What Are the Requirements for Organic Certification?

By Susan Beal

As people worldwide understand the importance of taking control of their health, they are also taking control of their eating habits, and that is one factor that contributes to the demand for organic certification of food products. The growing demand for organic produce is one of the driving forces behind the surge in the number of organic farms. According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, there are over 22,000 certified organic farms in the nation, and that count increases every year, if not more often.

The USDA has strict regulations regarding the use of the term “organic,” and how, when, and where the USDA Certified Organic seal could be used on farm-produced products, including food (dairy, vegetable, and animal), animal feed, and fibers that are used to manufacture clothing. Organic certification offers benefits to food producers and handlers in a variety of tangible and intangible ways.

  • It allows food producers (growers, livestock and dairy farmers) to charge more for their commodities.
  • Organic certification encourages support for local economies.
  • Organic certification allows vegetable farming operations to use the USDA certified organic seal in all of their marketing and promotion endeavors.

The Five-Step Organic Certification Process

The USDA Organic Label is a sign to consumers that the food products they are thinking about buying from any market farming operation, comply with the strict USDA Organic Regulations and the requirements of the National Organic Program.

Step One – Development of an Organic System Plan

The Organic System Plan lays the foundation for the entire organic certification process. Every operation – whether it’s a large or small farm, must provide government inspectors with a detailed plan that will show certifying agents how the farm plans to comply with all federal regulations.

  • The plan must address everything from how the farm goes about tilling the land to planting seeds (or transplanting seedlings that were started elsewhere) and harvesting.
  • The plan must also include a list of every substance (chemical or otherwise) that the farm intends to use and a detailed protocol for monitoring the use of those substances.

The plan must also provide details about all proposed recordkeeping systems that will prevent crops that will be certified as organic from mixing with or spreading into fields where non-organic vegetables grow. The Organic System Plan also requires a detailed outline of the manner in which the farm will prevent crops meant for organic certification from having ANY contact with forbidden substances as they are described in the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

Step Two – Implementing the Organic System Plan Before Requesting Certifying Agent Review

The small farm must implement the Organic System Plan before the farm asking for an authorized certifying agent to review it. Certifying agents may come from a foreign, state, or private organization or company. All certifying agents have USDA accreditation. The primary role of certifying agents is ensuring that any organic farming operation and the products they grow or produce, meet the required organic standards as set forth by the National Organic Program.

Step Three – The Inspection Process

Certification is ultimately contingent on the results of the comprehensive inspection. This thorough inspection is tailored to the type of farm and the products or commodities that the farm grows and produces.

For a vegetable farming operation, the inspectors will conduct:

  • Field inspection
  • Soil condition inspection
  • Crop health inspection
  • Weed management protocol inspection
  • Insect and pest management protocol inspection
  • Seed starting system inspection
  • Diseased or contaminated plant disposal inspection
  • Water source and irrigation system inspection
  • Plan for preventing cross contact between organic and non-organic plants

Step Four – Certifying Agent’s Review of Inspection Report

The certifying agent goes over the inspection report and compares the findings with the information he or she obtained when they did the preliminary inspection. The certifying agent will also evaluate the risk assessment as it relates to the potential for crops to get contaminated from prohibited sources. The risk assessment will also include a list of every potential hazard that could cause contamination. But the inspection will also provide the certifying agent with information about the manner in which the small farm will deal with, control, or prevent the spread of infection.

Step Five – Farm Receives Decision From Certifying Agent

Once the certifying agent is confident that the vegetable farming operation complies with the required standards, the operation gets a certificate that includes a list of all the farm vegetable crops that can be sold and labeled as organic.

A continuing requirement of the certification process requires the farm to keep records of changes or modifications to its practices and procedures. The fact that a farm goes through the five-step process to get the organic certification is not a guarantee of continued certification. Maintenance of the organic certification is contingent upon the results of the yearly inspection to which every farm must submit.

The certified organic label is a sign to consumers that the fruits or vegetables they are buying were grown in compliance with the requirements of the USDA National Organic Program, and that the farm complies with the rigorous standards that the government poses on any farming operation that seeks organic certification. It may also help consumers understand the justifiable reasons for which organic food products almost always cost more – at farmers markets or in grocery or specialty food stores. See sources below for more details.

About Susan:

Author Susan Klatz Beal

Susan Klatz Beal is a full-time freelance writer and member of GardenComm – Garden Communicators International.  She is a self-proclaimed plant geek who enjoys the thrill of growing everything from succulents and native plants to exotic and tropical plants, every type of houseplant in existence, and fruits and vegetables. Susan eagerly challenges herself to try to grow plants in every possible way, including container gardening, raised beds, traditional soil gardening, and hydroponics. When she’s not writing or playing with plants, you’ll find her obsessively looking for ways to bring more hummingbirds to her garden and patio.









































How Can Farmers Deal With the CDC’s Romaine Lettuce Safety Alert?

E coli sample in romaine lettuce

It is happening again. For the second time since April or May, the CDC issued a nationwide safety alert regarding Romaine Lettuce. Once again, the problem associated with that particular type of lettuce relates to the E-coli bacteria. This time, the warning is more alarming because disease specialists haven’t located the source of the infection. It’s more widespread than the previous outbreak, and the alert has expanded to Canada and Hawaii. With the previous alert and subsequent recall, the CDC could ultimately locate the growing region that was the source of the infection. In June of this year, NPR reported that the CDC traced the source of the E-Coli contamination to water – a contaminated canal in the Yuma, Arizona area.

The New York Times called the CDC alert a “stern and sweeping advisory,” and encouraged people who purchased Romaine lettuce to wash and sanitize refrigerator drawers where the leafy green was stored. Many grocery stores,  and vegetable and fruit markets acted quickly to remove Romaine lettuce from the shelves.

The latest alert follows the release of the FDA’s published findings from the investigation into the E-coli 0157:H7 infection outbreak earlier in the year that affected multiple states. The Center for Science in the Public Interest explains that the FDA concluded that the most likely source of the contamination was an irrigation canal that provided water to several farms in the Yuma, Arizona area that grow Romaine lettuce. The canal was located close to a “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation,” a large facility that feeds a herd of over 100,000 cows. During the investigation, researchers observed that their most significant hurdle was a lack of detailed recordkeeping.

Why Now?

On November 26, 2018, the FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, MD, issued a press release regarding the investigation into the most recent outbreak of E. Coli 0257:H7. He explained that as of his announcement, the current outbreak caused 43 people throughout 12 states to get sick. The last date of a reported onset of the illness was October 31, 2018. Also, 22 people in Canada got ill. He said that the FDA, CDC and other government researchers are working with the Canadian government to learn more about the cause of this outbreak and how to prevent lettuce from becoming tainted in the future.

In the press release, he said that over Thanksgiving, investigators could determine that the lettuce that caused the 43 most recent illnesses related to E. Coli 0257:H7 came from a region in  Central California that grows lettuce during the summer. He and his fellow investigators believe that this outbreak is confined to an end-of-the-season harvest of Romaine lettuce from that area of California.

The Problem Goes Beyond an E.Coli Outbreak

With the previous outbreak, it took government investigators over 18 days to find the growing region and the source of the contamination. It’s essential that vegetable farmers realize that a similar scenario could occur with any other farm vegetable crop. The fact that it took almost three weeks to trace the source of the Spring outbreak is proof that the current recordkeeping system that is in use for reporting market farming activities is woefully inadequate.

Back in September 2018, Jon Fingas wrote a story for Engadget about Walmart’s plan to use blockchain technology to not only ease the minds of anxious shoppers: the retail giant wants their leafy greens distributors to use the technology so that the store can track incoming produce shipments from their different providers.

The blockchain will provide a secure ledger that will allow Walmart (and conceivably other retailers as well) to track vegetables (and potentially other fresh foods) from the farm or processor to the store. And this technology would make the information available to any store in the nation. By implementing blockchain technology for this purpose, it would be possible for anyone who uses it to track the source of an outbreak in seconds as opposed to days or longer, which is what happened during the Spring of 2018 with the Yuma, Arizona incident.

What Does This Mean for Farmers?

The nature of this safety alert, and the fear that accompanies not knowing where the source of this contamination is, frighten consumers. When stores that sell Romaine lettuce voluntarily remove it from their shelves so quickly, there is an even greater cause for concern – especially for farmers.

It wouldn’t be practical or cost effective for a small vegetable farm to use a blockchain system, but it makes sense for every market farming enterprise to use their farm management app to the fullest, and to tweak it to include critical information about when and where every vegetable crop is planted, and when each crop is harvested. Farmers, especially lettuce farmers will then be able to share this information with farmer’s market customers or people who participate in CSA programs that many farms have to keep sales up throughout the year.


Susan Klatz Beal is a full-time freelance writer and member of the Association for Garden Communicators. She is also a passionate organic flower and vegetable gardener. She is obsessed with hummingbirds and creating wildlife habitats to attract them to her garden. When she isn’t writing or tending to outdoor plants, she spends time starting seeds for every type of plant you can and cannot imagine.

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Using Companion Planting to Eliminate the Need for Herbicides, Insecticides and Pesticides

Companion planting began as a simple way for Ancient civilizations to improve their crop harvests by planting two or more different plants next to or near the plants they were growing. When the organic gardening movement took hold in the 1970s, companion planting reemerged as a viable way to eliminate the use of herbicides to kill weeds, pesticides to kill pests, and insecticides to kill predatory insects.

The concept of companion planting is not a new phenomenon. The ancient Romans learned about it along with allelopathy, which helped them discover what plants added beneficial goodies or took needed nutrients away from the grape vines they grew for making wine. Over 1,000 years ago, if not longer, Chinese farmers used companion planting when they discovered that planting mosquito ferns near their rice crops because of their ability to fix nitrogen, and to block plants that might steal precious sunlight from the rice crops.

Companion planting involves using plants (herbs, flowers, other vegetables, or green plants) to benefit farm vegetables, hoping this natural and sustainable practice in farm planning will help the growing plants and ultimately help every small farm in the harvest(ing) of their farm vegetable crop so their dream of market farming can continue.


Companion Planting Methods and How They Work

Climate Companions

Climate companionship is best described as planting crops that fulfill the climate needs of nearby and neighboring plants. An example of climate companion planting involves using taller sun-loving plants to protect plants that do best in shade or young seedlings that might not tolerate the intensely hot sun all day. This technique lets farmers free up greenhouse resources and take advantage of every inch of available growing space on their land.

Plant Trapping Companions

The concept behind this kind of companion is quite simple. The trappers should attract insects and pests that would otherwise attack the plant that you want the trapper to protect. The role of trapping plants is to serve as a decoy and to prevent harmful insects and pests from wreaking havoc on the farm vegetable crop you’re growing.

Use Companion Plants for Nitrogen Fixation

Nitrogen is a vital plant nutrient, and although it’s present in modest amounts in the soil, vegetable crops rely on nitrogen fixation that some plants do through their ability to use nitrogen in its ammonia form (which it takes from the air) and convert the proteins and other nutrients into absorbable substances that help crops grow and thrive. Nitrogen fixation may be more difficult with hydroponics.

Plants like beans, legumes, and peas are natural nitrogen fixers because they transform nitrogen from the atmosphere, into something that can be used by nearby vegetable plants.

Companion Planting to Attract Beneficial Bugs

The practice of planting companions to lure beneficial insects is referred to as “habitat influence.” Companion plants attract beneficial insects so that those bugs can turn around and feed on bad, predatory and destructive pests and insects that would otherwise destroy the vegetable plants you want to protect. By using plants that will bring beneficial bugs to prevent harmful ones from wreaking havoc on growing crops, you eliminate the need to use chemical insecticides and pesticides, both of which create environmental hazards and can destroy the microbial balance of otherwise healthy and fertile soil.

Taking Advantage of Plant Characteristics With Companion Plants

To take advantage of plant characteristics and to use those characteristics to your benefit by planting suitable companions together, you come out ahead in several ways. An obvious example of taking advantage of plant characteristics is the famous Three Sisters combination that dates back to indigenous people living in the Americas as long as 5,000 years ago. The designation “Three Sisters” refers to squash, corn, and beans. This combination not only takes advantage of every inch of available space; it uses the growth characteristics of each of these plants to the benefit of the others.

Squash grows on vines that spread out over the surface of the ground. The squash plants create a ground cover that will suppress weed growth, maintain consistent soil temperature, and help keep moisture in the soil longer. The thick, sturdy corn stalks are self-supporting, but they eliminate the need to use supports for the bean vines that grow vertically. Beans help the other two crops because they provide critical nitrogen fixation that benefits the other farm crops. And simple practices like this can help a small farm develop better crop management practices.

Use Biodiversity to Support Companion Planting Strategies

Most diseases, insects, pests, and other things that can wreak havoc on the health of vegetable crops are like people. They have personal preferences. Your planning and scheduling and overall production management practices are vital to the success of your harvest. Instead of planting all of one crop in one place, spread things around. A farm management app can help ensure that you spread crops around to minimize the chance that an insect attack will infest your entire crop or disease will kill your best selling vegetable.

Susan Klatz Beal has been an avid organic gardener and plant collector for over  45 years. She grows everything from houseplants to vegetables, flowers, herbs, and native plants.  She maintains a hummingbird habitat that brings several species back to her gardens every year. Susan is an active  member of the Association of Garden Communicators (formerly known as the Garden Writers Association.)