How to Become Certified Organic

How to Become Certified Organic

Practices that many people believe to be more eco-friendly and sustainable for the environment.
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Organic product standards | Learn more on Commonshare |
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Agricultural produce and other food products are allowed to be labeled organic if they meet the standards(1) | #the standards | set by the USDA. These standards are broadly concerned with protecting natural resources, avoiding the use of bioengineered, genetically-modified crops, ensuring that biodiversity is conserved, and specifying which substances may and may not be used in the growing of the crops.
The basic organic labels
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There are three basic organic labels, and it is essential to use the correct statement in labeling and marketing:
| 100% Organic means that all ingredients and all processing are organic.
| Organic means 95% or more of the ingredients are organic; processing may use certain additives.
| Made with Organic Ingredients means that some of the ingredients are organic. The Organic Food Production Act 
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In the United States, the Organic Food Production Act specifies that in order to be sold or labeled as organically produced, an agricultural product must not have been produced with prohibited synthetic chemicals, and the land on which it is produced must also have been free from such chemicals for at least three years.
Briefly, organic certification requires you to abstain from the use of prohibited synthetic pesticides, synthetic herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. Bioengineering and ionizing radiation are prohibited as well, and sustainable practices to conserve soil and water are a must.
Seeking organic certification
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What all of this means is that the very first step in seeking organic certification is to develop an organic system plan(2) | #organic system plan |. In essence, this is a plan that details how you will comply with the requirements of organic certification.  
Organic system plans will differ based on the type of operation, but all address relevant farming systems, including tilling, grazing, harvesting, etc. They specify approved fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to be used in the process, and efforts taken to ensure monitoring and prevent contamination from substances which are prohibited for organic produce.
If you have taken the time and effort to meet the requirements, then seeking organic certification is a great way to signal this to consumers. In addition to demonstrating your values, you will make your product more marketable to people who share them.  
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Transition to organic production 
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The process of transition to organic production is not trivial, since it requires a 36-month period in which no prohibited fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides have been used to grow crops, and in which none of the crops have been genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).
This requirement is in place because many of the prohibited substances have the potential to remain in the soil and, where applicable, in perennial plants, for months if not years. It is possible, however, that after 12 months of qualifying, you may be able to market your agricultural products as “transitional” on the grounds that they are in compliance with all other requirements other than the length of time.
USDA-accredited certifying agent
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Once you have actually implemented the plan, you will need to go through a USDA-accredited certifying agent. This means choosing an organic certification agent, filling out their forms, and then waiting for them to review to see if you are indeed compliant with USDA standards as per the National Organic Program.
There are 48 different USDA-accredited organic certifying agencies based in the U.S., with others based in foreign countries or authorized through recognition agreements between the U.S. and foreign governments.  
According to the USDA, when selecting a certifying agent it is a good idea to consider fee structure, distance from you, and possibly authorization to certify for export to Taiwan and Japan. The USDA’s Organic Certifier Locator can help.
Costs of certification
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The costs of certification, i.e. fee structure, will depend not only on the certifying agent but also on the nature of your operation. The size, the type of operation, and the complexity of your operation are all relevant factors.
It is typical for there to be an application fee, a fee for annual renewal, an assessment on annual production or sales fee, and inspection fees as well. However, if you do obtain certification, the USDA Organic Certification Cost-Share Programs may be able to reimburse you up to 75% of your certification costs.
The on-site inspection
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The next step, after the agent is satisfied that everything appears to be in order with your paperwork, is an on-site inspection. It is the duty of organic certifying agents to ensure that producers are telling the truth on their applications, and that means verifying that the only fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides used on a field are those permitted by the program.
The agent write out a report of their findings
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After the agent carries out the inspection, they will write out a report of their findings. If the agent is not satisfied that you have fulfilled all requirements, their report will explain their findings and specify changes that need to be made to become compliant.
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Granting certification
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When the certifying agent has been satisfied and has no further concerns, you will be granted certification. At this point, you will be able to use the USDA Certified Organic label.
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The duration of the certificate
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Organic certification, once granted, remains valid indefinitely provided there are no problems or violations detected. Violations of the Organic Food Production Act or of the regulations associated with the National Organic Program may result in suspension or revocation of organic certification, either by the agent, the governing official of the State Organic Program, or the administrator of the NOP.
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Organic certification' benefits
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Getting organic certification represents a significant investment of time and effort. From developing an organic plan to completing the three-year waiting period necessary to get a certification, an organic farmer makes many investments to bring their operation into compliance with the standards set by the USDA program.
If you seek and obtain organic certification, you are likely to find it is a wonderful way in which to signal shared values with eco-minded, environmentally-conscious consumers. Compliance is an investment, but signaling this investment to consumers can serve as the basis for a bond of shared concern for the planet and for human health, a relationship that many organic growers find very profitable as well as fulfilling.   
Lexicon:
The standards website | https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-standards |
USDA website | https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/10/10/organic-101-five-steps-organic-certification |
 

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