Updated January 1, 1 . AmFam Team
With a focus on health and farm to table nutrition, it seems like everybody wants organic today and you’d love to give it to them. But you can’t just put a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic label on your produce.
So how do you pursue organic certification for your operation? There’s a process and it takes extra work and effort to earn the organic seal. But once you do, you know you’re providing healthy, organic food that your customers will crave.
The term certified organic is a combination of two different concepts; certification and organic, married together. Certification comes from the USDA, who authorizes and protects the seal by watching over farms to make sure they’re following organic regulations.
The second part is the concept of organic which, to the farmer, means your farm or handling facility complies with USDA regulations for crops, livestock, processed products and even wild crops.
For processed products the general rule is that 95% of the ingredients must be free of synthetic additives like pesticides, dyes, chemical fertilizers and must not be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation or genetic engineering. The remaining 5% can be processed with additives from an approved list. Processed products refers to any food where there is a deliberate change before it’s available to eat. While soda and chips come to mind as processed, the term also covers canned and frozen items or anything that claims to be fortified. It’s a broad concept that includes most foods.
Raw ingredients and products are the foundation of finished food products, as such, they must meet involved regulations that cover a variety of different aspects of farming, from crop rotation to composting. If you’d like to learn more about the specific areas you’re interested in, the USDA tip sheets (Opens in a new tab)will help you define your process.
The certification process for organic foods requires oversight from an official certifier from the USDA. The process for every farm must include the following steps.
Learn the required organic practices. No matter your specialty, the USDA has defined organic practices that you need to adopt to become certified. The first step is learning what those are and then implementing them.
One important fact to note is that any raw organic commodities need to come from land that hasn’t had prohibited substances applied for 36 months. So this first step of beginning organic practices can involve a lengthy transition period, depending on how your land was used previously.
Select a certifier. Your certifier will be someone who specializes in your field of interest. The USDA certifier locator (Opens in a new tab) helps you find the right fit and provides contact information. Your certifier can offer useful tips as you get started, so making an early connection gets you on the path to success much sooner.
Start creating your plan. Before your certifying agent sends an inspector to your operation, you will need to have an organic farm plan that describes your entire process and looks at the ecosystem around you. It’s a good idea to begin this early so you can hone the plan and take detailed notes on what works for you and what doesn’t.
Submit application and fees. You’ll submit your application and your fees to your certifying agent. In addition to the application fee, you may also be looking at annual renewal fees, assessment fees and inspection fees. Ask your certifying agent to give you a fee structure and billing cycle since fees vary depending on the size, type and complexity of your operation. Fees can also vary between different certifying agents, so if you can, you may want to contact more than one to get a price list. The good news is, once you’re certified you may qualify for reimbursement of up to 75% of certification costs from the USDA Organic Certification Cost-Share Program (Opens in a new tab).
Certifying agent review. Once your certifying agent receives your application they will review it and verify that your practices comply with USDA organic regulations.
Onsite visit. Your application has been approved and your practices have passed review. Now it’s time for an onsite inspection. This will likely be done by an inspector in your region. At the end of the visit there’ll be an exit interview, where you can learn about possible concerns or issues, discuss the process and ask questions. Make the most of this visit. It’s not just a big step toward approval, but it’s a great opportunity to have an expert look at your operation.
Final certifying agent review. Once again, the agent will review your application and compare it to the inspector’s report to ensure you’re complying with USDA organic regulations.
Certificate issued! Once you’ve passed all of the inspections and are complying with USDA regulations, you’ll get your hard-earned certificate. You can now start using the USDA Certified Organic seal.
Once you’ve qualified for the certified organic label you are qualified as long as your process continues to meet USDA regulations. You can expect an annual inspection and possibly some additional assessments, depending on whether you have crops, livestock or are in the processing arena. You will also have to keep journals on your operation to detail your organic process and results.
There are a few reasons you may want to go that extra step and become certified. One is your commitment to a healthy planet. Research by the USDA has shown that organic farming practices can improve water quality, conserve energy, increase biodiversity and contribute to soil health.
Another driving factor for many is economic. The huge demand for organic products in the marketplace means becoming certified organic can help producers and handlers receive higher prices for their products. The growing demand also means that more markets are seeking out and promoting organic products.
Once you’ve completed the process and earned your USDA certified organic label, you deserve to celebrate and share the news. Let people know that you care about the product you bring to market.