A back-to-the-farm movement is spurring a new kind of small business entrepreneur.
From small u-pick blueberry farms to backyard chicken roosts to garden vegetable patches, more and more people are finding their calling in the cottage food industry.
They often set up shop in farmers’ markets, food truck rallies and local festivals.
For many, it is a new direction in their lives.
“This is a dream for some people,” said Whitney Elmore, Pasco County extension director. “It can be the start of something bigger. We can help them do that.”
About 75 people attended the inaugural Tampa Bay Cottage Industry Expo on July 30 at Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel.
The daylong workshop gave participants a chance to learn from experts from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Sciences, and cottage industry entrepreneurs.
The expo laid the groundwork for what organizers hope will become an annual event.
“I think over the years we will see these exhibits and spaces grow,” said Elmore.
Participants could choose from sessions on topics such as Fruit and Vegetable Marketing; Social Media: Getting Back to the Basics; Hydroponics Production; and, Cottage Food: Do I Need to Think About Food Safety?
Derek and Annie Muscato, who is an associate director at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, own Impossible Dreams, an equestrian facility near Gainesville.
But, they want to explore how they could expand their enterprise.
“We’re trying to look at something else,” said Derek Muscato. “I want to possibly learn how to grow crops for myself.”
For anyone new to a cottage food industry or expanding an existing small business, the bureaucratic maze of regulations, that vary widely from state to state, can be difficult. Even at the local level, rules might be tweaked county to county.
“You really have to check on what kind of rules you have,” said Soo Ahn, keynote speaker and assistant professor with the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at the University of Florida.
Ahn said the explosion in cottage food industries took off in the early 2000s as people sought healthier, organic foods. Now, 48 states and the District of Columbia have cottage food laws.
The holdouts – Hawaii and New Jersey – have pending laws.
Under Florida law, adopted for the first time in 2011, there are no requirements for permits or food inspections.
However, packaging and labeling on products is required. Complaints can lead to investigations by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Only certain foods are covered under Florida law, and gross annual sales are capped at $15,000.
“You can really only operate as a hobby,” Ahn said. But with Florida’s limited regulations, she said, “It’s understandable that we have a lower sales cap.”
Two bills are expected to be introduced to the Florida Legislature in 2017 that could either increase the sales cap or eliminate it.
When states adopt $50,000 and above, or no caps at all, “then, it becomes more like a business,” she said. “It opens more doors.”
Ahn did a study of cottage food industries that found broad inconsistencies in how well people followed regulations or maintained food safety.
Sometimes that was due to lack of education or knowing where to find information, but sometimes, Ahn said, people chose to ignore rules.
And, that can be costly in the event of complaints and inspections.
Sometimes people think because they are selling baked goods from “granny’s recipe” that nothing could go wrong.
But Ahn said, “One little incident can totally close your business down.”
For example, she found that in operations she observed, about 72 percent didn’t provide bathrooms or wash basins. And, only 14 percent used gloves or tools to handle food.
“This (gloves) is like food safety 101,” Ahn said. “But, this is really not observed in most of the market.”
To be economically successful, Ahn said people need to be sure they are in compliance with regulations and maintain food safety.
Measures to do that include keeping a clean kitchen, banning pets from food preparation areas, pre-cutting and pre-packing tasting samples at home before going to the market, and taking food safety and training classes.
A one-day workshop, sponsored by the University of Florida Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, will be held on Aug. 16 in Orlando on “Best Practices of Farmers’ Markets.” For information and to register, visit EventBrite.com.
If you would like to learn more, visit FSHN.ifas.ufl.edu.
Published August 10, 2016