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 who sell over $5,000 per year of products labeled organic 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.
Read about farmers’ experiences with certification:
Farmer finds organic certification opens doors
Many people in the sustainable farming community are at the same place we were a few years ago, farming using organic practices and marketing under sustainable, natural, or no-chemical labels. Like we did, they believe that organic certification is too cumbersome, expensive and of little benefit to their operation. They wonder, “Is there really that much to be gained for all the efforts needed for that piece of paper?” Actually, there is.
Read the full story.
There are many benefits to organic certification. Farmers become certified for a variety of reasons. Some producers see market opportunities while others have different motivations like consistent land stewardship. Read more.
How to become 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.
Organic Certification Cost Share
Certified producers and handlers can apply for reimbursement for certification-related expenses they incur from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. Payments will be up to 75 percent of certification costs with a maximum of $750 per category of certification. Application processes and deadlines differ by state. Contact your state department of agriculture for details.
Funds to Help with Transition
The departments of agriculture in both Minnesota and North Dakota now offer cost share benefits for farmers transitioning to organic production for the first time. The programs will provide funding to cover 75 percent of eligible transition costs up to $750. Applicants must be a resident of the state they are applying in, and working with a certifying agency. For details, see our Funds for Farmers webpage — fund opportunities are listed under each state.
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.
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The standards used by all organic certification agencies are the same USDA organic regulations. Agencies compete for your business based on service and price. The research you do now to choose a certification agency that is a good match for your farm will hold you in good stead for years to come.
You can switch agencies if you are unhappy with the service. However, certifiers usually have an extra fee for a first time application. If you move from agency to agency, you will pay this fee more than once. It is easier and less expensive to stay with one certification agency that gets to know your operation.
To help you find the best agency to handle your certification, start by talking to other organic farmers about their experience with their agencies. The organic farmer community is an invaluable resource in many ways, but especially as you work to establish and develop the very important relationship with your organic certifier.
Ask how long the farmers had to wait for the inspection to occur, their application to be reviewed, and their yearly certificate to be issued. This certification timeline tells you when you can expect to be able to sell your products for the organic price.
Are the agency’s policies, sample forms and templates easy to understand and use? Good record-keeping is an important piece of responsible farming and organic certification. It’s essential that the agency’s policies and templates are accessible and easy for the farmer to use.
Does the agency offer educational activities or field days, and a newsletter? After you talk with the organic farmers in your community, talk to the potential buyers of your organic products. If your buyer has a certification agency preference, you could consider being certified by that agency. If the buyer wants your organic product to be approved for sale to foreign countries, you should verify that your chosen certification agency is knowledgeable of these special certification requirements.
Finally, call a few agencies to compare their fees and timelines for processing your certification. Our online Upper Midwest Organic Resource Directory lists contact information for certification agencies—choose “Certification Agencies” in the dropdown beside Category Name. The directory also is available in a spiral-bound book; call 715-778-5775 to request a print copy.
Some agencies charge a flat fee plus a surcharge based on the dollar value of your yearly organic sales. Others have a sliding scale dependent on your anticipated organic sales, or on the amount of acreage of various commodities. In addition, some charge a fee to review each purchased crop or animal production input (fertilizers, animal health materials, feed supplements, pest control products, etc.). There may be an extra “membership” fee or “administrative” fee. Make sure you have a clear understanding of all the potential costs so you can make an informed decision. Keep in mind that you get what you pay for. If you want a responsive and helpful certifier, you may need to pay more since it costs money to have trained people on staff to take your call.
Find out if the agency certifies other farms in your region. The cost of certification typically is shared between many producers in a region. It makes sense to share expenses for the inspector’s mileage, food, and lodging with other area farmers, rather than having to carry the financial burden of these costs on your own. Also ask if the agency certifies other operations similar in scope to yours. The agency you choose should be familiar with your type of production—dairy, vegetables, sheep, grapes, nut trees, maple syrup, food processing—so your certification goes smoothly.
You can find more detailed information in the Guidebook for Organic Certification. This 32-page book covers everything from why this is a good time to be a certified organic farmer to what the rules are for specific types of production.
Download PDF Guidebook
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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.
This brochure provides an overview of the USDA organic regulations and includes information on getting certified, funding opportunities, and educational resources.
These “bite-sized” segments cover perspectives of certified organic direct-market farmers as well as an accredited certifier to show the benefits of organic certification, and outline the certification and renewal process.
See all of the resources created under the National Organic Program’s Sound and Sensible Initiative.
This interactive video puts you in the shoes of two farmers who are learning about the application process for organic certification, and the roles and relationships of certifiers, inspectors, and producers.