When it comes to questions about organic farming, most of the discussion tends to be geared towards consumers. A wealth of information, readily accessible online, is dedicated to helping consumers understand key issues.
These include what the organic label means, the benefits of buying organic products, and even how to save money when shopping organic. But another group of people have just as many, if not more, questions about organic farming: farmers themselves.
Organic growing is a rapidly expanding sector in US agriculture. However, many farmers are still not sure whether or not organic certification is the right move for their farms. It can be challenging for them to find the answers and information they need to make this decision.
To address this issue, the US Department of Agriculture offers a range of helpful resources for prospective organic growers on its website. These include guides to organic regulations, details about organic certification, and lists of available support for organic farms. Some of the most important questions that the USDA can help farmers answer include:
What does organic certification involve?
For farmers interested in obtaining certified organic status, there are several basic steps to follow. First, the farm or business must adopt organic practices (as defined by the USDA), select a certifying agent who is accredited by the USDA, and submit the required application and fees to the agent.
Next, the certifying agent will review the application to ensure that the farm’s practices are in compliance with organic regulations. An independent inspector will then conduct an on-site inspection of the farm and issue a report.
Finally, the certifying agent will review the inspector’s report and, if all requirements have been met, will issue an organic certificate. Farmers should note that certified organic farms are subject to an annual recertification process.
How quickly can farms make the transition to organic?
Farmers considering organic certification should be prepared for the three-year transition period that is required when a farm moves from non-organic to organic growing methods. During this period, farmers must not use any substances that are prohibited under organic regulations.
Additionally, during this time they cannot label or represent their products as “organic.” Only when the transition period is over and official certification has been awarded can farms sell organic products labeled with the USDA organic seal.
How much does organic certification cost?
Understandably, many farmers are hesitant about embarking on the organic certification process because they are concerned about costs. However, it’s important to understand that fees can vary considerably. They range from several hundred to several thousand dollars depending on the certifying agent, as well as on the size, type, and complexity of the farm.
Farmers should always ask their certifier for a fee structure and billing cycle. Typical costs to be prepared for include the initial application fee, an annual renewal fee, inspection fees, and assessments on annual production or sales. Farmers should also explore financial assistance for the transition and certification processes.
Is there support available for organic growers?
There are obviously costs associated with becoming an organic operation. The good news is that there is plenty of financial support available. This can help make organic certification a more viable option for farmers. Some of the programs that prospective organic farmers can explore include:
The USDA Organic Certification Cost-Share Programs. For eligible operations, these programs can offer a reimbursement of up to 75 percent of the organic certification costs.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (Organic Initiative). Offered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, this program provides financial and technical support to organic producers, either certified or transitioning, who voluntarily implement conservation practices.
Farmers Market Promotion Program. For prospective organic growers who plan to sell products directly to consumers, this program offers institutional funding for the improvement and expansion of domestic farmers markets, farm stands, CSA programs, and other direct, producer-to-consumer market initiatives.
What are the benefits of organic certification?
Becoming a certified organic operation can offer farmers many benefits. Often, these more than compensate for the associated costs and extra labor. Some of the most important benefits include:
Seal of quality. For customers, the certified organic seal is the best possible testament to a farmer’s use of best practices and careful stewardship. The safeguards that are guaranteed by the organic seal—including no GMOs, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge—cannot be assured in any other way.
Market access. Many buyers, including cooperatives, supermarkets, and distributors, are actively seeking out and promoting organic products. This can help growers significantly expand their available market access and opportunities.
Premium market price. Food labeling standards can be confusing and misleading. As a result, many consumers are willing to pay a premium for food that carries the official USDA organic seal. Acre for acre, organic produce is more profitable than conventionally-grown produce. Likewise, organic dairy prices are higher and more stable.
Environmental stewardship. Implementing organic best practices doesn’t just benefit a farm’s bottom line. Organic methods can also increase land productivity over time. This improves fertility and biodiversity for future generations of farmers.