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.









































Using Your Local Agricultural Extension Office

large farm fields

Farmers – familiarize yourself with using your local agricultural extension office and the resources it offers

Every farmer should be familiar with using their local extension office, the resources it offers,
and how best to use them. With the officiation of the Morrill Act of 1862 (signed into law by
President Abraham Lincoln, during some of the bloodiest days of the Civil War), land-grant
universities were formed by state governments in cooperation with federal instruction and
funding, as, “institution[s], that shall possess the means of affording scientific and practical
instruction in the various departments of agricultural husbandry.”

What is a Land-Grant School?

Like other universities, land-grant schools, (i.e. The University of Massachusetts
Amherst, University of Connecticut, Cornell University), have two primary goals which justify
their continued existence: Research and Education . But, unlike other universities and colleges,
land-grant schools have a third primary purpose: Extension . This means, not only do they use
their academic resources to illuminate and document new knowledge; and not only do they
accept official recruits into the world of academia in the form of students; but also they have a
third primary purpose and activity, which is, to propagate the fruits of knowledge outside of the
university, making them public for the benefit of everyone. In essence, the Cooperative
Extension System —the system which unifies the land-grant schools across the country—is, “a
non-formal educational program…designed to help people use research-based knowledge to
improve their lives” (Co-Op Research and Extension Services.).

Scientific Agriculture

But as a farmer, this knowledge is aimed at helping you the most. For, as was argued in
the Massachusett State Senate, January 31st, 1850 by Joseph T. Buckingham: “No country can
be populous and prosperous without attention to [agriculture]—and exactly in proportion to the
difficulty of securing ample returns from the simplest and rudest forms of labor seems to grow
the necessity of substituting art , and of enlisting the aid of science to guide the application of
means to attain the desired ends” [emphasis added]. In other words, the institution of land-grant
schools, is the government saying—( theoretically as the voice of the People) — “We want
farmers, and we want them to succeed. Here are the resources; made available to the best of
our ability to everyone on equal terms.” Of course, we always need to be demanding better
Government; we do that best by participation.

How can an Extension Office Help Me?

At the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, there are several programs that can be
utilized by farmers. There is a soil testing lab, a plant diagnostic lab, and several educational
programs—like Pesticide Education Training, Nutrient Best Management Practices—among
other services. Check out this resource for beginning farmers from UMass: Paige Laboratory – Office of Umass Extension

Paige Lab
Paige Laboratory Umass Extension

Getting a Soil Test

If you want to try using one of your extension office’s laboratory resources, consider
ordering a soil test, which will involve gathering twelve samples from a depth of six to eight
inches, randomly, from different spots in the soil you want to test and mixing the collection in a
cup. You can follow online instructions like the ones offered here, when you click Get A Soil

Specify Your Analysis

Sending in your samples, you will be able to choose different levels of analysis. For
example, a basic Standard Fertility Test ($20), “Includes pH, acidity, Modified Morgan
extractable nutrients (P, K, Ca, Mg, Fe, Mn, Zn, Cu, B), lead, and aluminum, cation exchange
capacity, and percent base saturation.” The report will also include, based on information the lab
collects from your samples, “recommendations for nutrient and pH adjustment”. This will allow
you to make precise applications of fertilizers, nutrient amendments, and pH adjustments, not
wasting valuable resources, while creating the optimal soil chemistry. You can also spend an
extra $6 to add Soil Organic Matter or Soluble Salts analyses, or an extra $8 for a Soil Nitrate

Conclusion: Agriculture, Both Art & Science

With all the knowledge and laboratory resources which land-grant schools offer through
their extension programs, knowing and using your local extension office can greatly improve
your utilization of a scientific agriculture. We all enjoy doing work by listening to our gut,
especially in agriculture, when having a ‘special touch’ can mean all the difference. But,
organized, systematic approaches in obtaining the greatest value from nature allows us to not
reinvent the wheel. We can be kind and thoughtful farmers—partnered with the Earth and all of
humanity—while at the same time using technology and knowledge, in the generations long
project of being the most prudent farmers we can be.

About Erik Vegeto


Erik is a student of Plant, Soil and Insect Science at Umass Amherst. He has a passion for restorative agriculture and environmental stewardship that drives him forward into new frontiers of thought. Erik loves to read, play guitar, and be creative. One day he hopes to have his own farm and write for a living.


Buckingham, Jos. T. “Concerning the Establishment of an Agricultural School.” Commonwealth
of Massachusetts, 1850.

Act of July 2, 1862 (Morrill Act), Public Law 37-108, which established land-grant colleges, 07/02/1862; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1996; Record Group 11; General Records of the United States Government; National Archives.

Co-Op Research and Extension Services.