On the informal economy

Our governor signed a cottage industry farm bill last week!  No longer are small food vendors required to be licensed and have commercial kitchens installed in order to produce and sell their home-baked wares:  anything that can sit on a counter, basically, like pies, breads, granola, jam, jellies, pickles, etc. can now be legally made in Michigan.  I foresee an explosion of home-baked goodness available then for those who can’t or don’t home-bake.  The restrictions are simple.  Label what’s in it, label where it came from (your home’s name and address), and sell less than $15,000 a year in goods.

Things like dried herbs, teas, and tinctures are likewise covered in this bill.  A second bill regarding honey and maple syrup are soon to be passed and signed.

These bills (and now law) make me happy.  Granted, I always have been skirting a bit shy of the law in that what baked goods I have sold I sold before this law took effect.  Likewise, I illegally sell my milk products to friends.  I have made it quite clear to my friends that we’re running afoul of the law, but… the sheer quantity and (frankly) tastiness of the cheeses and kefir and yogurt have been their own kind of advertisement.  You have it at my house, you want it, end of story.  With hope, Michigan will come around and write a law stating that raw milk products can be sold (outside a herd share agreement, that is).

Money only seems to work with those with nothing to trade

I have been quite paranoid too about this influx of cash.  Pin money, egg money, funny money…  Yes it sits in a jar.  Yes my accountant knows about it.  I withdraw cash for things like new animals or delivery of hay or straw…and I leave a tally of what is taken out.  In general the goat has paid for herself and (at this point) 75% of her care.  Give me another two months and she’s a free animal.  The cheese/cultured milk products have paid for the capital outlay of the cheese making equipment and the cultures.  And the products of purchasing a pregnant goat: I’ve made a very even trade of three wethers (neutered baby boy goats) for one doeling…our new girl, Cricket.

Standing partially still for a change

This is a more typical picture

The egg chickens, by comparison, have never paid for themselves.  (The meat birds are not sold; we consume all of them ourselves…this is far cheaper than purchasing meat chickens of similar quality.)  I would expect the turkey I am raising for a friend to pay for himself.  And like the bunnies, the 14 surviving turkey poults were all sold or traded.

So I am now into farm barter.  I got into a heated discussion recently with the whole idea of barter with a friend of mine.  Aren’t you cheating the government?  he contended.  The sale of, say, a goat is not taxed or frankly worried about by the state of Michigan, I replied; it’s the same as if I sold an ATV or a lawn tractor that I had.  I suppose it is considered on-farm income, but then, I don’t list “farm” anywhere on my taxes.  But goodness if you think about what we’ve sunk into the living-on-a-farm project…we’re in no way being compensated by any government for living the life that we do.  I told him it’s a false way of thinking of things.  Indeed, I told him, I don’t give my architectural services away for free:  if I do volunteer, I actually fill out a form saying so.  So farming is not a professional goal of mine.  That money has entered into the equation is…not something that makes me entirely comfortable.  It helps the bottom line, surely, and helps my husband come along for the ride but…it was not a goal.

It’s odd.  I get requests from friends asking, basically, how much more work would it really be for you to bust up another half acre and supply them with vegetables year-round too?  It appears the one CSA that supplies our town friends with victuals has come waaaay down in quantity/quality (and I have seen it and agree).  They like what we do here and buy my $5/gal. bags of salad.  If I look at things THAT way, the greenhouses have paid for themselves many times over.

I am in no way saying we’re a model for a way to earn a living.  But in this post I am saying that with some little effort greater than what you already produce, you might be able to produce for other households too.   I think that without even the monetary reward you can feel good enough to grow and to make things for others:  talk about appreciation!  And even if money doesn’t change hands (it often does not with mine), you may be able to be recompensed with services.  I traded four turkeys for horseback riding lessons for the girl.  That’s so much more enjoyable than money in a quart jar.

Bell and Cricket out doing what they do as the resident Poison Ivy and Bramble Eradication Crew.  Cricket was born toward the end of April, and Bell is on the big side for an American Alpine.  Bell’s coloring is called sundgau and Cricket’s chamoisee.

28 responses to “On the informal economy

  1. See I think that’s what the world of good healthy food has come to — local, with each of us doing our part according to our talents and wherewithal. While recognizing and even worrying about the awful state of our global food supply the only thing we can really accomplish right now is to improve the situation for ourownselves in ever widening circles. And if we are lucky enough to have access to good local food then that’s just what we are — lucky. But then, as Grandma said, Lucky is as Lucky does.
    Thanks for your sweat!

  2. Great bartering goodness. And I love your beach. Is there an emoticon for jealous? One good thing to come from all this e-mail malarkey – your blog count has probably gone through the roof!

  3. That’s a great thing. I’ve often thought that there should be a doctrine that if a law is largely unenforced or unenforceable it should be considered invalid. Anyway, it sounds like your state has made a good sensible move.

    Glad you made it back from Wales alright. 😉

  4. I don’t know if I’ve commented before, but I wanted to let you know that I enjoy and appreciate this glimpse into your life. You write very well and I like being able to experience goat raising and cheese making vicariously….

    Your friend’s attitude about bartering strikes me as curious since bartering has been in existence longer than money. And unless we start talking about bartering on a massive scale, the impact on our tax obligations is hardly worth calculating. I say go for it.

  5. While I don’t think it is right that we should look to the government to make even MORE laws so we they can “give” us Rights that should be ours from birth (e.g. the right to good food produced by and purchased from people we trust), this is a far sight better than the many laws being passed that do just the opposite. Yay for Michigan!

  6. Oh, boy, do I ever wish there could be some cottage industries farm bill in WA. We can’t do almost anything without licenses and inspections. It is really so counterintuitive to me when we hear how evil the manufactured food industry is to American health, and yet our governments make it so expensive and difficult to produce home made, farm fresh prepared foods that we can’t do anything to help the problem.

  7. I recently found your blog and love reading it, I lived in Michigan for many years and we subsistance farmed for sixteen years there and it was a wonderful life. I think the bartering and pin money is great and things paying for themselves but you never talk about the hours you spend and the payment for that labor, I have raised goats and made cheese and it is a time comsuming process. that sort of tips the financial equations to the red considerable.

  8. If you did list farm on your tax return, couldn’t you make yourself eligible for some farm subsidies?

    There are a LOT of farm programs out there. One of them might be good for you.

    I’m glad Michigan’s governor ‘gets it’. I wish the rest of them did. I wish congress got it.

    I wish food freedom would be given back to the real farmers and people instead of large agribusinesses.

    Maybe someday.

  9. Then there’s zucchini. “Have a few, please. TAKE THEM!”

    I really liked this piece; informative and thinky. I think MI’s new cottage-industry bill is great. So enlightened.

  10. Great post! I’m impressed by the expansion of your little farm. Always inspiring. For me, I always have surplus rhubarb. After making crumbles/cakes/jams etc. …..we tire of it. I can sell my surplus at a local food stall. It goes a small way to covering garden costs but I agree with you, that with a little more effort, we could produce more surplus to share or sell.

  11. Lots to think about in this post. I think the law in my state is similar to what you had before the new bill – the inspection, the commercial kitchen, food served to X number of people had to be cooked in a commercial kitchen….

    One of the big distinctions that I think lawmakers should realize is the difference between (1) produce/other items as a way to share with others, trade on a small scale for services, or earn money on a small scale (i.e. not as a primary source of income) and (2) the same activities taken on as a business, running as a way to earn a living in a commercial sense. Even though the distinction is somewhat hard to pin down or define by a hard rule it seems that it is there all the same, and should be recognized.

  12. Mangochild,

    I kind of agree with you – a line needs to be drawn somewhere between a sideline – or even full time endeavor for basic family income – and a full blown ever expanding profit seeking business. Maybe non family employees should be where the line is drawn. I don’t know.

    I keep bees and I know that for honey producers in my state it’s pretty simple but effective:

    1) Register with the state – free.

    2) Occasionally (if that often) be inspected for safe practices – free and infrequent because of budget cuts.

    3) Label your products with the name and address of your operation.

    That’s pretty much it, but it results in a system where if there is ever a problem with your product it can be traced back to the origin. It works. For TN bee keepers the business type (sole proprietor , corp, etc) is completely up to us and has more to do with liability and taxes than regulation.

    I don’t know what the law is for those who sell pies and whatnot at the farmers market, but I think it is pretty lenient here – you don’t even have to collect/pay sales tax if you produce a significant amt of your produce or whatever yourself.

    I can’t even fathom the logic behind states that make this kind of thing hard. So bring your money and come to TN! 🙂

  13. Interesting. The whole idea of taxing and keeping track of shared produce is an interesting one. Technically you’re supposed to pay tax on everything. But when I barter honey for haircuts, I don’t report it, nor do I report a neighbor caring for my animals when I’m gone. I’d love to expand and run a CSA — maybe I will when the kids get much older.

    And when the crabby neighbor dies or moves, I’m going to try meat birds. You are doing really well with your stuff if everyone’s paying for themselves. Only the bees are close to breaking even for me.

    • Let me disabuse you of the notion that our darling egg birds pay for themselves, Stefaneener. “Hardly, unless we began to eat them too” is the answer. Or else I start charging $5/dozen. (Pauses, considers this idea, rejects it.) I believe the new home-grown chicks might just pay for themselves; they’re awfully pretty for being mutts…and their care piggybacks all the other birds’ care. But good luck on getting rid of that neighbor! And give your bees another year or two: that’s a lot of equipment to pay off first.

  14. This is a very interesting topic to me. Currently, I only produce a little bit of extra produce and give it away to friends. But now I’ve just gotten a small flock of pullets and I’m considering what to do with the extra eggs once they start laying. I enjoy giving stuff away, but at some point, it would be nice to get something in return for my work and effort.

    When/if we buy our dream piece of land in the country, I might be heading down your road…hopefully.

    Thanks for sharing on this!

  15. Minnesota permits limited sales of homemade products, but only at farmers’ markets or the vaguely designated “community events.” That’s how my wife and I have been able to run our home-based farmers’ market bread business for the last seven years. Here that law is referred to as “the pickle bill,” even though it started with baked goods and was only later extended to canned goods. We started our “Real Bread” company just after the licensing exemption went into effect, and we had the damnedest time just convincing the Saint Paul health dept. that we were really allowed to do this.

    Since we began, we’ve seen lots of other home bakers, picklers, canners showing up at local markets. It has changed the Twin Cities farmers’ market seen in noticeable ways. The earnings limit is very low here ($5000 gross per year), but then, no enforcement provisions were part of the bill….

    I think Wisconsin just okayed a similar bill for canned goods, but they still don’t allow baked goods from unlicensed kitchens to be sold. I guess the bakery lobby has some oompph in Cheesehead Country.

    Anyway, El, I’m glad that the powers that be in Michigan have finally made a legal woman of you!


  16. If we all bartered for everything we needed life would be far more simple, although we’d never have clean nails!

  17. I AGREE with you! I am not about to join the TEA party, BUT why should the govt get benefit from our barters? We are paying enough in taxes as is. I see the usage of the land with the chicken and the sheep as a means to try to get something back from the land as we are mercilessly taxed on that already!

    There should be provisions for cottage industries and homesteads. It is frustating to see how difficult it is to live off of the land. If (lets say by some miracle) we can survive off of the land…there is the tax man.

    Btw, you so can and should charge $5/ doz for those eggs : ).

    Hope all is well.


  18. Interesting and thoughtful discussion. In WI we did just get a “pickle bill” too and as they didn’t decide on the rules they left it without any for the time being (labeling to that fact required). I’m torn–I like the freedom it gives but am wary of the aftershocks if an unscrupulous canner sells unsafe items somewhere.

    Anyway, I’ve found that the only way to get rid of eggs consistently is to charge for them, people aren’t as invested for some reason if they are free (or are afraid to ask). And I find the time it takes coordinating the sales is more work than the $ is worth. It’s all interesting, as to provide enough for yourself often ends up with just enough extra that puts you in-between commercial sales and donation.

  19. I’m so interested to hear what’s going on in Michigan; thanks so much for the insight into your operations! I’ll be looking into whether BC (Canada) has anything similar to the cottage industry law. I’m in the middle of blogging about how money and income fits into the whole attempt/desire to live off the land–what the trade offs are around how much land you need, and what being self-sufficient really means.

    I’ll link to your post in my ongoing muddle, and would love to hear more. I’m interested to hear that your egg chickens don’t pay for themselves–are you including the cost/benefit of manure for your garden in that equation too?

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  21. Did you see that Grist article on small farm raids?!

    Law enforcement busting people for selling their home grown agricultural goods. Unbelievable. This cottage industry farm bill would address that. Go Michigan!

  22. I think this post is a cry for help. You should write up a proposal for “an ongoing exploration of pre-industrial rural commercial practices as an interrogation of contemporary capitalist/legislative structures and their relationship to environmental degradation seen from a post-feminist perspective, seeking to question established notions of domesticity, femininity, and sustenance within the context of an evolving neo-agrarian rubric with an eye toward redefining the contemporary legal and cultural paradigm” and get a Guggenheim.

    That’ll fix your wagon.

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  24. I love the bartering; it somehow makes me feel like my work is actually treasured. Unfortunately, the electric company won’t play that game. Darn them.
    Hurray for your little one taking riding lessons.

  25. Sharon, indeed. Luck finds other luck in the local-food world too: there are a lot more consumers out there than producers, but somehow folks like me are loath to don the hat of “producer” because they think it’s a scale jump. It’s not a scale jump if you’re only growing enough for you and a few friends…it’s just a few more rows or a few more chickens. And happy consuming friends!

    Hedge, indeed, it’s a great beach especially at this time of year when it’s eminently swimmable. Surprisingly my blog hit numbers haven’t jumped; they’ve remained fairly stable…despite my post-once-a-week summer. It’s a grand mystery, really it is.

    David, Wales was fun…in my mind! There is definitely something to that, in the law-enforcement idea. It’s just that it seems kind of silly to require people to have commercial kitchens if they expect to make less than $15K a year…and that’s what it boiled down to. That, and our chronically high unemployment rate, I am sure.

    Diane, hi! And thank you. Well surely many things predate taxation. In many instances, bartering is really quite fair, especially when one is especially light in the pocketbook. I wouldn’t say it’s the way to go to, say, pay the light bill by eggs, but one can do worse than trading a few goods with like-minded others.

    Everett, I have to latch on “from people we trust” in your comment because that I believe is the heart of food production in our future. Looking someone in the eye goes much further than the black-box ingredients list on a package as far as I am concerned…plus knowing you’re supporting something you can believe in, that’s my future food utopia. A lot of work ahead of us though…but yes, Michigan has done a great thing.

    Amy, perhaps things are changing. Michigan is a huge farming state but it’s very diversified (California is the only state that grows more different products) and its legislature is really Republican. I am thinking if things can change here they can change anywhere. Maybe you can suss out if there’s anything like this afoot in Washington. Give your representative a nudge to do so. It was my own right-wing Republican congressman who co-wrote the thing so…

    Clinder, hello! Well most of “women’s work” is unpaid and not exactly supported by anyone or anything, and so too goes farm labor. I don’t know what to say with that. Indeed one of my own dearest relative’s rants every time she comes here is “but it is SO MUCH WORK!” and I just stare at her dumbfounded every time she says that. Like, so? Don’t you see that I am happy and healthy? What would you rather I do, sit on the couch all evening after working a 60-hour a week desk job?

    Thanks, Wendy. I am a fan of Grist and I read that when it came out. Mine is a very informal network. I doubt anyone would be able to raid our place because I keep no records of whom I sell my stuff to. But indeed it’s so stupid.

    Maybe someday, indeed, Paula. I do know of subsidies and all that; I have in fact helped a few friends go down that path. It holds no interest for me, mainly because I already have what I need, infrastructure-wise. But indeed, the “maybe someday” is sooner than we think. Just got to wean people off highly processed food, which is a tall order. But if more people could eat cheeses like ours…

    CC, enlightened! Wow. Well yeah, it does sound like that. And: no thanks on the zucchini.

    Hi Nada! And you must be thinking about rhubarb very soon, eh? Indeed, it is possible to grow more than you need. Finding willing homes for the food is sometimes the tougher challenge, which frankly is why I think it’s hard for “real” small farmers. Me, not so much, a fact for which I am very grateful.

    MC, definitely, this law is aimed at those looking to actually make earnings, but indeed it helps out supremely small-timers like me. And that’s the rub. It’s why the honey- and maple-syrup bills come next. SMALL stuff, but you might as well try to break even.

    David, yes, that’s exactly what this law is aimed at. And I find it funny frankly that most states put up barriers to doing such a thing: regulation for regulation’s sake…I would think the specter of “wrongful death lawsuit” also puts fear in the hearts of the few who do produce on a small scale. It’s all a gamble. As a sole-proprietorship, I would need to put my house up as collateral in my architecture practice (or most business practices frankly) and sometimes that’s a huge risk. So yeah, it’s why I ONLY give my food to people I know, too.

    Stef, I have seen the bucketloads of produce you grow out back so indeed I can see a CSA as part of your grander life scheme! But then when the kids are all bigger they too can help a lot more, right?

    Jackie, don’t let me stop you from selling those eggs by making you think my chickens are malingering feed-consumers. I just think it takes time to make them pay off. And I am a softie and have lots of egg-every-third-day girls on the payroll 🙂 mainly because I can’t see the farmayrd without them.

    Brett it sure does (bakery lobby in WI) and you can ask C about that. Sad, true. But anyway I would hardly say I am a free-and-clear legal person. I do try! And it’s fun to share and bake good food.

    Liz, clean nails can be overrated. I think with a little more sweat and less bad food we’d be a lot healthier too. But goodness that would indeed mean a lot of work for us, wouldn’t it, or a life with lots less stuff?

    WF there is a WORLD of difference between New Jersey and Michigan, and cost per acre is a biiiiggg part of it, I think. You pay the taxes and get the good schools. Me not so much. Sigh. But keep at it!!! You and the Mrs are lots happier this way 😉

    Sara I can’t help but laugh at the idea of an “unscrupulous canner” mainly because I am right down the road from Kellogg and “scrupulous” would be one of the near-last words used to describe THEIR practices. But I understand what you are saying. Somewhere in there is the tipping point where the work you put in somehow begins to pay off. My point was in acquiring a milk goat. I in no way wish to have 8 milk goats but one is quite a benefit.

    Backyardfeast, hello! “Ongoing muddle” is a very apt description to use when cataloging my own efforts here~ and that is frankly okay. I would say my chickens do add a bit of payoff with the compost heap but they are nothing compared to what the goat has contributed in just half a year. So yeah, it’s an interesting puzzle.

    Esperanza, yeah, it does help (this law). But really I do question enforcement-for-enforcement’s sake, don’t you? I say go small and keep it under the radar (not, obviously, advice I am following by dint of this blog but still).

    Peter, but a Gug would only support me for a year or so… therefore I would be stuck swallowing my tail and rolling down the hill of grant pursuance. Ick. I’ve got enough work to do!

    Pamela, darn them! But yes, isn’t it fun finding people to barter with? The woman with the horse-riding daughters is an absolute gem, and I wouldn’t have found her if I didn’t avail myself of Craigslist. Hurrah, internets!

    • Oh yeah I should have stated that better–commercial producers are much more likely to break rules. But, they have lawyers and giant PR firms to help them through it (as obviously seen with e-coli events!), and I worry that the tiny fanned flame of home producers might get snuffed out by a bad but unusual incident. And we’ve all seen those recipes on-line that say “my mom taught me to water-bath tomatoes for five minutes”. I’d be happier if the law at least pointed to some standards that had to be followed.

      Ironically, its that same argument that our milk lobby used to kill the raw milk bill here. They thought that an illness caused by a tiny producer would reflect badly on aisles of pasteurized milk in the grocery store. Yeah right, when they have the political clout to squash an entire legislative bill, that was passed, by the way, but the governor vetoed at the very last minute. SIGH.

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