Jane Kuhn - Apr 24, 2017

Get a Leg-up on the Organic Certification Process

Photo credit: Jane Kuhn 

The familiar little green and white circle sporting the “USDA Certified Organic” label is popping up with increasing frequency, peppering the grocery aisles and being waved like a flag at farmer’s markets across the country. With the number of organic suppliers expanding rapidly, taking the steps to get your farm certified organic is a smart, if not necessary, business move. Since the National Organic Program’s launch in 2002, the organic movement has been well underway, and yet the process of getting certified can seem like a headache. Between the 80 organic certification agencies to choose from, and the paperwork, records, historical reports, and receipts that all need to be collected and synthesized from the past year, or three….the details can feel overwhelming.

For insider tips, I looked to folks at both ends of the process: growers and certifiers. Robin Boyle, the Director of Marketing and Sales at California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) offered her insight from the certifier’s perspective. On the other end, I spoke with Stephan Garaffo; he’s been farming in the Santa Cruz Mountains for five years and happens to be an Associate Product Manager at Tend. As part of his research, he recently went through the process of getting his own 1-acre farm, in its first year of production, certified with CCOF.

Plan ahead
Certification typically requires 6-10 weeks, however, CCOF recommends beginning the process at least 3 months before harvest. Robin points out that “the length of time can depend on a number of factors: how complete the application is when submitted, the complexity of your operation, and how quickly you respond to any requests for information that arise during the review process.” Additionally, an Organic System Plan (OSP) must be submitted for certification, outlining all of your practices. If you can review the OSP forms in advance, it will help you “understand what steps (you’ll) need to follow to complete and maintain certification.” Robin adds that “CCOF understands that some farms may be pressed for time or require certification by a certain deadline. In these cases, we offer an expedited certification program which can reduce the timeline by several weeks.”

Avoid these common mistakes
Robin shared some common oversights made by farmers in the certification process:

  • Not allowing enough time to complete the application. Plan ahead! Budget about 90 days for the entire process.

  • Not seeking approval for materials prior to using them. As Robin says, “Use of a prohibited material can put the certification of your operation, land, and/or products at risk, even if it was used unintentionally.”  Because every input needs the certifier’s clearance (even if it is OMRI approved), the farther in advance you can anticipate potential inputs, the better off you’ll be.

  • Not having a clear, organized, and consistent record keeping system, which makes it harder to stay in compliance. According to Robin, “the National Organic Program requires that all certified operations maintain detailed records. These records must fully disclose all activities and transactions, and demonstrate compliance with the regulations in sufficient detail as to be readily understood and audited.”

Take advantage of financial assistance
While the price for certification can initially feel a bit daunting, many find the cost is well worth the service received. And, there are fee schedules for payments as well as a reimbursement program. If you’re looking for financial assistance, check out the USDA Organic Certification Cost Share Program which can cover up to 75% of your certification fees. CCOF also offers grants through the Bricmont Hardship Assistance Fund, which according to Robin, is “the only fund that provides direct financial assistance exclusively to organic producers who suffer losses due to extreme hardship.”

Tend can help!
Stephan uses Tend to manage his farm, and the app played an integral role in his certification experience. “The number one thing that Tend has to offer to the process, is records that are easily digestible by the viewer” he reflects. The Tend Task feature allows you to document everything from frequency of fertilizations to application rates, and pest & disease management techniques. In addition, the Tend Budget feature allows you to attach receipts to your records. With the Tend tools Stephan utilizes to manage his farm, he was easily able to show the inspector all of the relevant tasks he had done in the fields and was able to generate specific reports by crop. As Stephan points out, “the Tend Task and Budget features assist with organizing the hard data, like receipts, that certifiers are looking for.”

One last bit of advice from Stephan is to “take screenshots!” Capture images of your Google searches and researching queries. This can be incredibly helpful, particularly if you end up in a situation where you need to prove an inability to source organic seed.

For a leg-up on the organic certification process, stay on top of your records, do your research, and start early!

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Jane works as a Field Production Specialist at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, where her days are filled with tractor work, irrigation coordination, orchard care, and educating apprentices and interns. Her favorite way to end a long day's work in the sun, is running down the hill to Mitchell's Cove and jumping in the Pacific.


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