The USDA adopted standards for Organic Certification in 2002 in order to expand consumer confidence for products labeled as organic. The certification allows producers who adhere to a minimum set of standards and practices to utilize the “USDA Organic” label, which can provide a valuable marketing advantage for a variety of farm commodities including fruits and vegetables, row crops, livestock, seed, flowers, and processed goods. Small producers selling under $5,000 per year can use the term “organic” without acquiring certification; however they must still comply with all organic standards. The primary constraint for uncertified small producers is a restriction on using the USDA organic seal. To find more information on the National Organic Program, the USDA website for Organic Standards has links to a lot of useful educational materials.
Note: In 2017, the Georgia General Assembly removed the requirement for operators to submit additional paperwork to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, as they believe the Organic Certification through an accredited third party auditor is sufficient for verification of organic standards.
Important Things to Consider:
A decision to seek organic certification should be carefully considered before beginning the process. Here are some of the key aspects to consider:
- Identify Markets – Due to the time and cost involved in acquiring organic certification an assessment of the demand, prices, and access to markets that pay a price premium will ensure that certification is a feasible and financially sound decision.
- Land Eligibility – Land utilized for certified organic production must either have records demonstrating that no prohibited substances (synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) have been used for a period of three years, or lands must begin a three year transition period in which no prohibited substances are used.
- Familiarity with Practices and Materials – One challenge in preparing for organic certification is becoming familiar with “ecological production principles” that form the basis for organic farm management decisions. There are a growing number of resources for such information. One of the most comprehensive locations for information on allowed practices and the certification process is the USDA’s National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, also called ATTRA.
- Time and Resources for Documentation – The amount of time required to document certification activities varies by farm size. Certification requires routine documentation of management practices including materials purchased and applied, applications of approved pesticides, and other management activities.
- Cost of Certification - An annual certification fee is collected from your third-party certifying agency. Different certifiers have different fees.
1) Study the Requirements
Make sure you're familiar with the National Organic Program requirements. You can find and download the National Organic Program Handbook online (print versions no longer available). The goal of the Handbook is "to provide those who own, manage, or certify organic operations with guidance and instructions that can assist them in complying with the USDA organic regulations."
2) Contact a Certifier
Once a farmer/producer has reviewed the NOP guidelines and decides they want to become certified, they will have to contact a third party accreditor to come out and look at their farm and review their production plan. “Farms are certified organic by federally accredited certifying agencies, and these certifying agencies can certify farm operations anywhere domestically or internationally. Certification includes an audit from seed sourcing to harvest and an on-farm site inspection. Two important points to consider when choosing a certifier are their staff’s experience with your type of farm enterprise and the organic practices associated with that enterprise.” A decision in choosing a certifier may be based on the different fees charged, proximity of the certifier to your location, or consideration of certain certifier’s recognition for high standards. Many people choose certifiers that are nearby to reduce the mileage fees charged for inspection.You can find a list of certifying agents in Georgia from a List of registered agents, or by using the online USDA Organic Certifier Locator tool.
3) Application of Organic Systems Plan
The main component of an application for organic certification is the Organic System Plan (OSP), which provides a detailed outline of all relevant aspects of your operation including how you intend to operate your farm in compliance with the NOP standards. Details on the content of this plan can be obtained from your certifier, or you can familiarize yourself with the plan requirements by looking at the Organic System Plan template. The plan will include all farm practices to be performed and the frequency, list of substances and how they will be used, description of monitoring practices, a description of the recordkeeping system, practices to prevent commingling of organic and conventional products in a split operation, a map of all farm acreage, field histories, and additional information. The producer will submit this written plan with the application to the certifier they choose.
4) Review by the Certifier
After all application materials are completed and submitted to the certifier they will be reviewed for compliance with NOP standards and additional information will be requested if needed.
5) Inspection by the Certifier
Once the application is considered to be complete an inspector will be assigned to ensure that the producer is operating according to the organic plan and in compliance with organic standards. The inspector will review all written records documenting management practices, seed sources, inputs used, compost production, conventional production done on the farm, and records of harvest, storage, transportation, and sales. Certifiers will conduct on-farm inspections and may ask to see additional documents while on-site to help ensure that all organic practices are being met.
6) Review of the Inspection Report and Approval
Following the inspection all findings will be submitted to the certifier and reviewed either by an individual or committee with expertise in organic farming and certification standards. The certifier will either a) Grant approval for certification, b) Request additional information, c) Notify of areas of noncompliance, or d) Deny the certification. Once certification is granted, the producer can begin marketing using the USDA certified organic seal.
Additional Resources for Certification
A great resource for anyone interested in becoming certified is Georgia Organics. They have a cost share program, where “producers are eligible for as much as 75 percent of the cost (up to $750) [of certification] through the Georgia Department of Agriculture under the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program. Georgia Organics is reimbursing the remaining 25 % for farmers getting their certification for the first time.” Additional resources for certification can be found at the Georgia Organics website.
If you are looking for additional information on organic certification, please see our Resources page to find other publications and useful tools.