testing for you.

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While regular honey from the hive is considered product of the farm and can be sold without a license or registration, if a producer adds flavoring it is considered a cottage food and must follow those regulations.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

The Minnesota Cottage Food Producers Association keeps an updated list of foods that are considered NPHs and can be sold as cottage foods. It is not an exhaustive list, and new foods are occasionally added. The list gives producers an idea of what can and can't be sold as cottage foods, and ways to produce food that does fit under the requirements.

"There are a lot of different culinary and cooking skills sets among our producers and growers," Johnston said. "Having this diverse list of foods you can make and sell really helps expand the variety."

Food that is excluded from the cottage food exemption are dairy, eggs, fish, meat, poultry and seafood because they require additional safety precautions to be safe to eat. There are other licensure requirements to sell these kinds of foods.

Some food products โ€” such as eggs, meat, honey and maple syrup โ€” might fall under the Product of the Farm exemption, which allows producers to sell it without a license. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has an online tool called the Food Licensing Wizard to help potential producers see if they need a license or not to sell their product.

Tiers and labels

To be law-abiding, cottage food producers must register with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and take the training to become an either Tier 1 or Tier 2 producer.

The tier a producer falls into depends on the annual gross sale of the cottage food business. The 2021 amendment to the law updated the revenue levels. Tier 1 is for producers with annual gross sales less than $7,665, while Tier 2 is for sales from $7,666 to $78,000 annually.

"It allows cottage food producers to more substantially contribute to their farm's bottom line," Johnston said.

To be a Tier 1 producer, a person must complete a self-guided training course, which Hale explained is little more than a PowerPoint presentation. The Tier 1 training is free and needs to be retaken annually. There is no annual registration fee for Tier 1 producers.

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"The hurdle is not high at all to get into Tier 1 cottage food production," Hale said. "That is the best place to start."

The training for Tier 2 is a little bit more involved โ€” a four-hour online, self-paced program. The training is $50 and needs to be retaken every three years. There is also an annual $50 Tier 2 registration fee.

Hale said the training for cottage food isn't too complicated no matter which tier the producer ends up registering for. That is mostly because the state trusts that farmers, bakers and other cottage food producers know what they are doing.

"Producers, especially growers, you get food safety," Hale said. "You are not going to be out there doing stupid stuff."

The label of the product being made and sold is also important. The state has mandated information that must be included in all the food labels of cottage food product. The label must have the name of the registrant (not their business name, but their actual name), either their address or their registration number, the date the food was prepared, a list of all ingredients and a list of all possible allergens including things such as sesame, eggs, wheat and peanuts. If a producer is using any ingredients that have their own ingredients, those have to be listed as well.

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Martin's Produce and Greenhouse had homemade noodles, apple butter and Minnesota-grown honey available for sale at the farmers market Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in the parking lot of Uptown Willmar. Cottage food producers are mandated to include several things on their produce labels, including their names, registration number or address and an ingredient list.
Kit Grode / West Central Tribune

"It is important to list sub-ingredients. Especially things that can have secret allergens in them," Hale said. "Spices and oils often can be lurkers with secret allergens."

The last required piece to the label is the disclaimer that reads "These products are homemade and not subject to state inspection." Hale said the words must be on every product that is being sold as cottage food and needs to be in a font that is readable.

If the producer wants, they can add more information to the label such as their business name, the name of the product and even the pH level of the food. Hale said customers love talking to the producers about the food, so the label is the perfect tool to start those conversations.

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"Use your label as a way to provide information to them, meet your regulatory requirements and engage your customers," Hale said.

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The Minnesota Cottage Food law has allowed growers and producers to sell a wide range of products at area farmers markets including baked goods, jams, jellies and much more.
Briana Sanchez / West Central Tribune file photo

Ask for help

While registering to be a cottage food producer may not be all that hard, both Hale and Johnston said people might have questions. There are many places to find information about what is and isn't allowed for cottage food. MDA has a question and answer section about the rules of cottage food; there is the Minnesota Cottage Food Producers Association and the Minnesota Farmers Market Association ; and, of course, there is the University of Minnesota Extension .

Both Hale and Johnston are new to their positions, but they have a lot of ideas to better educate the public on not only cottage food but a whole list of food topics. Over the next year, they hope to increase the amount of outreach they do.

"We are the unwrinklers," Hale said. "One of our goals in the next year is to work really closely with local educators."

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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