What is Organic and How to Get Certified

organic farming field

What Does Certified Organic Mean?

The last decade has seen a surge of organic products and farms. From grocery items to cosmetics, to textiles the label organic can be found on thousands of products in America. But, what does this label actually mean about the product?

The US department of Agriculture defines organic as, “a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. Organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” There is a long list of requirements set for organic agriculture. The most important ones include not using radiation as a method of preservation, not using genetically modified crops, and that production must be overseen by a USDA organic representative.It is a lengthy process to get a farm certified organic. While the certification process can be finished in six to eight weeks, many farms face a “transition” period of three years. During this period, products cannot be labeled organic, but the farmer must follow all organic regulations. While this process seems extreme, market trends are surging toward organic produce it may be beneficial for some farmers to make the switch.

No matter the size of the operation, from 1,000 acre farms to backyard gardens, the organic guidelines can be helpful in maintaining a sustainable and natural yield. In order to better understand the benefits of these regulations it is important to understand the process behind becoming certified.

First, farmers must take a look at the entire farming operation from tilling practices and pesticide usage to harvesting and storage and make a plan that meets the USDA guidelines.

The guidelines differ for produce, livestock and textiles. There are strict regulations against GMO foods and synthetic fertilizers. If GMOs or chemicals were used in previous harvests the farm must use organic practices for three full years before getting certified. This can be one of the hardest parts of getting certified organic.

Taking an intense look at an operation and considering the environmental and nutritional impact of agricultural practices is beneficial for any size operation. Even if organic is not an option for you, are there steps that you can take that will make the production more sustainable? For example, instead of using synthetic fertilizers, can you replace them with composted materials? Instead of pesticides and herbicides, is there an alternative practice such as companion planting or solarizing that can be utilized? Even small changes can make a huge difference in the overall sustainability of the farm.

 The next step in becoming organic is to get in contact with the USDA.

An inspector will take a thorough look at the operational plan and approve it. Once this has been approved, it’s time to enact all the changes.

While the USDA oversees all farming to ensure food safety is maintained, organic farms have an extra level of supervision. These strict regulations force farmers to run a highly organized, well maintained operation equating to higher quality produce.

If getting certified is not your end goal, it is always a good idea to maintain a good relationship with the USDA. The USDA provides resources such as insurance, loans, grants, new agricultural research findings, food safety guidelines, and agricultural policy updates.

 The final step in the certification process is to complete an Inspection

Once the organic plan is successfully running, it is time to get certified. An agent from the USDA will come to the farm and do a thorough inspection of the land, water, farming practices, and records. If farms pass this inspection (and have maintained their transition period) they can officially market products as organic. If not, the USDA will recommend changes that will allow them to apply for another inspection.

The process of becoming an organic farm is very thorough. To ensure a high-quality product, these regulations serve to standardize and enforce sustainability and efficiency across all certified farms. While organic produce costs more, it may be worth it to a consumer once they know the process a farm must go through to become certified organic. Consumer demand is what drives the agricultural practices. If people demand foods from sustainable and natural sources, the industry will deliver. While these practices do not suit every operation, there is something to be learned from the organic guidelines. If all farms made changes to reduce their environmental impact the combined results would be significant.

Author - Riley Graham

About Riley Graham

Riley is a third year Food Science student at UC Davis hoping to one day work in research and development. Her specific areas of interest are in sustainability in agricultural processing; however, she’s exploring other options in food science such as sensory science and even brewing. Being a food science student at one of the world’s premier agricultural research centers gives Riley a unique perspective on the issues we face in food production. Even when I’m outside of the classroom, Riley never stops learning. When not doing homework or working in a lab, Riley plays piano, reads science fiction, and loves to cook.

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.