This Friday, July 17, 2015 photo shows peonies for sale by Cool Cache Farms LLC., in Kenai, Alaska. (Clarion file photo)

Bill seeks to expand cottage food sales, farm tours

Kenai Peninsula farmer and local food advocates are leading the charge for a bill to expand what local farms can offer for consumers and tourists.

House Bill 217, which would allow local farmers to sell cottage foods and reduce liability for those offering tours of their farms, is making its way through the Legislature. The bill was introduced last year and but was held up in the House Resources Committee. The committees are taking it up again this year, with support from a number of Kenai Peninsula farmers and organizations.

Rep. Geran Tarr (D- Anchorage), the bill’s primary sponsor, wrote in her sponsor’s statement that the bill is part of a larger effort to increase direct sales from farmers to consumers. Alaska depends largely on imported food from the Lower 48, a fact farmers and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Agriculture would like to see change.

“The Alaska Chamber recognized the economic potential of Alaska’s agriculture industry with an endorsement of Alaska Food Freedom at its 2017 Fall policy meeting in Sitka,” she wrote. “Increasing direct sales from farmers to consumers is good for our economy and good for our health.”

Cottage foods are low-risk foods, like breads and jams, made in kitchens not inspected by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. They’re currently allowed to be sold in face-to-face transactions, with the assumed risk to the buyer. The bill would expand that allowance to online sales. The Alaska Farm Bureau, which is based on the Kenai Peninsula, offered support for the bill in a Feb. 8 letter saying that it could attract younger farmers and help build food security in Alaska.

In a House Resources Committee hearing on Feb. 16, Nikiski resident and Cool Cache Farms owner Wayne Floyd testified in favor of the amendment reducing liability for farms offering tours. More people are interested in visiting farms and participating in harvests, and the bill would change Alaska statute to include farm tours as an activity with inherent risk, like bungee jumping or snowmobiling. Though many farms want to be able to offer the tours, they’re concerned about the liability in some cases because adding tours pushes up insurance rates, he said.

“We want to be able to cover reasonable (things with insurance) … but picking up a flower and getting stung in the nose because you weren’t paying attention, that’s just a common sense thing,” he said. “And farmers tend to revel in common sense.”

Farming in Alaska is a relatively young industry and operations are more expensive than in the Lower 48, with a shorter growing season, higher costs of power and more area to cover in shipping. However, a number of local farmers markets have grown up in recent years in Southcentral, including a two small weekly markets in the central Kenai Peninsula in addition to the large one in Homer throughout the summer.

There’s also the online local food hub, now called the Alaska Food Hub, for when the farmers markets aren’t open. Formerly called the Kenai Peninsula Food Hub, the operation has now expanded to Anchorage and could grow beyond it, said Robbi Mixon, the local foods director for Cook Inletkeeper who coordinates the Alaska Food Hub and the Homer Farmers Market.

Fundamentally, HB 217 recognizes how buyers are moving online, Mixon said. Expanding sale options for cottage foods will support small operations because it’s expensive to meet all the requirements for a DEC-certified kitchen.

“I know at our farmers’ market in Homer we haven’t had any issue with foodborne illness related to cottage foods,” she said. “We’re trying to take that just a step further.”

The Homer Farmers Market still does a lot more business than the Alaska Food Hub at present, though the organizers are hoping the food hub will expand, she said. It began on the Kenai Peninsula and jumped up to Anchorage last year, and changing the name was partly an effort to make sure other communities in Alaska could be included without confusion about location, she said.

“We were just trying to come up with a name that was less specific to any areas of Alaska,” she said. “This gives us a lot more freedom to spread (the availability).”

The Department of Environmental Conservation has expressed concerns about the breadth of the bill increasing risk. In a March 9 letter to the House Finance Committee, Division of Environmental Health Director Christina Carpenter wrote that the current language would allow riskier foods like canned salmon, raw milk and molluscan shellfish, which can carry harmful pathogens if not properly handled. The department wouldn’t be able to maintain an inventory of processors or authority to inspect kitchens where the products are made, making it hard to trace an outbreak, she wrote.

The department has other concerns as well, such as language regarding labeling, conflict with municipal laws on cottage foods and the possible connotations for the seafood industry if an outbreak were to occur.

“The Department remains willing to work with the bill sponsor and supporters to work on solution that will continue to grow the local food economy while also keeping the risk of food-borne illness at an acceptable level,” she wrote.

Mixon said she understood the DEC’s concerns and the supporters have been corresponding with legislators about addressing some of them.

“We totally understand their concerns the way the bill is written can be interpreted that you’re opening up all these areas of potentially hazardous food,” she said. “…Things that are risky do need to handled with care and following guidelines of the DEC.”

The bill is currently scheduled for a public hearing before the House Finance Committee on March 28 at 1:30 p.m.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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