Oklahoma's 'Cottage Food' Restrictions Are Hurting Food Producers and Sellers
Oklahomans who want to take advantage of the state’s cottage food law are finding some surprising obstacles in their way.
Oklahomans who want to take advantage of the state's cottage food law are finding some surprising obstacles in their way.
The obstacles came to light when Farm Hippie, a new market in Collinsville, about a half-hour's drive north of Tulsa, sought to be designated as a farmers market.
The designation made sense: Farm Hippie sells a variety of farmed and artisanal goods, including homemade baked goods produced by locals. (Farm Hippie appears to operate at least in part on something of a consignment model.)
But the state denied Farm Hippie's application to operate as a farmers market, designating it instead as a garden-variety retail store. That status change meant foods Farm Hippie sold that were produced legally in local home kitchens—known as cottage foods—were suddenly illegal.
The owners of the market are confused and upset.
"Many of these people, they're making these products to try and have additional income," said Ash Winfield, one of the owners of Farm Hippie, in remarks reported by News on 6, Tulsa's CBS affiliate. "That's really what we want to do is just bring attention to the current legislation, and let's remove some of those current barriers and allow people to sell where they choose to sell."
Bakers who've sold their homemade foods through Farm Hippie are also at a loss. Coze Hamilton, a retiree who sold homemade rum cakes at Farm Hippie, told KJRH that her $4.50 rum cakes don't make her enough profit for her to take on added expenses.
"If… I have to [bake in] a commercial kitchen, I don't think I'll be able to afford to do it," Hamilton says.
Cottage foods are increasingly common. A report released last year by Harvard Law School's Food Law & Policy Clinic details the ins and outs of 50 state cottage food laws around the country. (Though the District of Columbia has a cottage food law in place, New Jersey remains the only state that doesn't allow some type of cottage food sales.)
The Harvard report examines common elements within all 50 state laws, including regulations pertaining to permissible sales venues, types of foods (typically "non-hazardous" in nature) allowed to be sold, licensing requirements, and labeling rules.
While many state cottage food laws are problematic, as I first noted in a 2011 Reason post, Oklahoma's law isn't half bad. But that doesn't mean it can't—or shouldn't—be improved. As the Harvard report notes, for example, Oklahoma caps gross annual cottage food sales at $20,000. That's quite low. In fact, most states have no cap at all.
Given that Oklahoma's sales cap is needlessly low, and the state's crackdown on sales at venues such as Farm Hippie makes little sense, maybe it's time to remember why the state—why any state—adopted a cottage food law in the first place. Simply put, these laws are intended to benefit farmers, home cooks, budding entrepreneurs, and consumers alike. As I detailed in my 2016 book Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, cottage food laws have the potential both to allow greater access to and choices in the marketplace.
Now consider the purpose of cottage food laws in light of several Oklahoma realities. Last week, The New York Times reported that Oklahoma is one of several states that's studying ways to improve rural residents' access to fresh foods. Some Oklahoma farmers, meanwhile, are hard at work "making local organic food more accessible" to Oklahomans. At the same time, many Oklahoma farmers are struggling.
Oklahoma's cottage food law can and should be one vehicle to help consumers and farmers deal with these issues. If the state wants to realize the full benefits of cottage food sales, though, Oklahoma lawmakers will have to amend the law to make it easier for markets such as Farm Hippie and vendors like Coze Hamilton—and the consumers both serve—to succeed.