The organic movement is hardly new. Rudolph Steiner studied and taught biodynamic agriculture in the 1920s. And people such as Sir Albert Howard, Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry have kept the conversation about agricultural practices alive over the years.
But within the past decade or so, it seems like many of us finally got the message. We demand more from our food producers. Grocers have increased offerings from providers with organic certification. Some even transitioned their entire stores, and many of their customers are responding with cheers.
A Small-Scale Concern?
However, for small-scale farmers, tending market gardens and selling straight to customers, all this can seem like another world.
Most transactions at farmers markets and direct sale are predicated on relationships and transparency—customers know and trust their farmer to tell them what’s in and on their food—so this typically works. “All natural” may not be a legally binding term, but when you’re on a first-name basis with your customer, it carries weight.
There are, however, reasons for small-scale producers to consider organic certification.
The label designation, which guarantees a grower’s farming practices meet United States Department of Agriculture organic regulations, provides access to additional sales avenues, such as certain restaurants and grocery stores.
Organic is recognized as a premium that demands higher prices. Organic growers can also gain access to a variety of programs and services—including funding options—that are specific to the sector. And, while those face-to-face market interactions with established customers are critical, nothing invites new, health-conscious shoppers to your booth quite like a big, green seal.
What Is Organic Certification?
Before 2002, “organic” meant different things in different places, as state agencies and private certifiers granted certification according to a variety of rules.
A set of federal regulations were developed in 1990’s Organic Foods Production Act. But it wasn’t until 2002 that these regulations were officially put into place, codifying a national standard for food production labeled as certified organic by the USDA. The regulations are accessible on the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations’ website.
Now producers who use the term “organic” to market their products must follow the USDA’s rules. These guidelines prohibit the use of certain materials on a farm, ranging from weed and pest control to miscellaneous other applications.
For example: You can’t use lumber treated with arsenate for new builds on the property if it will come into contact with soil. But it also addresses things such as soil quality, the use of additives and animal-raising practices.
If you’re asking this question, first ask yourself if you’re willing to put in the time, effort and funds to obtain and retain the designation. It’s not a matter of sending off a form and getting a label in the mail. The certification process is rigorous, and farming according to the regulations is likely to be more labor- and capital-intensive.
Are you still in? Good. The USDA has provided a series of steps on its website — there’s a handbook, too — that will get you into the certification process and on your way to a green USDA seal for your products.
Organic System Plan
First, you need to develop an Organic System Plan. This OSP is a farm-specific document that details how you, as a farmer, will comply with the regulations for organic certification. There are templates available online—the USDA has two available on its website—for you to refer to when putting together your own.
Your certifying agency, which we’ll get to in a second, may provide assistance, too.
The USDA recognizes four different categorizations for organic certification, though your application may straddle a few different categories. They are:
- Crops. This is pretty basic, but if you grow in fields or gardens, the plants you harvest from there fall into this category. It also covers all plants grown for livestock feed—grass, legumes, corn—as well as plants used to make fiber and plant materials that are applied for soil improvement (as in compost).
- Livestock. This category covers livestock that is raised as food for human consumption, as well as raised to provide fiber—sheep raised for wool, for example—and for the purpose of producing animal feed, such as dog or cat food.So, in the case of pastured animals, grass used for grazing and hay production would need to meet organic crop standards in order for the meat to be certified organic. This would include scraps offered to, say, chickens or pigs.You’ll need to meet other conditions of raising and processing livestock, too. I’ve heard big-name organic farmers admit they’re not up to the task of certifying their pork, so do your research on what organic means for your products before going whole hog.
- Processed products. If you want to make and sell certified organic jams from peaches grown in your orchard, this applies to you, even if you’re just selling at the farmers market. But it also applies to products you might not consider processed, such as a bag of chopped carrots.
- Wild crops. No, not “wild,” nontypical plants such as Purple Dragon Carrot or Black Radish. Or the cultivated kind, at least, as wild crops categorization refers to plants harvested from non-cultivated growing spaces. Think wild raspberries foraged from the edge of your woods.
After you’ve developed your plan, you need to implement it. Document everything, too. A cornerstone rule of certification is that cropland is managed organically for three years before being recognized as organic.
Keep receipts for everything you purchase for use on the farm. And make sure you don’t use genetically modified or treated seeds during these three years.
You’ll need a certifying agent, too. Contacting your agent of choice as soon as possible is a good idea, as they can provide advice and services during that three-year lead up to applying for certification.
The USDA has accredited a total of 80 agencies as of this writing, the majority of whom (48) are in the United States. They’re the ones who will make the decision, on behalf of the USDA, about whether or not your farm products will receive organic certification.
It’s up to you to pick one, so start by asking other certified organic farmers in your area for recommendations.
You can also study the USDA’s Organic INTEGRITY Database to find certification agencies close to you, as well as to find out information such as what fees they charge and the agency’s authorization to certify you to export organic products to Taiwan and Japan (which is probably not of direct concern to you, but you never know).
Think you’ve ticked all the boxes for certification? Now you’ll submit your application and have the certifying agency send out an inspector to check things out. This is a very thorough process, compared against your OSP, that’s actually composed of a few different inspections (ideally all occurring on the same day, though this doesn’t have to be the case).
Don’t try to wing it. You’re paying for the inspector’s time. Your agency should provide some overview of the process. Many even provide pre-inspection checklists.
The inspector will look at pretty much everything, including, but not limited to:
- soil conditions
- crop health
- weed and pest management
- livestock living conditions
- vaccination records
- processing facilities
- storage areas
You will also provide and review receipts and records for the inspector to audit, which can take a long time and involve a number of questions. Have everything prepared, and stay ready to explain all of your farm operations from start to finish.
A Waiting Game
Once you’ve wowed the inspector with your thorough documentation and organic-farming acumen, the individual will present inspection results to your certifying agency. At minimum, this involves a report of how your OSP compares to what the inspector observed on your farm. But it may also include samples of things such as soil and livestock tissue.
The inspector will also report on hazards for potential contamination by prohibited materials and analyze the risk of such incidents occurring.
Meanwhile, you will likely grow a bit anxious, as the whole process typically takes one to three months. Be patient, and remain confident in your organic system.
Once the inspection is submitted and the certifying agency has determined that you are and have been farming according to an OSP that is acceptable to the USDA’s guidelines for a certified organic operation—you get your certificate.
This hard-won document will tell you what you can sell with that green seal on it. It’s exciting, and you should celebrate.
But now is not the time to slack. You’ll have another inspection at least once a year as long as you wish to remain certified. And you’ll need to modify your OSP as you change things on your farm.
Use That Seal
So, aside from continuing to farm according to an approved method, what do you do now?
Organic certification is, above all, a powerful marketing tool, so don’t be shy about your status. If you promote your farm on social media, put it out there that you are now an organic farmer. Print posters for your market table announcing your accomplishment.
Also, design new labels for your products, though the USDA has strict rules for labeling of organic products. Consider sending your designs to them for review before contacting a printer.
How we grow food for Earth’s population is an important factor in the health of the planet. By choosing to go organic, and being willing to prove it by seeking certification, you communicate to your customers that you are committed not only to their personal health, but also ecological health.
The green seal is likely to increase your farm income, but what it symbolizes is priceless.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.