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Through the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, Congress established the National Organic Program which is administered by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. This law codified a national standard for the production, processing, and sale of organic products and defined a process for obtaining and maintaining organic certification status.
Organic certification is administered by the National Organic Program which is part of USDA-AMS. Organic certification requires a transition period of 3 years, meaning practices on the field must be organic compliant for 36 months before an operation can be certified organic.
The certification process has two main components, an application and an in-field inspection. To become certified organic, an operation will select a USDA-accredited certifying agent, and then submit an application and fee to them. The certifying agent does not have to be in the same state as the operation applying for certification. For more information on picking a certifier, you can reference our How to Pick a Certifier page.
The certifying agent will review the operation’s application and confirm practices are compliant. Next they will send an inspector to the farm for an onsite inspection. Once the certifying agent reviews the inspector’s report and confirms compliance with organic standards, the operation will receive an organic certificate.
Certified operations must keep records which detail their production practices including production, harvesting, and handling of their agricultural products. The records should be maintained for at least 5 years after their creation and sufficiently available for certifying agents. To maintain organic certification an operation will need to be inspected annually.
Application for Certification and Organic System Plan
An operation seeking initial organic certification must submit an application for certification to a certifying agent. The application needs to include:
- An Organic System Plan
- The name of the person completing the application, the applicant’s business name, address, and telephone number. In cases when the applicant is a corporation, the name, address, and telephone number of the person authorized to represent the corporation
- If the applicant has submitted for organic certification in the past and was denied, the applicant must list the name(s) of any organic certifying agent(s) an application was submitted to, the year(s) of application; the outcome(s) of application submission including, when available, a copy of the notification of noncompliance or denial of certification issued to the applicant; and a description of the action(s) taken by the applicant to correct the noncompliance and evidence of this correction
- Any other information necessary to determine compliance with federal organic standards
A significant component of the application for organic certification is the Organic System Plan. In the Organic System Plan, a producer must describe their operation size, location, as well as practices and methods they will use to successfully meet the standards for organic production. They must also describe measures their operation takes to reduce risk of contamination of organic land and products as well as internal monitoring methods for successful implementation of organic principles.
The operation applying for certification must develop an Organic System Plan which an accredited certifying agent accepts as comprehensively demonstrating compliance with federal organic requirements. The organic systems plan will include:
- A description of the agricultural practices and procedures to be performed and maintained, including the frequency with which they will be performed
- A list of each substance to be used as a production or handling input, indicating its composition, source, where on the operation it will be used, and documentation of commercial availability (if applicable)
- A description of the monitoring practices and procedures, including their frequency, to verify the Organic System Plan is being effectively implemented
- A description of the record keeping system of the operation
- A description of the management practices and physical barriers established to prevent commingling of organic and non-organic products on a split operation as well as measures to prevent contact of prohibited substances with land in organic production and organic products
- Any additional information deemed necessary by the certifying agent to evaluate compliance with regulations
- *If the applicant is a producer group operation, the applicant must include additional information describing the members of the producer group, the organizational structure, as well as screening procedures for maintaining the integrity of organic production for each production unit
There are a variety of resources to assist with the development of an Organic System Plan available on the USDA-AMS website, including sample templates. It is also encouraged that if a producer has a question about their Organic System Plan, such as whether a substance is permitted, that they contact their certifying agent directly.
Organic Certification Federal Standards
Federal organic standards describe the land requirements, soil and fertility practices, seed and planting stock, crop rotation, and pest, weed, and disease management practices which are permissible in an organic system. The Organic Systems Plan should fully capture the operation’s plan to follow these standards for management practices.
Crops produced organically intended to be sold as USDA certified organic must come from land which:
- Has been managed in compliance with the standards set by the National Organic Program
- Has had no prohibited substances applied to it for a period of 3 years immediately preceding harvest of the crop
- Has distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones to prevent the unintended application of a prohibited substance to a crop or contact with a prohibited substance applied to an adjoining non-organic field
Soil Fertility and Crop Nutrient Management
The federal organic standard restricts substances which can be used in crop fertility management and encourages good stewardship of soil through minimizing erosion and supporting soil health. An organic operation must demonstrate the following:
- The producer must select and implement tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil and minimize erosion
- The producer must manage crop nutrients and soil fertility through rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials
- Plant and animal materials used should be managed to avoid contamination of crops, soil, and water with plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances including raw animal manure, composted plant and animal material, and un-composted plant material. These materials are subject to further restrictions such as composting periods and application timing. It is important that producers check to ensure their materials and applications are in compliance.
Producers may use the following substances in addition to plant and animal materials in a manner that does not contribute to the contamination of crops, soil, or water:
- A crop nutrient or soil amendment included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production
- A mined substance of low solubility
- A mined substance of high solubility: Provided, the substance is in compliance with conditions established for organic production and is not on the National List of non-synthetic materials prohibited for crop production
- Ash from burning a plant or animal, as long as the burned material has not been treated or combined with a prohibited substance
- A plant or animal material that has been chemically altered by a manufacturing process, if the material is included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed of use in organic crop production
Producers may not use:
- Any fertilizer or composted plant or animal material that contains a synthetic substance not included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production
- Sewage sludge (biosolids)
- Burning as a means of disposal for crop residue, with the exception of using burning as a means of disease suppression or to stimulate seed germination
Seed and Planting Stock Standards
In order to be compliant with federal organic standards, producers must:
- Use organically grown seeds, annual seedlings, and planting stock
- Use non-organically produced, untreated seeds and planting stock when the organic crop equivalent is not commercially available, excluding the production of edible sprouts
- Use of non-organically produced seeds and planting stock that have been treated is permissible as long as the substance is on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic production
- Non-organically produced annual seedlings may be used to produce an organic crop when a temporary variance has been granted. To see current temporary variances, visit the USDA-AMS website which has a list of current and temporary variances
- Non-organically produced planting stock to be used to produce a perennial crop may be sold, labeled, or represented as organically produced after 1 year of organic management
- Seeds, annual seedlings, and planting stock treated with prohibited substances may be used to produce an organic crop when the application of the materials is a requirement of Federal or State phytosanitary regulations.
Genetically modified seeds are not compliant with federal organic standards
Crop Rotation Practice Standard
To be compliant with the federal organic standard, producers must implement a crop rotation which:
- Maintains or improves soil organic matter content
- Provide for pest management in annual and perennial crops
- Manages deficient or excess plant nutrients
- Provides erosion control
Crop pest, weed, and disease management practices
The federal organic standard restricts methods for pest, weed, and disease control and requires a management system with a focus on preventative cultural practices. In order to follow the national organic standard, producers should:
- Use management practices to prevent crop pests, weeds, and disease including
- Crop rotation and soil and crop nutrient management
- Sanitation measures to remove disease vectors, weed seeds, and habitat for pest organisms
- Cultural practices that enhance crop health including selection of plant species and varieties with regard to site suitability resistance to prevalent pests, weeds, and diseases
- Manage pest problems through ecological or physical methods including but not limited to:
- Increasing or introducing predators or parasites of pest species
- Development of habitat for natural enemies of pests
- Non-synthetic controls such as lures, traps, and repellants
- Weed problems may be controlled through
- Mulching with fully biodegradable materials
- Livestock grazing
- Hand weeding and mechanical cultivation
- Flame, heat, or electrical means
- Plastic or other synthetic mulches, provided they are removed from the field at the end of the growing or harvest season
- Disease problems may be controlled through
- Management practices which suppress the spread of disease organisms
- Application of non-synthetic biological, botanical, or mineral inputs
- When the above practices are insufficient to prevent or control crop pests, weeds, or disease; a biological or botanical substance, or a substance included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic production may be used. The conditions for using the substance must be documented in the Organic System Plan.
- The producer must not use lumber treated with arsenate or other prohibited materials for new installations or replacement purposes in contact with soil or livestock
It is always better to get clarity on whether a substance or practice is organically approved prior to use. There are a variety of resources available for producers looking to transition to organic production or get clarity on interpreting the federal organic standard. The following resources are available for producers looking to become USDA certified organic.
Quick Summary of Organic Certification Federal Standards– An abridged version of the federal organic standards.
National Organic Program – The National Organic Program home site
National Organic Program Regulations– Regulations, current temporary variances, standards and requirements
NC State’s Organic Commodities Production Guide– NC State’s Organic Production Guide, a production guide for major organic commodity crops in North Carolina
National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances– National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for organic production
OMRI Products List– The Organic Materials Review Institute is a non-profit which determines product eligibility for organic use. Please note ultimate approval for product use in organic systems needs to be through a USDA accredited organic certifying agent.