The National Organic Program (NOP) oversees the standards for organic production in the U.S. The NOP website provides information on certification, production, handling, and labeling of organic products.
All producers and processors of organic products who sell over $5,000 per year must be certified by an accredited certification agency. Farmers who sell less than $5,000 a year of organic products directly to consumers do not need to be certified, but do need to follow national organic rules.
How to become a certified
The chart below shows the steps you will go through to become certified in organic production. The initial steps can take place in one season or over three years, depending on how the land was used previously. Getting certified the first time will be the most work. After that, the annual steps won’t take as much time.
The first step to take on the path to certification is to identify potential markets for your organic crops or livestock. Where and how you’ll market your organic products can direct your production decisions. A large buyer might even dictate which agency will handle your certification. To find buyers/brokers in your region, search the online Upper Midwest Organic Resource Directory. (See button at the bottom of this page.)
While you are lining up markets, you can begin the process of transitioning your land to organic. Cropland must be free of prohibited substances for 36 months prior to the harvest of the first organic crop. If your land has been fallow, or if no prohibited materials have been used for at least three years, you or the previous operator can sign an affidavit to that affect. The land is certifiable as organic and ready for you to submit your application to the organic certification agency without any further waiting period.
During this transition time, any seeds you plant cannot be genetically modified or treated with prohibited fungicides, insecticides or genetically modified nitrogen-fixing bacteria. You are not required to plant organic seed until the year you are selling an organic crop. However, it may be beneficial to start trialing organic seed during your transition period to become familiar with the organic varieties.
Contact a certification agency during the transition time. Don’t wait until your land qualifies for organic certification. The certifying agent can answer your questions about which materials are approved before you use them. The agent also can send you information to help you transition to organic production.
If you aren’t already, begin now to keep records of every input, seed, livestock feed, etc., you use on your farm. In addition, track crop production activities and animal management. You’ll need these records to document compliance with organic regulations. More importantly, these records will become valuable tools for improving your farm, providing details on what has worked well and what hasn’t.
Your certification agency will have forms you can use to document production activities. To find a certification agency in your area, search the online Upper Midwest Organic Resource Directory.
How to Choose a Certification Agency & the Organic Certification Process offers questions to ask prospective agencies and fellow farmers to help you choose the best agency for your operation. Also provides details about the process of becoming certified. (2 pages)
You can find more detailed information in the Guidebook for Organic Certification:
This 32-page SARE Publication includes an introduction to organic farming, 4 organic farmer profiles, the economics of organic production, how to begin transitioning, and more. Free to download.