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Thinking About Becoming Certified Organic?

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

By Sarah Everhart

Pots of flowers in the foreground and pumpkins being towed by horses in the background (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

If you are considering an organic certification for your operation, this could be a good time to get started. The 2014 Farm Bill included many benefits and incentives for organic farmers and the market for organic products is in high demand. Acquiring an organic certification is not just an issue for fruit and vegetable producers anymore. More and more grain farmers are seeking organic certification so they can enter market of organic livestock feed. But what exactly is an organic certification and what does getting an organic certification require?

Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant in boxes (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

The National Organic Program (NOP) is a federal regulatory framework which governs organic foods. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers and enforces the NOP. An organic certification is evidence of a farm’s adherence to the NOP’s system of agricultural and food production as detailed in the NOP federal regulations. A farmer, processor or handler of agricultural products must be certified organic in order to sell, label or represent their products as organic.

Except for operations whose gross agricultural income from organic sales totals $5,000 or less, all farm and processing operations that grow and process organic foods must be certified by an accredited certifying agency such as the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) in order to sell or label their products as certified organic and be able to use the USDA organic seal. MDA offers a certification for exempt organic producers so they can be listed in the organic directory and on the MDA website.

The first step towards certification is to choose a certifier, inform them of your intentions and then submit an application and a certification fee to your chosen certifier. The application requires a farmer to develop an organic farm plan which is the basis for the organic certification. The plan will detail how an operation will comply with the USDA Federal Organic regulations. Each plan is different based on operation type and needs but they all address practices of the farming or handling systems, such as tilling, crop rotation, pest and disease control, grazing, harvesting, storing and transporting. Further, each plan should also specify substances that are in compliance with the USDA National List used during the growing or handling process, monitoring practices for organic systems, recordkeeping systems, and barriers that prevent commingling with nonorganic products or contact with prohibited substances.

How do you know if your farm is ready for organic certification? A field is eligible for organic status if no prohibited materials, such as arsenic, have been applied for a period of 36 months. One of the most common problems farmers face in transitioning to organic is failing to understand what materials are prohibited. For example, the use of seed treated with a material that is prohibited or the use of fertilizers described as “organic” but containing a trace amount of prohibited material. Therefore, the USDA National List must be analyzed for each material. However, the USDA National List is very generic and it is often difficult to determine if a product meets all of the requirements. A farmer should verify the status of materials he or she plans to use through online services such as the National Sustainable Agricultural Information Service, Organic Materials Review Institute or the certifier. A farmer will need to be able to document all land use and material applications during the transitional time period in the organic farm plan. Once certified, a farmer is required to update their organic certification and organic farm plan annually or upon a change in operation.

Pumpkins and squash being sold in a farmers market (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

Once the certifying agency has reviewed the application and determined that the organic farm plan is in compliance with the National Organic Program, the certifying agency will call the applicant and schedule an inspection. Based on the application and the inspection, the certifying agency will make a final decision if the farm is in compliance with the standards established by the National Organic Program.

To defray the costs of organic certification and the required annual renewal of an organic certification a farmer may apply for federal cost sharing assistance for up to 75% of the total certification costs. This funding assistance is one of the incentives for organic farmers in the 2014 Farm Bill. Other incentives include expanded funding for economic data on the organic sector and organic research, an exemption for certified organic producers from having to pay for conventional commodity promotion programs on their organic production and improvements in crop insurance for organic producers.

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