FORT WAYNE -- Abby Hardy has loved being part of a family farm business her whole life, and she has also loved baking for about as long as she can remember.
Now she’s thinking about combining both – by selling homemade cookies at her family farm’s roadside stand on Knoll Road in southwest Fort Wayne.
“I’d like to make frosted sugar cookies in the shape of ears of corn,” the 27-year-old says, adding that the stand’s sweet corn is one of its most popular summertime offerings.
So, last month Hardy attended a Web-based seminar outlining a little-known exemption in state food laws. Since 2009, the exemption has allowed Hoosiers to prepare a limited array of food products in a home kitchen and sell them at farmers markets and roadside stands.
The event, “Cooking Up a Food Business in the Home Kitchen: Opportunities and Challenges of Starting or Growing a Home-Based Food Vendor Enterprise,” was hosted by the Allen County branch of the Purdue Extension Service, which has had similar programs around the state.
Roy Ballard, a Purdue extension educator in Hancock County familiar with the seminar, says the exemption was passed as a way to spur entrepreneurialism.
“I think people have been very reluctant until this law to produce foods for sale in their home. This does open it up for a lot of people to get their toe in the door for food production,” he says.
The exemption means that, unlike other food-selling or producing establishments, home-based food vendors don’t have to be licensed, permitted or registered nor have their kitchens routinely inspected by health officials.
While the lack of red tape may be appealing, “There’s a lot of limitations on what you can and cannot do,” says Steve Engelking, small farm coordinator and extension educator for Purdue’s LaGrange County office, which hosted a seminar in May.
Home-based vendors can sell only “non-potentially hazardous food products,” which must be labeled with their ingredients and that the products were produced in an uninspected facility, he said.
Producers also must test to make sure their food meets parameters for water content and pH, a measure of acidity or alkalinity, and kitchens must use proper sanitation, the LaGrange seminar attendees were told.
Animal products, non-baked dairy- or egg-containing foods, cut produce, “acidified foods” such as salsas and low-acid canned goods, such as canned green beans, are not allowed.
Jams, jellies and preserves can be made and sold under the exemption, but fruit butters and low- or no-sugar fruit spreads are out. Sauerkraut is okay as a fermented food.
Vendors can’t sell their foods at retail establishments, such as grocery stores or restaurants, or at festivals.They also can’t prepare non-hazardous foods and other foods that require more regulation in the same kitchen. “It’s one or the other,” Engelking says.
Still, the rules leave a lot room for home cooks, according to people familiar with the exemption.
Other products that can be sold include breads, cakes, cookies and dessert bars, nuts, honey, candies and confections.
Mary Rice of Fort Wayne says the exemption helped her set up a business baking bread, pies with locally grown fruit and her grandmother’s chocolate crinkle cookies.
“They’re a hot commodity,” says the 52-year-old woman, who sells at the Historic West Main Street Farmers Market on Fridays.
“I do fresh vegetables when they’re in season, and I do baking in between, and it has improved my business,” she says. “At the time when I started it, I was unemployed so it brought in more money to help pay the bills, and last year I did make a nice profit off of it.”
Engelking says local officials are somewhat split on the effect of the exemption. Some see it as a boon to the county’s many Amish farm families, while others believe all food producers should follow stricter regulations because of the large number of tourists who visit the county and its food-oriented attractions.
LaGrange’s health officials try to nudge home food producers into becoming regulated food establishments, he says.
Engelking says that many people who buy from roadside stands or at farmers markets may not know that some products come from uninspected kitchens and urges caution on the part of buyers and producers.
“My advice to buyers is look for labels. … My advice to (potential vendors) is get to know the local health (department enforcement) people. Get them involved early on, and let them know you’re interested in learning,” he says.
Gonzalee Martin, Allen County extension educator for agriculture and natural resources, says it’s in vendors’ best interests to care about food safety to protect their own and their markets’ reputations. He expects interest in home-vendor exemptions will grow as more farmers markets spring up.
About a dozen people attended Allen County’s seminar, and more than 175 signed up statewide, although some were not current or potential food producers, he said.
After hearing about the food restrictions, Joan Sumter of LaGrange decided against becoming a home-based vendor. Her idea was to sell slow cooker meals at lunch to local factory workers, but she found that wouldn’t be allowed under the exemption.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a long-time, but I think it’s not for me,” she said.
But Hardy says her idea is still on the front burner.
She says she may start small by selling a few dozen cookies only on the weekends after the stand opens the second week in July.
“I have to sanitize everything, so it’s going to be a process to get started,” she says. “It was a really useful seminar. And I think we’re going to give it a try.”