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How To Get Certified Organic Status


Consumer demand for organically produced goods has dramatically risen for more than two decades, and organic farming continues to be one of the fastest-growing segments of agriculture.

Organic Profit Potential

According to the Organic Trade Association's 2011 Organic Industry Survey, U.S. sales of organic food and beverages grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010. From 2009 to 2010, organic food sales grew 7.7 percent, well outpacing the growth of total food sales, which advanced only 0.6 percent.

North American and European consumers purchase the most organic products and are happy to pay a premium to do so. Getting your farm or operation certified organic opens up the possibilities of adding those premiums to your bottom line.

Who Manages The Certification Process?

Farmer and a farming consultant examine cornIn the United States, the National Organic Program (NOP) is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA); certification through the NOP program will allow the use of the USDA seal on your label. Another private non-profit program, the Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) is tailored towards smaller operations using, "natural methods." The CNG program is attractive to smaller operators because of lesser financial and administrative barriers to achieving certification.

Who Can Apply?

Any operation that produces and handles agricultural products that are intended to be marketed as organic, or are made with organic ingredients, should be certified organic. However, should your annual sales of organic products be less than $5,000/year, you are exempt from certification and may use an organic label, although you must adhere to the national standards for organic products.

Other current organic exemptions listed by the USDA include handlers and final retailers that:

  • Do not process or repackage products.
  • Handle products with 70 percent organic ingredients.
  • Process or prepare on the premises organic labeled food that is raw and ready to eat.
  • Use the word, "organic," only on the information panel of a label.
  • Handle organic products that are already packaged or enclosed in a container prior to delivery and remain in the same container or package.

Assuming that you are going to attempt to certify with the NOP your first step is to submit information to an accredited certifying agent. A list of these certifying agents can be found on the USDA web site; you may also find that your state agriculture department is an agent and furthermore, could have an organic program which may assist you and may reduce the cost of certification. The cost of certification varies depending on the fees applied by the certifying agencies and also the size of the operation's annual turnover.

Plants being watered

According to the USDA you will need to provide the following information:

  • The type of operation to be certified.
  • A history of substances applied to the land for the past three years.
  • The organic products grown, raised, or processed.
  • Your organic system plan (OSP), (you may want to take advice on preparing this) which should include:
    • Monitoring practices to ensure the OSP is being correctly implemented.
    • Record keeping system.
    • Practices to prevent organic and non-organic products mingling.
    • Practices to prevent products contacting prohibited substances.

After certification you must keep accurate records for five years, which must include:

  • Your dealings with the USDA and NOP certifying agents.
  • Records appertaining to the production harvesting and handling of all agricultural products that are sold as organic.

Organic Status Inspection

Your operation will be inspected by qualified agents appointed by your certifying agent who will examine your records, observe the practices carried on at your operation, and prepare a report. The certifying agent will review the report and if you are complying with the standards and requirements under the NOP you will be granted certification; certification can be terminated voluntarily or via an enforcement process. You must notify your certifying agent immediately should changes at your operation affect your compliance with organic standards. Furthermore, the certifying agents and or the USDA may conduct testing at your operation if it is believed that organic products may have come into contact with prohibited substances or improper methods have been employed.

Yes, gaining and maintaining certified organic status means extra work, cost, and more detailed record keeping. However, the administrative and farming practices properly applied should be more than covered by the potential extra revenues that organic products command.

Additional Resources


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