Farmers markets continue to grow and expand each year as a result of increasing consumer demand for fresh, local food. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the number of farmers markets in the United States has increased 184% from the year 2000 to 2018. In 2017, there were 8,144 farmers markets listed in USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory and in 2018, that number increased to 8,687 farmers markets across the nation.
As the number of farmers markets has grown, so too has the ever increasing selection of foods sold at these venues. Fresh fruits and vegetables are not the only items present. Cookies, pastries, dried herbs, jams, and other foods have also become popular. In support of this surge in local agriculture and small business development, the Illinois Cottage Food Operation Law was enacted on January 1, 2012.
In 2018, the Cottage Food Operation Law greatly expanded the type of foods allowed for sale by Illinois vendors to include chilled foods, canned tomato products and much more. The Illinois Stewardship Alliance, in what they dubbed "the Illinois Food Freedom Act," championed this new 2018 amendment.
This law is in support of energetic entrepreneurs who want to start a food business at the farmers market. The purpose of the law is to encourage small business growth by easing regulatory start-up costs. Cottage food vendors will not face some of the usual financial impediments. They do not have the expense of renting a commercially certified kitchen as they can use a home kitchen or another appropriately designed and equipped residential or commercial-style kitchen on their property. The specific food products are for direct sale to the public at Illinois farmers markets.
At the farmers market, the owner, a family member, or an employee may sell these products. There is one exception to this law. It pertains to the sale of products made with foods grown by the farmer. This exception to the law allows these products to be sold on the farm where the foods were grown or delivered directly to customers. The Cottage Food Law is designed for small home-based business development. As of 2018, there is no limit on gross income from the sale of these homemade foods by cottage food vendors.
State Senator Jacqueline “Jaqui” Collins (D-16), served on the subcommittee and supports the cottage food industry. Collins said, “As an advocate for access to fresh, local foods, I am pleased by the progress being made toward allowing cottage food producers to offer their nutritious and sustainable wares while taking reasonable precautions to protect the public from foodborne illness. I’m optimistic that this new law will help farmers markets play an even more important role in community health and economic growth.”
In partnership with the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, the University of Illinois Extension provides this educational website, which offers detailed information about the newly amended Illinois Cottage Food Operation Law. This website is for cottage food vendors and prospective vendors. It includes cottage food operator requirements, conditions, and safe food handling practices to ensure the public's safety.