Starting a Farm-Based Food Business - Three things you should know

Published on Tue, 07/22/2014 - 2:27pm

Do you:

  •  Make a specialty food item that friends and family suggest you sell because they enjoy it and request it?
  •  Have additional produce from your garden or farm that could be made into a value added food product?
  •  Envision marketing your family recipe?
  •  Desire to generate more household or farm income?
  •  Dream of owning a food business?

As Small Farm Program Coordinator for The Ohio State University, College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, I work with many small farm families looking for different ways to create additional means of generating cash flow from their small farm businesses.
One of the more popular questions I hear often deals with how to start a farm-based food business. Whether it’s making gourmet jams or jellies; baking bread, cakes, and fruit pies; catering festive events; or creating and packaging special dinners for one; food related businesses are becoming an increasingly popular way to generate additional income—or earn a living. The cook’s creative ability—combined with a little business savvy—can mean success even in a tough economy, provided the enterprise receives the appropriate research and planning before its launch.

One of my colleagues, Emily Adams, Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator in Coshocton County, has suggested a few things to consider if you’ve ever wanted to take the plunge and start your own farm-based food business. Emily suggests the top-three fundamental areas you’ll need to address are regulatory, food safety and labeling, and food processing. She provides the following advice for each:

First you’ll need to know what type of license is required to sell your food. This article specifically addresses food law in Ohio, so be sure to check with your particular state agency about your specific requirements. In Ohio, the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) regulates the licenses that are required to sell food. Which license you need—or don’t need—depends on the type of food that you plan to sell. The category that covers the majority of foods that can be made in the home is called “cottage foods.”
Under Ohio law, a cottage food production operation is defined as “a person who, in the person’s home, produces food items that are not potentially hazardous foods, including bakery products, jams, jellies, candy, fruit butter, and similar products.” No license is required to sell foods that are considered cottage foods. Check with your state agency to see a list of foods that fall under this or similar categories and what licensing may be needed.

Food safety and labeling
You may have noticed that the foods produced under the cottage foods category are not potentially hazardous. This means that the chemical and physical properties of the food do not support the growth of harmful bacteria that cause food borne illness. The foods either have low moisture content or are naturally acidic enough to prevent the growth of these disease-causing microorganisms. As such, these products only require a “This Product is Home Produced” label in the state of Ohio, although requirements may be different in your state.

Food processing
If you are interested in making foods that fall outside of the cottage foods category like cream, pies, salsa, or barbeque sauce, then there are licenses, equipment, or other facilities that are required to reduce the risk that these foods could cause food borne illness. Bakery products that require refrigeration—like cheesecake or cream pies—can only be sold in Ohio with a home bakery license if you intend to make them in your home. You can find more information through your state’s regulatory agency.
Sauces and foods that require heat processing like canning and the addition of an acid to make them safe must be produced in a facility that has an approved process. These foods are potentially hazardous if not made correctly, so they cannot be made in the home for sale. There are facilities available in which foods like this can be processed and packaged. Sometimes these facilities are referred to as commercial or shared kitchens (it’s important to note that shared kitchens are not the same as most church or school kitchens).
Throughout Ohio, there are processing facilities available, including the Ohio State University Food Industry Center in Columbus, Appalachian Center for Economic Networks in Athens, and Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen in Bowling Green. Check and see what’s available in your area.
If you have questions about starting a farm-based food business or finding more out about processing facilities in Ohio, please contact Emily Adams at

We’d like to thank Emily Adams, OSU Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources
College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences for her help with this article. If you have any questions for Emily, she can be contacted at: