Expansion of cottage foods law

Expansion of cottage foods law adds another chapter to Paonia baker’s cookbook

Paying it forward for pickle makers

Monica Wiitanen with some of her breads at Small Potatoes Farm, outside of Paonia. Photo courtesy of Slow Food Western Slope. Photo courtesy of Slow Food Western Slope

Monica Wiitanen with some of her breads at Small Potatoes Farm, outside of Paonia. Photo courtesy of Slow Food Western Slope.

When Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the Cottage Foods Expansion Act in June, he added another chapter to Monica Wiitanen’s political recipe book.

The Paonia farmer and baker was the driving force behind the original 2012 Colorado cottage foods law, which has been a boon to hundreds of small-batch producers around the state. The measure proved so popular, in fact, that Wiitanen and other advocates mounted a second campaign this spring to expand the act and pay it forward for an even wider circle of small farmers and home canners.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Wiitanen says of her adventures in lawmaking.

It started with a simple idea more than a decade ago. Wiitanen found she often ended the growing season with unsold garlic, chili peppers and other produce. There was a business opportunity in turning the excess produce into value-added products – if state health regs could be relaxed for home producers.

“That’s how farms used to survive,” notes Wiitanen. “They could make use of all these foods and then they could sell them in the off season.”

Kentucky had recently passed a law allowing its residents to make certain foods in their home kitchens for direct sale to consumers. Could Colorado do the same?

With the support of Western Colorado Congress, an alliance of community groups based in Grand Junction, Wiitanen worked with then-State Sen. Gail Schwartz to develop and pass Colorado’s first Cottage Foods Act. Enacted in 2012, it was a win for producers, consumers and the economy.

Previously, one-size-fits-all regulations – including the requirement that all food products be processed in a licensed commercial kitchen – made it unaffordable for small producers to enter the market. The new law trimmed some of the red tape for “non-potentially hazardous foods” – items like spices, teas, dehydrated produce, honey, jams, eggs and certain baked goods.

The latest expansion of the law, House Bill 1102, which passed in the final days of this year’s legislative session, adds flour, fruit empanadas and tortillas to the list. More significantly, it creates a second tier of products including “pickled vegetables,” and instructs the State Board of Health to establish rules for the safe production and sale of these products.

The new and improved Cottage Foods Act gives growers more opportunities to add value to their produce, and enables others to earn extra income producing cottage products. It also meets the growing demand of consumers for locally produced foods, and generally strengthens local economies and increases food security.

The measure enjoyed strong bipartisan support, with Reps. Millie Hamner (D-District 61) and Yeulin Willett (R-District 54) sponsoring it in the House, and Sens. Kerry Donovan (D-District 5) and Kevin Grantham (R-District 2) in the Senate.

Western Colorado Congress led the popular campaign in support of the bill.

Wiitanen, who has expanded her operation to include baking traditional breads in an outdoor wood-fired oven, says she’s pleased that the Cottage Foods Act is getting even better.

“When we were working on the bill the first time, I was thinking maybe I would make a couple thousand dollars a year. Well, now I’m making that every month,” she says. ” The extra income enables her to employ two helpers, and their wages in turn recirculate in the local economy.

Boulder County chef and culinary instructor Marilyn Kakudo, who also campaigned for the new law, believes it will have far-reaching benefits.

“Front Range farmers produce vegetables, not fruit,” she points out. “So the expansion of the act to include pickled vegetables will have a more significant impact to reduce food waste, provide economic opportunities and strengthen ties between farmers and their communities here, even more than the original act.” Since retiring from cooking and teaching in the local food industry, Kakudo runs Seed to Plate, a culinary and gardening education and consulting business.

“Expanding the Cottage Foods Act will support local farmers and growers and boost Western Slope economies,” said Rep. Millie Hamner. “It will also expand the unique farm-to-table experience available at farmers’ markets across Colorado.”

Added State Rep. Yeulin Willett: “I’m particularly happy to see this expansion of free enterprise with minimal government regulation – this should help to further expand our wonderful farm-to-fork commerce here in Delta and Mesa Counties, which need all the help they can get!”