In the United States, less than one percent of land is devoted to growing produce organically. This is very small compared to consumer demand for organic food. According to an industry report by the Organic Trade Association, a business association for organic agriculture and products in North America, demand for organic products has grown from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $39 billion in 2014. This statistic is supported by at least two surveys. A recent Consumer Reports survey found that 84 percent of Americans buy organic food, while a survey conducted by Nielsen found consumers are willing to pay more for it.
What does all this data mean for farmers? Simple: People want more organic food and are willing to pay for it, which places farmers in a very good position as there is a huge opportunity for them to fill this demand.
Consumers know a product is organically produced if it has the United States Department of Agriculture Organic label placed on it. But what is farm certification really, how do you get organically certified, and how much does it cost?
Farm certification, also known as organic certification, verifies that the farm complies with USDA organic regulations and allows it to sell, label and represent its products as organic. These regulations are simply a set of standards that farmers have to meet to allow them to slap the word “organic” across their farm produce, including crops, livestock, processed products and wild crops. These regulations are administered by the USDA National Organic Program.
To get your farm organic certified, you need to follow these four steps:
The certification process begins when you adopt organic practices. Step 3 details what you need to do once you’ve done this step.
“Find a certifying agent who is familiar with the type of farming operation that you have,” says Leslie McKinnon, an organic certifier from San Marcos, Texas. “[One] that you feel has the knowledge and background you’re looking for.”
Each certifying agent has different fee schedules so McKinnon also advises farmers to consider the fee structure when choosing a certifying agent. She adds that their work process may vary “quite a bit” so farmers need to consider that as well.
The USDA has nearly 80 certifying agents who are allowed to issue certifications to farms, ranchers, and businesses anywhere in the world. Here’s a list compiled by the department.
Once you’ve chosen a certifying agent to work with, you need to prepare supporting documentation. These include:
Farm history. This will come in the form of a personal affidavit if you’re the owner of the land. If you’ve just recently bought the land or leased it from another farmer, you’ll need to submit the previous owner’s affidavit. The affidavit will include a detailed description of the farm, a history of substances applied to the land during the past three years, and information on the organic products grown, raised or processed.
Organic System Plan. This is a written farm plan describing the practices and substances to be used once the farm is organic certified.
At last it’s time to get certified! Here’s the process:
First the certifying agent will review your application to verify that everything complies with USDA organic regulations. This is the initial review where the certifying agent checks that you have provided all required info and determines that there aren’t any obvious barriers to certification.
Then the certifying agent will assign an inspector to conduct an on-site inspection of your farm. The inspector will contact you to schedule the inspection, after which the inspector will write a report and send it to the certifying agent.
Next the certifying agent will review the inspector’s report. This is the final review.
Finally the certifying agent will make a decision regarding your organic certificate. If they determine you’ve complied with organic standards, they will issue a certificate immediately; however, if they find you have not complied with organic standards, they will issue a Notice of Noncompliance. This is a certifying agent’s way of asking you for additional information or informing you of any problem that needs to be corrected. At this point, you can respond with either a proposed correction or an explanation, which is a rebuttal in case you feel the certifying agent didn’t understand something correctly. You can also ask for mediation or appeal the certifying agent’s decision to the National Organic Program. Once all noncompliance issues have been resolved, the certifying agent will issue your organic certificate.
You can watch McKinnon speak about the details of organic certification in the video above.
Getting your farm certified will naturally have its costs. Normally, applicants will need to pay an application fee, annual renewal fee, inspection fees, and assessment on annual production sales. Actual fees vary widely depending on factors such as the certifying agent’s fee structure and billing cycle as well as the size, type and complexity of your operation. According to the USDA, certification costs may range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
Just to give you an idea, Barb Dietrich was charged a $650 certification fee for the first year plus other fees (see video above at 2:34 mark). Fortunately the USDA currently has two organic certification cost share programs to reimburse up to 75 percent of the money you spend on farm certification. You can learn more about those programs here.
If you think it’s just too much work, here’s what a farmer with a certified organic farm has to say.
“A lot of people will say it’s too much work to get certified, but the records they ask for are things farmers should be keeping anyway so they can keep track,” said Kristy Buskirk, owner of the only certified organic vegetable farm in Seneca County. “I’m very proud that I’ve gone through the process and I can say to our customers that we’re certified”.
Buskirk added that organic farming is a way for people to stay connected to their food. More than that, organic certification is not only about the products but also about being good stewards of the land. Being organic certified helps maintain accountability for the land and its produce.