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Organic 101: Five Steps to Organic Certification

Reece Latron uses a tractor to carry baskets of greens harvested from Amy's Organic Garden in Charles City, VA. While the certification system is rigorous to ensure integrity of the USDA organic label, thousands of producers and handlers continue to invest in these activities to market their products as organic. USDA Photos by Lance Cheung

Reece Latron uses a tractor to carry baskets of greens harvested from Amy's Organic Garden in Charles City, VA. While the certification system is rigorous to ensure integrity of the USDA organic label, thousands of producers and handlers continue to invest in these activities to market their products as organic. USDA Photos by Lance Cheung

This is the eighth installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

The USDA organic label is backed by a certification system that verifies farmers or handling facilities located anywhere in the world comply with the USDA Organic Regulations. Certification entails five steps:

STEP 1: Develop an organic system plan. The organic system plan is the foundation of the organic certification process. Created by the producer or handler seeking certification, it details how an operation will comply with the regulations based on its unique characteristics.

While plans differ based on operation type and needs, they address all practices of the farming or handling systems, such as tilling, grazing, harvesting, storing and transporting. They also specify approved substances 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.

STEP 2: Implement the organic system plan. Have it reviewed by a certifying agent. Organic operations are certified by private, foreign or State entities that have been accredited by USDA. These entities are called certifying agents and are located throughout the United States and around the world. Certifying agents are responsible for ensuring that organic products meet all organic standards.

STEP 3: Receive inspection. Every operation that applies for organic certification is first inspected on site by a certifying agent. These comprehensive top-to-bottom inspections differ in scope depending on the farm or facility. For example, for crops they include inspection of fields, soil conditions, crop health, approaches to management of weeds and other crop pests, water systems, storage areas and equipment. For livestock, they include inspection of feed production and purchase records, feed rations, animal living conditions, preventative health management practices (e.g., vaccinations), health records, and the number and condition of animals present on the farm. At a handling or processing facility, an inspector evaluates the receiving, processing, and storage areas used for organic ingredients and finished products.

STEP 4: Have a certifying agent review the inspection report. The inspector presents findings to the certifying agent following observation of practices on the farm or facility as they compare to the organic system plan. In addition to the inspection points mentioned above, the inspector also presents an assessment of the risk of contamination from prohibited materials and might even take soil, tissue or product samples as needed. The inspector also analyzes potential hazards and critical control points and makes sure procedures to prevent contamination are adequate.  From there all findings are presented the certifying agent for review.

STEP 5: Receive a decision from the certifier. If an operation complies with the rules, the certifying agent issues an organic certificate listing products that can be sold as organic from that operation. The organic farm or facility continues to update its plan as it modifies its practices, and an inspection is done at least once a year to maintain certification. (See “What is Organic Certification?”)

Owner Amy Hicks harvesting organic greens at her farm. Every operation that applies for organic certification is first inspected onsite by a certifying agent. These comprehensive top-to-bottom inspections occur annually to maintain certification. USDA Photos by Lance Cheung

Owner Amy Hicks harvesting organic greens at her farm. Every operation that applies for organic certification is first inspected onsite by a certifying agent. These comprehensive top-to-bottom inspections occur annually to maintain certification. USDA Photos by Lance Cheung

While the certification system is rigorous to ensure integrity of the USDA organic label, thousands of producers and handlers continue to invest in these activities to market their products as organic. Earlier this year, USDA featured how Bob and Kathy Stolzfus are extending their vegetable-growing season in Florence, Miss.; veterans are training for organic careers in San Diego, Calif.; and Sarahlee Lawrence is implementing conservation measures on her food and flower operation in central Oregon.

In light of the continued growth of organic, USDA’s new Organic Literacy Initiative helps prospective farmers, ranchers and processors learn about not only how to be certified but also how to access related USDA programs. It features a toolkit that helps farmers and businesses answer the question, “Is organic an option for me?” A look at the resource guide will also help current and prospective organic customers access various USDA programs that support organic agriculture.

9 Responses to “Organic 101: Five Steps to Organic Certification”

  1. Susanna Watts says:

    Please send me information about becoming a farmer, how to be certified organic, etc… thank you

  2. rwilymz says:

    What a humorous little rationalization!

    I’m certain no one at USDA, nor most of the people who visit this website, will see anything at all wrong with it, either.

    Five “easy” steps.

    Here’s the thing, dopes: farmers farm; they don’t write business plans, they farm; they don’t “implement” business plans, they farm; they don’t review and analyze reports, unless they’re soil reports that clearly indicate how much lime or sulphur to use to amend their soil.

    Step one is a function of a CPA, and unless the farmer is one for his “real” job, he has to hire one who is familiar with the organic certification regulations so that he knows what needs to be put into the “organic” business plan so that it will pass muster with the “certifying agent”. Because I’m pretty sure that “Don’t give my steer no growth hormones or nothin that ain’t allowed” is not going to be acceptable as the farm’s organic plan.

    Ergo, the farmer has to hire a CPA to do this for him, and also to keep his books for him so that the organic certifying inspection won’t turn into an IRS audit where the taxpayer uses a shoebox full of receipts to prove that no growth hormones were ever bought.

    This costs money … and a lot of it. The only people who have this kind of money are dilettante farmers who have outside jobs [and very well-paying outside jobs], or large agri-business outfits … for whom the organic label was never intended.

    “Certifying agents” are in the business of certifying organics; they have to be paid for their services, whether those services are “reviewing business models” of organic processing, or doing the actual busy-bodying of the certification. And who pays them? Why THE FARMER of course.

    More money.

    And once again, the only people who can afford it are those with well-paying outside jobs, or industrial ag.

    For any farm wondering whether the inspector even knows what he’s inspecting in the first place will either need to have the farmer being fluent in regulation-ese, or hire someone who is. This would be an administrative law loyyer. More money. And, as before, the only ones who can afford this are those with well-paying outside jobs [possibly as an administrative law loyyer], or those who have loyyers on-staff … such as industrial ag.

    And do all this as a yearly recertification? It costs thousands. For small farmers who don’t even MAKE thousands, and can’t afford to feed their livestock growth hormones because it simply doesn’t pay off at their scale, to spend thousands on certifying what any imbecile with eyes can see for himself is a waste of time, effort, money, and ulcer medication. And all to get a fractional return? Not worth it.

    Yet it was exactly THAT type of farmer for whom the “organic” label was desired in the first place, and whom by and large are prevented from using: it is prohbitively expensive and procedural.

    When USDA confiscated the term “organic” they asked for input on how it should be handled. The only input the USDA actually listened to was given by Monsanto, Cargill, American Farm Bureau, and all the other “usual suspects” of industrial agriculture. As a result, the reuls defining what IS organic, and how to go about proving it, are geared toward large industrial agriculture, who operate by business plans, have the CPAs to write them, and have on-staff loyyering to read your arcane rules and decipher them.

    USDA’s continued preference for industrial ag, and their ambivalence or [more commonly] outright hostility toward small and family farming is well-advertised in these “five simple steps”, not to mention the reams upon reams of rules behind these steps. …rules that only a loyyer can make sense of, and which now includes over 300 agri-chem compounds that “organic” was intended to keep out.

    How did those 300+ chemical compounds make it to the “allowed to be organic” list if not by pressure from agri-business?

    “Organic” is a scam, bought and paid for by Big Ag. Yes, consumers wanted “organic” food for all the right reasons, but they made the mistake of demanding that the government give it to them, rather than them finding out for themselves where their food comes from. Consumers are lazy, government helps them out by benefiting industrial ag, and small farmers lose their market niche.

    Congratulations, guys. You couldn’t have harmed small farms more if you’d set out to deliberately do so.

    Please do me a favor: stop helping. You aren’t good at it.

  3. rwilymz says:

    Why aren’t you putting up my rebuttal to your fancy-pants schlock?

  4. hahahathisguy says:

    This guy got swag. ^

  5. Anne says:

    Interesting comments from rwilymz–thanks for including them.

  6. Mel says:

    This guy up here as no clue… farmers DO have business plans and DO implement them. Farmers ARE businessmen. Please tell me a farmer that doesn’t say they’re a business persona and “just farm” no…

  7. Mel says:

    Also, we have been certified for 13 years. Neither of my parents ever worked off the farm to pay “expensive” certification fees. Fees are based on operation size so they’re actually affordable for producers that go organic. Organic is not a scam and is saving family farms. The year we went organic the average pay price was $10.47 conventional, an all time low in my lifetime. We are PROUD to produce a wholesome product free of chemicals and drugs for our consumers for nearly $30/cwt :)

  8. Armand Aronson says:

    It would be nice if there were links, “how-to” links with each step. I’m ready to start step one. I’ve tried contacting certifying agents but they didn’t get back to me. I’m not sure where to find the requirements of the certifying plan. I am a retired ‘business guy’starting small time farming. I could write the plans if I could find the requirements. I’m still working at it, but could the five steps be made more specific?

  9. MistyEyzz says:

    rwilymz- thanks for the heads up.

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