Cottage Food Activism
Lisa Kivirist, an old hand at this whole Rootstock Radio thing (listen to her other episode here!) is still involved with supporting, empowering and connecting women farmers through Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and serves as a Senior Fellow, Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota.
Recently, Lisa has also redoubled her efforts around cottage food activism in Wisconsin. Fighting for people to be able to sell low-risk foods, like cookies for instance, that they make in their own kitchens is really common sense to Lisa. “what we’re talking about is actually the ‘oldest’ newest thing,” she says, reminding us that before commercial kitchens were even a concept people sold goods they’d cooked in their home kitchens almost exclusively.
While some people wonder about the safety of food that’s not made in a commercial kitchen, Lisa makes a good point: “When you go to the big industrial grocery stores you don’t know where things come from or who made it. Who’s to say that’s safer?” And again, she’s not trying to make it legal to make and sell high-risk items in home kitchens throughout Wisconsin. She’s angling for clearance on “things that are super safe, super accessible and can be brought to a farmers’ market for example.”
“This is about as transparent a food process as we could ever achieve where you are buying directly from the producer,” she elaborates, saying that the passage of a “Cookie bill” allowing cottage food businesses to flourish would especially benefit women. “There is something so empowering in moving from homebaker hobbiest to entrepreneur business owner” says Lisa, underscoring the fact that in order to vote this bill into law, we need elected officials in office who are receptive and in tune with the needs of their constituents. Lisa believes that more women, and especially women farmers and women entrepreneurs in politics would be a great place to start.
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Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Lisa Kivirist, a Senior Fellow, Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota. And also Lisa is a Kellogg Food and Community Fellow. She is an author, by herself and also with her husband; they’ve written four or five books. She’s also part of a three-woman team who are fighting since 2016 to allow selling home-baked goods in Wisconsin. Welcome, Lisa!
LISA KIVIRIST: Hey, thank you, Theresa!
TM: It is so much fun to talk with you again. For our listeners, we interviewed Lisa in 2016. And what an honor it is, Lisa, to talk with someone so dedicated to women and their roles in both agriculture and in the rural world, and also in politics. Today, I’d really want to start out and talk about the Cookie Bill. Besides the fact that it’s got a really fun name, I know that in the last two years you have really been working hard to try and bring back the ability for women and men to be able to bake goods in their home and sell them. And I know that every state is a little bit different, but can you tell us about the Cookie Bill in Wisconsin?
LK: You bet, Theresa. So what we’re talking about is actually the oldest, newest thing, right? Making something in your home kitchen and selling it to your neighbor is about the oldest form of commerce. But it got a little complicated with regulations and layers of governmental involvement over the last 50 years. So the cottage food movement is still fairly new, in that just about every state now—except for New Jersey; we’re working on that—has a cottage food law. They are state-specific, because every state interprets the food code a little differently. And these are laws that allow folks like ourselves to, bottom line, get food businesses up and running with really no investment because we’re using our home kitchens.
So the majority of these state laws have sprung up since 2008 and the Great Recession back then, when forward-thinking states really took this opportunity and said, what can we do to help support small-scale food entrepreneurs get started, particularly during trying economic times? So here in our dear state of Wisconsin, we’ve been a little slower on the uptake, in that in 2010 we passed what is called the Pickle Bill, which basically allows high-acid foods to be sold, made out of home kitchens. So basically, what we’re talking about with cottage food are nonhazardous foods—things that are super safe, super accessible and can be brought to a farmers’ market, for example, and on a table for an afternoon.
So the minute that passed, I said, jeez, what could we do for baked goods? Every other state allows us to sell baked goods. I run, here on our farm in Serendipity, we’ve run a bed and breakfast for now over 20 years. I can legally serve you muffins, but I can’t legally sell you those same muffins. That’s crazy! So yeah, that’s what prompted the Cookie Bill, which basically was a bill that we wanted to become a law to allow Wisconsin citizens to have that right to sell our home-baked goods. And long, long story short, it got complicated by politics and politicians and industry influence, who apparently were scared of the little mom-and-pop bakers. And we never got that law passed.
So I rethought about the high school civics lesson, in that we have three branches of government. We couldn’t get anything going in the legislative, so then we and my fellow farmer friends, Dela Ends at Scotch Hill Farm and Kriss Marion at Circle M Farm, with some legal help from the Institute for Justice, went to the judicial branch, filed a lawsuit against the State of Wisconsin on behalf of home bakers and the right to sell baked goods. The judge ruled very strongly in our favor last year, that yes, this ban on the sale of homemade baked goods is unconstitutional. And bottom line, everyone in Wisconsin now has the right to sell their nonhazardous baked goods.
So we’re still dealing with politics because we still aren’t getting the law passed. We’re in a unique unprecedented situation here in Wisconsin, really, where we have a judge’s ruling authorizing that, yes, we can bake and we are, and businesses have been wonderfully popping up throughout the state. But we don’t have a law, so there’s a lot of great collaborative education and sharing of information and working together as an entrepreneurial community. So that’s Wisconsin in a nutshell. And I’m very excited because in this whole process it really sparked me to reset to cottage food and the opportunities—particularly for women, because women still run the majority of these operations around the country. They’re small, they’re part-time, it’s a stay-at-home mom who says, “Hey, I want to start selling my cookies.” And it made me realize the possibility of all of this.
So that’s what prompted John and I to write the Homemade for Sale book, which is really more of a national resource for getting cottage food businesses started. But now it’s finally a resource in Wisconsin as well. And there’s bakeries popping up, home bakeries, and things are finally sweeter here.
TM: So yeah, Homemade for Sale, for those of you who are saying, gee, I’m kind of interested in this kind of “cottage industry” idea. But what you just said just made me think of a number of things. For example, I have a feeling that there are probably many of our listeners are saying, well, what about food safety, Lisa? How can we be assured that these baked goods are safe? I mean, they’re not pickles.
LK: Sure! Well, no, two things—number one: this is about as transparent a food process as we could ever achieve, where you are buying directly from the producer. So if you come up to my stand at the farmers’ market, ask me questions. You see me; meet me. Get to know where your food is coming from directly. Cottage food products, there’s state-specific requirements usually, but they’re labeled—who made it, when they made it, the address, the kitchen, et cetera.
So it’s your choice. When you go to the big industrial grocery stores, you don’t know where things come from or who made it. Who’s to say that’s safer? But secondly, and more importantly, I really place a high priority on our home kitchens, and argue that we as a country need to get back to that of trusting our neighbors. Our kitchens are where we serve our family and our friends and our kids, and everybody comes through our kitchens. And I like to think, in my heart, that yeah, that’s the safest place around, and to trust other people on that note. But bottom line, it’s everybody’s choice and it is an extremely transparent process.
What we’re talking about here, when we talk about nonhazardous baked goods, there’s a scientific definition, but it has to do with low moisture. So these are things that, bottom line, wouldn’t need to be refrigerated. So a lot of breads, cookies. Not a cheesecake or a custard pie or something that needs refrigeration to keep safe. So we are talking about a particular category of goods as well.
TM: Well, Lisa, I got kind of confused, because I live around a lot of Amish and there are, like, every mile there’s a bakery. And they certainly have been selling these baked goods since before 2016. Do we have different rules and regulations for the Amish during that period?
LK: No, we shouldn’t. It’s one of two things: in most cases Amish farms do have a commercial kitchen, a commercial bakery on site. Sometimes they’re shared. It’s not a huge endeavor to build a bakery. It needs to be a separate building. There’s state-specific regulations on what that is. It is a cost investment, but that is what most Amish do have on site and it might be shared by multiple farms, et cetera. There are also, secondly, and some Amish may fall under this, there is a nonprofit exemption for bake sales. So a church or the Girl Scouts or other bake sales that you see popping up, an organization can have up to 12 of those a year, and those would not also be subject to inspection. So one of those two things they would fall under.
TM: How is a licensed kitchen different than your kitchen?
LK: Sure. Well, one key fact is it is a separate kitchen, so one could never get their home kitchen certified as commercial. So once you’re talking about a separate kitchen, there’s a cost involved there. It’s usually in a separate building. There’s specific requirements on flooring and walls and the type of equipment, et cetera. It’s an investment. What’s interesting, and I find so inspiring, is there are many case study stories now of cottage food businesses that start up at home and then outgrow and become commercial food enterprises and build a commercial kitchen or rent one or, bottom line, get up to scale, but are always first in line to say, “Hey, I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t have started and experimented in my home kitchen without that investment right away.”
TM: You know, the politics of this is what I find fascinating. For example, the Cookie Bill went to the Wisconsin Senate twice and passed and yet the House, you couldn’t even get it on the agenda because the Speaker of the House actually has his own business in dessert-type products. That kind of conflict of interest in politics is certainly starting to really annoy me. But is there any pushback on that? I feel like I wish there was a bill or permission, because I’m afraid that our gains could get lost if the wrong bill went through. So, have you thought about continuing to try and get that Cookie Bill through? And how are you trying to work with the House on that?
LK: Oh, you bet. And that was our intent and approach all along, was a collaborative, cooperative process of working together to come up with a bill that would eventually be a law that would serve everybody. And I’m realizing it’s a complicated process that takes time, especially if you are farmers like ourselves without money to influence. It’s a system that is ingrained, in that it does not always champion, definitely doesn’t champion the underdog, and often doesn’t champion the needs of the people. Which is why we have to sometimes be louder and more creative.
But yeah, things get stymied and complicated. And that’s exactly what happened in this situation, where we have had multiple times a decent law pass the Senate and never get to the House for a vote because in this case our Speaker of the House doesn’t like it, receives checks, influence from other industry groups, and bottom line has the power to control that. And when we have centralized power like that, however it happens in any shade of government, that does not protect our rights.
And that’s where, fortunately, as Americans we do have these three branches of government and there are other ways to amplify messages if they have to. It was never our intent nor desire to sue the state. That’s not what we wanted. We want to sit around the table, as we do, and eat cookies and work something out. But when that is not possible by things out of your control, we do have options.
TM: So, you know, I was intrigued by the fact that in your county you have three organic women, I think, on—was it the county board? Is that still true?
LK: Sure. Here in Green County, yep, we have several, and several more running, on county board and other township boards and local positions. Kriss Marion, one of the plaintiffs on this team with me, she’s on county board in Lafayette County and is currently running for state senate. And a lot of her motivations to run for higher office stemmed from our experience with this whole Cookie Bill battle and the fact that we need more people in elected office who understand farmers, who understand rural areas, who understand the needs of small business, and to bring that message, in this case, to Madison. So I’m really excited about the election this year. I think we’ve got new voices at the table and particularly female voices and voices of people who have been underrepresented or unrepresented in the past. And that can be a game changer.
TM: I’m fascinated with this idea of cookies leading to deepening our political understanding.
LK: Totally! But, you know, it’s something I find everybody can relate to, because—well, number one: yeah, everybody loves a good cookie. But secondly, I have rarely met anybody who will even challenge me on the fact that what harm is there in selling a cookie? Do you know? This is about as basic Americana commerce as we have, is making something in your kitchen and, again, selling it to your local community.
And the other underlying fact to that is there is something so empowering with moving from home-baker hobbyist to entrepreneur business owner. And that’s especially important, I see, for women, where there’s a lot of women who make beautiful decorated cookies or a special holiday bread or the family cookie recipe, whatever it may be, and all their life they’ve been making this and giving it away. And all their friends and family have said, “You should sell this someday!” Well, guess what? Now you can. And it’s your friends and family who will be your first and most loyal and enthusiastic customers. And all of a sudden, when that’s a financial transaction and you introduce yourself not just as “I love to bake cookies,” but “I own XYZ bakery,” that’s empowering and that’s a real game changer on so many levels. And that’s the easy on-ramp that these cottage food opportunities can particularly provide women.
TM: Well, you know, we supposedly live in a democracy. I think that there’s a number of us who probably are going to challenge that in today’s environment. Part of a democracy, of course, is this idea of choices and free enterprise and opportunity. And it seems to me, though, that when someone like the Assembly Speaker, Robin Vos, who owns his own commercial food business and then refuses to allow the Assembly to even vote on the Cookie Bill, that that clearly is anti-democratic. Is there any way that anybody can slap their hands for that? I guess that’s the first question. And then the second question, of course, is how many cottage industries does it take to erode someone’s commercial business? It just seems like it’s not that big a deal.
LK: Totally, totally. So, to your first question on slapping politicians that don’t listen to their constituents or citizenry at large: yeah, we can do something about that! We can vote. I mean, that’s the bottom line. And getting out there and voicing our opinion in the ballot box is what will change our leadership and get more people like Kriss Marion in office and people who we feel confident will represent us. That’s the bottom line there.
But secondly, too, to your question on cottage food businesses really being a competition, two things to that. Number one: really, no. The majority of cottage business we’re talking about are small. They stay small intentionally. There’s something somebody can do on the side or do during the holiday season or whenever it may ebb and flow. And that’s the point. And it’s very localized and it’s not taking away from the big box retailers or anything like that. But it is a form of education and it’s a form of alternatives for our communities to realize that, hey, I can use my money to buy a loaf of bread from my neighbor, and the money stays local and there’s that multiplier effect, and I know them and I know what ingredients they use, et cetera, than just blindly going to the big box retailers and none of that stays in my community. So yeah, that’s number one.
And number two is, we are still a country that is defined by free enterprise, and economic competition is not a bad thing, and we don’t create rules. We legally cannot create laws that serve as corporate monopolies and that create barriers, undue barriers, for small business. And that’s what we’re talking about here.
TM: I think we’re talking about some very basic tenets of democracy and making sure that we have them and we bring them back. Lisa, I’m so inspired with all the different programs that you have worked on with MOSES and with the other organizations that you work with at the university, with Kellogg. I’m wanting to probe a little bit more on, what have you seen in the last couple years since we’ve spoke, on women becoming more involved in taking more responsibility, both on the farm as farmers? Certainly, there’s a statistic our there that there may be as many as 40 percent women farmers now. Can you talk a little bit about that?
LK: Sure. Well, it’s exciting and it’s inspiring because there definitely is that, again, multiplier effect of strength through numbers. And women in particular, women farmers definitely in particular, we grow our strength in networks and knowing each other. And I definitely see that here in my farm-hood in Green County in the southern part of Wisconsin, where we now have a really strong network of women committed to organic and sustainable ag. Some of us are farmers but we’re also enthusiastic home gardeners and shoppers and growers. But we share that sustainability value.
And that’s empowering, both in the information-gathering perspective—we have a local listserv, and there’s so much fun daily activity there on anything from somebody needs to swap a ram to have a question… I posted a question about cooking frozen eggplant today. Do you know, there’s a great resource there. But it’s also, more importantly, knowing that you have this local sisterhood of women who have your back. And that is what is really propelling us to take risks and take next steps.
And I know Kriss Marion may be the first one in line to say she’s running for Senate because she knows that she has her tribe of women in the organic and sustainable ag sphere who are behind her 100 percent. And that empowers us to, again, think out of the box, try new things, run for office, create new businesses, sue the state, whatever it may be. We do it better and stronger together.
And I must say, Theresa, we have a whole lot more fun when we do it together. Dela and Kriss and I, one day we need to write this whole story down of our cookie saga in Wisconsin because it’s been almost five years now and we’re starting to forget some of the minutiae. But the point is we laugh through it, we drink a lot of coffee and wine through it, and we’re the best of friends. And that is the real important message to all this, is that democracy is participatory and it’s a whole lot more fun with friends.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here with Lisa Kivirist, author, farmer, advocate for women in agriculture, advocate for women in politics. And today we’re talking about a Wisconsin effort to make home-baked goods and cottage industries a lot easier for women to sell their cookies, and [it’s] called the Cookie Bill.
And, Lisa, I guess I need to ask you, the other word that I’m definitely going to adopt is farm-hood. And how would you describe your farm-hood? How far away, how large is the farm-hood?
LK: Yeah, that’s a great question! For me, a farm-hood is roughly an hour radius from where you live. And I say that because that’s roughly how far I’m willing to drive. So when we have our local women and sustainable and organic ag potlucks, there’s no borders, anybody’s welcome. But that’s really what we want to grow as far as our local communities, because those are people that we’ll readily see. They’re women that we can drive to their farm and help them when they need it. And we’re here and we are rooted in this community and we are committed to the future and are willing to action for whatever change we may see for that. And we can do it together.
So there’s definitely that local farm-hood. And then we’re all part of that larger spiritual farm-hood, because there’s a lot of stories that we need to share amongst each other, especially state-to-state. The cottage food movement’s a great example of learnings from each state and collaborations, because we’re all, in many ways, fighting the same battle and in many ways we’re running similar businesses that are not competitive. We’re doing similar things but in different parts of the country. And that’s what I love about the cottage food baking community in particular. And you see that really rising here in Wisconsin now.
And it goes against, it defies any business school mantra of why would you teach your competitor how to do what you’re doing? But that’s what we do, as bakers, as farmers, as people committed to sustainable communities, right? We share. And we know that when we all thrive as businesses, everybody thrives even more. So that’s been, again, part of that fun factor, but it’s been great to share.
TM: Well, it’s that high tide rises all boats, kinds of idea. And I can’t help it, since we talked in 2016, #MeToo happened. It’s certainly focused on rather dismal information about how women are sexually harassed. But I almost feel that, as I look at women who are trying to get in politics, it’s hard for a woman to say, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” Isn’t there some kind of, something even more subtle about discouraging women to do things like cottage industries and to go into politics?
LK: Oh, sure. There’s so much discouragement out there. And a lot of it is covert, it’s subtle. It’s a lot of messaging that a woman hears when she brings her tractor to the machine shop and they ask, “Where’s the farmer?” I mean, it still happens all the time, of not being taken seriously in the roles, particularly when we have roles in very traditional industries like agriculture. So it’s there, but I like to think it is changing.
And in many cases, particularly in our organic community, it’s changing because women are creating their own rules. We’re not necessarily trying to fit in. And if we know another women who’s a fabulous mechanic—we’re actually doing our MOSES “In Her Boots” women-farmer workshops this summer on mechanics for women. If you know another women who can help fix your tractor, maybe you don’t have to go in that machine shop and you can just create a new system. And one that’s more community- and collaborative-focused is what I see happening a lot and gets me super excited.
TM: I like what you just said. You were saying more community-focused. So I kind of want to, though, continue to really peel back the onion on how can we get more women involved in the things that are just so not traditional, like politics? We need more women in leadership and in politics, on the government as well as on farms and in businesses, because we bring something, I believe, unique. And certainly one of the things is cooperation, community. You’re doing such a great job bringing women together, but how do we continue to do this work of bringing more women and making it easier for them to step up and say, “Sure, yeah, I’m going to run for office”?
LK: It’s interesting, Theresa. When you look at the research, and VoteRunLead is a national organization that does a lot of training for women running for office, and in their work have found that, number one, the good news: In all elections across the board, women win at the same rate as men, but we don’t run as much. So we can change that equation just by having more women run for office. And they’ve also found that the number one way a woman will run for office is to be asked. And there’s even research under how many times she has to be asked, and it’s several times! Whereas a guy will be much more likely to just say, “Hey, I’m running,” and not need to even really be connected on that front. They’ll just decide to do that. And it’s data that we need to embrace and, bottom line, ask each other.
And that’s my own personal mantra, is whenever I see anything come across my email box, or that I hear about an opportunity for another woman, be it a board that’s looking for applicants or an award that I feel she’s qualified for, or obviously a position that is open to run for, is to ask several women. And even if most of them say no and even if they say no for valid reasons, it plants a seed that, “Hey! Oh, my! My friend Lisa thought I could run for county board. Hmm…” Maybe, whatever, next year when all the kids are out of the house, or when another project is done, or whatever it may be, where the time is ripe, those seeds will have germinated already. So that’s super important.
And what I also do, too—which, if folks have to the time to do, helps a lot—is when these opportunities come up, like an award, for example, that you know somebody is qualified for, to offer to write their application, because we can sell each other much better than we can sell ourselves, is, I think, the reality. And it’s a fun thing to do, to write about your friends, and you know so much about what they’re doing. And then they can’t say no, right? Because you’ve already offered to draft it. So that’s something I love to do.
TM: Well, Lisa, as always it’s an honor and a pleasure to be speaking with you. [It] really inspires me to try and do more. Thank you so much for all you do.
LK: Thank you for all the education, outreach, and support you do for women. It’s all raising our ship, as you said.
TM: I’m now going to be talking to all my girlfriends about running for office, and writing them letters, and I hope that we can all start thinking about the opportunities that we could be having together by supporting each other. So I really appreciate that message that you gave us.
LK: Thank you!
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