The Bumpy Road to Being in Business

In the three years since I started writing about jam and preserves, this is the longest I’ve gone without posting anything here — three months. I’m mostly taking a winter’s rest from preserving, though this past week I did make a batch of lingonberry mandarin marmalade using the last of our wild lingonberries from Alaska and some organic Page mandarins that I found at the Berkeley Bowl. I’d gone there hoping to find some organic Texas Rio Star grapefruit, which is, to me, the holy grail of grapefruit. They had about a half-mile of citrus bins and three different kinds of Texas Rios, but none of those happened to be organic. I’m still searching, but because of the mandarins my trip to Berkeley was not . . . um . . . fruitless.

Even though they are tiny, Page mandarins are great for marmalade because they are both seedless and thin skinned. They don’t have the rough, pithy skin of some mandarins that makes the fruit easy to peel and eat out of hand but less than ideal for slicing and cooking. I’m not going to write out a long recipe here, because I used Grow It Cook It Can It’s recipe for Valencia Orange Marmalade with Apples and Cranberries, subbing lingonberries for cranberries and mandarins for oranges. (The recipe also calls for making your own apple juice, but I used good quality bottled juice from the grocery store.) This is the second year in a row that I’ve used Caroline’s recipe, and there’s really no improving it. I got great results both times, even with my modified ingredients. It’s one of my favorite marmalades ever.

One of the reasons I haven’t been posting here is that I’ve been spending a lot of time working on getting a business license so I can launch a very small, legal jam company. And I’m not there yet. (You can see from the photo above that I am determined to sort this out, because I recently and optimistically purchased 1200 jam jars — all that my Subaru could safely carry.) Last year, I wavered back and forth between pursuing a commercial license and waiting for the California Homemade Food Act to pass — which it did — so I could consider registering my home kitchen to make preserves. I’m going to spare you most of the details, because there are way too many of them, but trust me: I put on my lawyer hat to investigate all the aspects of both options, and I now know so much about the ins and outs of making legal jam in California that I could write a book that would make your eyes glaze over.

The short version is that a commercial license would require my business to be a lot bigger than I want it to be — more overhead costs, more hoops to jump through. On the other hand, the cottage food law, while a great step forward, imposes some unnecessarily extreme restrictions on jam makers. I’ve been negotiating those obstacles one at a time, but last week I ran smack into a wall that I would have hit no matter what kind of license I wanted to get: It’s not okay for any kind of California jam business — commercial or cottage — to make preserves using backyard fruit, unless there’s a way to officially designate that backyard an “approved source” for ingredients. In my county and most others, there’s not yet a mechanism in place to certify a backyard garden.

I understand the reasons for the “approved source” rule. Contaminated water sources, animals running amok — all kinds of things could lead to trouble with neighborhood produce. For my work, however, I’m talking about single, well-established trees bearing healthy fruit that’s never even touched the ground. (Sometimes I drop a lemon, but these things do happen.) I follow a long list of safety practices for sourcing and preparing the fruit that comes to me from local backyards.

More than one person has asked, “Why don’t you just get your fruit from the farmers market — or just say that you did?” Here’s the main reason: Despite what I said above about chasing Texas grapefruit and being seduced by store-bought mandarins, if you have been around here before, you know that I have a passion for neighborhood fruit. Conserving beautiful, backyard fruit that would otherwise go to waste would be one of the main features of my little business. In fact, I very nearly chose the name “Backyard Preserves” for the business, and went so far as to snag that domain name before choosing something else. A business based primarily on commercially grown fruit just isn’t interesting to me — nor is one that’s based on a big ol’ lie.

What we need now is an appropriate — and inexpensive, please! — procedure for registering fruit trees or for giving a business owner authority to assess and track their own sources so they’re traceable if a problem later arises. I think the County of Marin is working on this, and I believe the issue is already well-established on the radar of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, the intrepid nonprofit that is largely responsible for getting the cottage food law passed. It’s just going to take a little more time. Sigh.

Meanwhile, there’s better news. I am leaving for Europe in a week, including three days in Paris!

Photo from

My friend Nicole at Arctic Garden Studio pointed out the necessity of visiting La Chambre aux Confitures, above — a shop dedicated entirely to jams. In fact, I have collected from my Facebook friends a wonderful list of necessary spots to visit. If you have a suggestion for Paris in February, please drop a note into the comments.

Based on recommendations and the kind of things I love to do, the Père-Lachaise cemetery is also very near the top of my list. If you can’t visit, I’ve discovered there’s a lovely, meandering documentary film about it . . .

Whew. From no posts to one of the longest posts ever. Thanks for reading all the news!

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  • Reply Wendy Read January 17, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    All the best to you my sweet and have a lovely trip!

    • Reply Shae January 17, 2013 at 12:27 pm

      Thank you, Wendy! Someday I hope to have a business with as much integrity as yours. :-)

  • Reply Jennifer Jones January 17, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Thank you for the update. You have me a little nervous as I just requested the paperwork to get moving in the direction of starting my own small buisness selling my jams. Im in the San Joaquin Valley, CA and planned on using a lot of backyard locally grown fruits also. Guess I need to read the fine print.. IF you happen to have time feel free to email any info you have that may help me. My tummy is in knots now lol

    Enjoy your trip!!

    • Reply Shae January 17, 2013 at 12:33 pm

      Sorry, Jennifer. I have been suffering from that knotted tummy phenomenon for months! Every time I looked at the law, it was something new to worry about. The provision about approved sources isn’t in the cottage food law; it’s broader in scope and applies to all California foodmakers. If you want to comply with the law, you’ll have to talk with your county about whether they have a certification process in place for backyard gardens. The City of San Francisco does! Let’s hope other localities will quickly follow along.

      I suppose there’s a chance that your county won’t even ask you about it, but in Marin we have to complete a self-certification checklist on which we must initial a provision that all of our ingredients are from “approved sources.” We also have to provide information about each product, complete with all ingredient sources and sample labels. When the county prepared its application packet, it was very thorough!

  • Reply SamanthainSoCal January 17, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    Have you contacted Mike Goto about the backyard fruit? He may be able to do something since he introduced the bill to begin with. I’m down in Los Angeles and am looking to do something similar at Farmers Markets, only problem is finding a farmers market willing to add a booth.

    • Reply Shae January 17, 2013 at 12:36 pm

      Hi Samantha: I do think the folks in Mike Gatto’s office know about this, but again, this is an issue that applies to everyone, not just cottage food producers. I may call down there, just to see where they are with it. Good luck finding space at a farmers market!

  • Reply Mo January 17, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    i missed you

    • Reply Shae January 17, 2013 at 1:17 pm

      Aw, Mo. Thank you for still being there. :-)

  • Reply Alison January 17, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Relieved to see this post. I have been worrying that something serious had happened. Glad all is well.
    Have a wonderful time in France, I am envious.

    • Reply Shae January 17, 2013 at 8:07 pm

      Thank you so much, Alison! I’m touched that you noticed I was away.

  • Reply Christa January 17, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    I’m shocked and saddened to hear that backyard fruit is a no go at this time. I had been entertaining the idea of starting a small jam company. Guess I’ll be putting that on hold for awhile. Thanks for keeping us informed.

    • Reply Shae January 17, 2013 at 8:11 pm

      Christa, I was shocked, too. It has taken a week or so for me to settle down about it. It does depend on where you are — some locations have backyard garden registration procedures available through their Ag Departments. We’d still be expected to register every source, of course. I can already think of about ten, so the process can’t be complicated or expensive — or it would just be too burdensome. Don’t give up, though, okay? I haven’t!

  • Reply Dawn January 17, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    How disappointing! You know, I don’t think the Cottage Food Law in Illinois even addresses the source of fruit for homemade jams. I’m going to have to go back and read it again now.

    Totally jealous of your European trip, by the way!

    • Reply Shae January 17, 2013 at 8:14 pm

      Dawn, the California cottage food law doesn’t say anything about it either, which is part of the reason it caught me off guard. The provision comes from the broader California laws, the ones that apply to all food producers, including people working under the cottage food law. I have no idea how other states handle this, but I’m sure some are similar to California. Let me know if you happen to learn anything about Illinois!

  • Reply Julia January 18, 2013 at 4:08 am

    You see? Three months doesn’t matter. You always have something interesting and important to say, Shae! I’m glad you said it. And don’t give up!

  • Reply Tamika January 18, 2013 at 6:54 am

    What a long haul for you! The NY 20c Exemption (our cottage food law) has many restrictions, but never questions where fruit is from. California has stricter AG laws in general I believe (why my NoCal family can’t send me fruit from their trees). Your perseverance is commendable!
    Bonne Vacance!

  • Reply Marisa January 18, 2013 at 7:57 am

    Shae, I hope your trip is amazing! I’m sending you good thoughts for travel! Here’s hoping that when you get back, it will be easy enough to figure out how to make all your backyard sites approved sources for fruit. And though you didn’t pick it, I do love the name Backyard Preserves!

  • Reply Melissa January 18, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    I’ve also been told that the new law (at least up here in Sonoma County) requires you to take a county-run food safety class, yet there is no program or class set up yet to take.

    I was excited about the law at first, but really it just seems like more hoops to jump though.

  • Reply Kate @ Snowflake Kitchen January 19, 2013 at 7:02 am

    Oh Shae – I was so thrilled to hear about your Cottage Food Law, and hoping CT could follow suit. We have this ridiculous “pickle bill” where farmers can make high acid preserves and pickles on the premises of the residential farm (i.e., their kitchen on site – tenant farmers and anyone else left out) with some minor Department of Ag inspections. Probably took that path because Ag already inspects and it was the easiest way to get things passed. Unfortunately, that means combining someone with the knowledge of preserving and the farmers who grow the fruit together has been very difficult.

    That said – there is definitely a movement to have a working, functional cottage food law here, and not just for preservers. I will have to check out SELC, I didn’t know about them. Keep fighting the good fight – and keep us posted!

    PS: My favorite thing to do in Paris was straight up wander. I would pick a spot to visit, not too far away, and very much take my time getting there. And if youre in the mood for ice cream (and if theyre open in the winter) amazing ice cream by Berthillion on Île Saint-Louis. Have fun!

  • Reply Rangpur Lime Preserves with Honey & Chile | local kitchen March 16, 2013 at 8:27 pm

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