How to Get USDA Organic Certification

An Organic Farmer
•••   Hinterhaus Productions / Getty Images 

As a farmer, retailer or other business, gaining USDA organic certification status is a savvy and ethical business move. However, it's not enough to simply claim "organic." You must make sure that your product is carrying the certified USDA Organic Seal.

The USDA National Organic Standard Seal not only shows your ongoing commitment to a healthy planet but assures consumers and buyers that your product meets stringent USDA organic certification requirements. It will make your product more marketable and profitable. So, how do you get started with the USDA organic certification process?

Are You Eligible?

The best way to find out if your farm or product is eligible for USDA organic certification is to contact a reputable organic certifying agent. An organic certification agent is accredited by the National Organic Program (NOP).

Choosing the right one is a big deal, as your agent will help you with the planning process, inspect your product, and license you to use the term "organic" to sell your product.

Who Qualifies?

In general, you may be eligible for organic certification if you are one of the following.

  • A commercial producer of organic crops or livestock
  • A processor of organic foods, feed, fibers, or textiles
  • A handler of organic products such as a broker, packer, wholesaler, or distributor
  • A restaurant owner who sells organic fare
  • A retailer who specializes in organic products or organic food
  • A marketer of organic products
  • A brand owner developing organic products

But not everyone qualifies for USDA organic certification. First of all, your product needs to meet the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

This list tells you which synthetic and non-synthetic substances may or may not be used in your organic production and handling operations. You may also be exempt or excluded from organic certification based on a number of USDA regulations.

Is It Right for You?

USDA organic certification is an ongoing process that requires dedication. Getting certified means making a long-term commitment to the organic process and it can be time-consuming.

For example, did you know that to become certified organic you must comply years in advance in some cases?

National Organic Program standards require that organic crops be grown on land that has been free from prohibited pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers for three years before growth.

There are many other issues to think about as well. Becoming certified organic means considering your entire operational procedure, not just the end product.

How Much Will It Cost?

When the National Organic Program initially launched USDA organic certification, the cost of a single farm becoming certified was estimated at $750 with a sliding-scale fee structure in place for other organic operations.

Current certification fees vary wildly depending on the organic certification agent you choose. Be sure each organic certification agent you're speaking with gives you a clear estimate of the fee structure before officially choosing an agent. There are also programs that can help you pay for the costs of getting certified.

How to Apply?

If you've taken the time and initiative to ensure that your processing or distribution process is truly organic, then the actual process of gaining certification is fairly straightforward.

While variations apply due to specific circumstances, USDA organic certification can normally be divided into three phases. Organic certification includes the application process, the company, and product inspection and certification.

  1. The Application Process: If you're planning to market your product as "organic" you must get certified by a National Organic Program (NOP) accredited agent. First, choose your organic certification agent. Obtain and fill out your agent's application forms. After the agent reviews your application and decides that you're in compliance with NOP regulations and standards, your agent will schedule a site inspection.
  2. The Inspection: A reputable organic certification agent will always schedule an on-site visit to inspect your organic production and handling site. The inspection is conducted to ensure that your application information is truthful and accurate. Your inspector will need to see your operations and will want to verify that zero prohibited substances have come into contact with your product. Before the inspection ends, your inspector will conduct an exit interview with you, telling you about any problems.
  1. Certification: After your inspection takes place, your inspector will write a report based on his or her findings. The report, applicant file, and exit interview are again reviewed to ensure National Organic Program (NOP) compliance. If your organic certification agent has zero concerns and all fees have been paid, you'll be allowed to label your product or company as USDA Certified Organic. If there are minor concerns, you may be certified if you agree to solve the concerns within an appropriate time-frame.

    How Long Does It Last?

    Your organic certification will remain valid indefinitely, if there are no problems. The only way your certification will end is if you voluntarily surrender certification or if your certification is suspended or revoked by the certifying agent, the State Organic Program's governing State official, or the Administrator for violation of the Act or NOP regulations.