6 Steps to Getting Your Farm Organic Certified
Updated: Nov 7
Organic certification is currently the “gold standard” in food production when it comes to assuring consumers that the farm products they are purchasing were grown and processed using methods healthy for humans and the environment.
The organic foods market in the U.S. was worth $55.1 billion in 2019, a healthy 5% over 2018 sales and the Covid pandemic accelerated organic food sales even higher. Consumers are looking for healthy foods and while there are many other “food labels” in the retail marketplace, “organic” is by far the most familiar one.
Not surprisingly, many farm owners wonder whether what it will take to certify their farm as organic. Farms with more than $5,000 in gross sales annually cannot use the term “organic” when marketing their products without certification under the USDA National Organic Program rules.
Whether your growing fruits, vegetables, grains, flowers or any other crop, if you are thinking about certifying your farm as organic, here are six steps to move you through the process seamlessly:
1) Talk to Other Organic Certified Farms in Your Community
Reach out to your farming community about organic certification before you commit.
Your fellow farmers can be your best resource for the reality of organic certification, helping you decide if organic certification is enough of a benefit to your operation to pursue it. Ask questions like:
Are most farms already certified and you need to be certified to compete for sales?
Or is nobody certified, meaning certification could be a feather in your cap (or not required) to capture market share?
What buying avenues will open up to you that might not be available without organic certification?
Which certifying agents should you use (or avoid)?
A quick conversation asking your fellow farmers why they are (or aren’t) organic certified can give you better tools to make your decision and set you up for certifying success.
2) Contact an Organic Certifying Agent.
Once you understand what organic certification will mean to you from your fellow farmers, your next step to organic certification is finding a certifying agent who will conduct your inspections.
Organic certifying agents are also a great resource to help you prepare for certification. They can tell you if your land qualifies for organic certification immediately or if you need to go through some steps to get there (and what those steps will entail).
Organic certifying agents are organizations or entities (and sometimes states) that the USDA has accredited to inspect and approve organic certification applications. There are nearly 80 certifying agents, so there are many to choose from. Make sure to compare rates (they can vary) and also ask if that particular agent has experience certifying the type of farming business your operation is.
3) Research Programs and Grants to Help Offset Organic Transition Costs
Becoming organic certified can be costly. There are fees for certification itself and you may have to implement new farming practices to meet organic standards.
There are, however, grants and fee-offset programs to help farmers make the transition to organic certification. Many farmers have taken advantage of financial resources to help them cover certification fees and offset new management practices.
Keep in mind, if you are hoping to certify ground that has previously had non-organic products used on it, certification requires a documented three-year transition period before that land can be certified organic.
To kick off your research into potential avenues to help offset organic transition costs check out this post by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Center and this post by the USDA on cost-share programs to help farmers cover certification fees.
4) Create an Organic System Plan
An organic system plan details how the producer (or processor) will comply with the organic regulations.
Plans will differ significantly depending on the type of operations. Still, they should address all practices that could jeopardize organic certification, including tilling, grazing, harvesting, fertility management, storing, packaging, handling and transport.
An organic system plan should list the inputs used on the farm and make sure they are accepted under the Organic Materials Review Institute.
A certifying agent can typically help a farm put together an organic management plan and review your plan to ensure you didn’t miss any critical elements.
5) Follow Your Organic Plan
Once you have your organic plan in place, start following it!
This might involve changes to how you were farming, or perhaps you were practicing “organic standards” before you wrote your plan down. Either way, you need to follow your plan and, crucially, document everything you do.
Save all your records as far as receipts (for purchases and sales) and document your farming practices as you perform them.
6) Receive Inspection and Get Organic Certified!
The final step in certification is scheduling an inspection with your certifying agent.
A certifying agent will come when your farm is actively producing to inspect your operations while working (versus during the winter). They will require a paper trail and conduct an audit to ensure you have followed your organic certification plan.
Once the initial certification has been received, an inspection is conducted yearly to keep your certification current.
For more information on becoming organic certified, check out this site including an “Organic 101” series produced by the USDA.
Georgie Smith, known in her community as “Farmer Georgie,” is a fourth-generation farmer and journalist living on her family’s historic farm on a Pacific Northwest island. She ran her own small farm for more than 20 years. These days, when she’s not herding chickens, fixing the antique tractor (again) or growing heirloom dry beans, Georgie writes about farming. Georgie is passionate about supporting healthy, equitable and sustainable food production and thriving family farms.
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