USDA Organic Certification: Transitioning to Organic Farming

October 17, 2022

Natural and regenerative farming practices have been a traditional way to cultivate crops for millennia. In fact, conventional farming is a relatively new development in human history. Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been allocating funds for producers who invest in organic farming systems rather than conventional farming.

Organic agriculture continues to gain a larger share of the market as consumers' preferences and purchasing habits shift. Organic certification can offer new marketing and profit opportunities for your farm’s production.

At FarmRaise, we encourage farmers to make profitable and sustainable decisions for their operations. Making the transition to organic production takes both time and extensive planning, so be sure you know the facts before beginning the organic transition process.

What Does Certified Organic Mean?

According to the USDA, “organically certified” means

...produced using cultural, biological and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.

To be certified organic, you must follow strict production, handling and labeling standards and complete the organic certification process which we’ll delve into later in this post.

There are four types of organic certification:

  1. 100% Organic - usually raw fruits and vegetables. This is the category that you as a farmer or rancher is in. The following categories are better fits for companies that process and distribute products.
  2. Organic - any product that uses least 95% organic fruits and vegetables
  3. Made with organic ingredient - any product with at least 70% organic foods, though they are not permitted to use the USDA organic label
  4. Specific organic ingredients - any product using less than 70% organic food, must specify which ingredients are organic and cannot use the USDA organic label

There are also categories for types of organic stakeholders: organic produce (farmers, ranchers and handlers) and those that serve the organic producers (processors). This distinction is especially important if you’re applying for federal funding. In this article, we talk about producers. 

USDA Organic Standards

Essentially, organic standards require producers to use the most natural methods of farming possible with absolutely no use of what the USDA deems as prohibited substances such as synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. USDA organic standards regulate organic growers’ soil health (soil fertility, nutrients, etc.), methods for animal raising and pest and weed control.  A lot of people don’t realize that organic also means non-GMO. 

The standards for organic livestock are slightly different but follow the same idea: keep it as natural as possible! A common misconception is that organic meat means only using organic feed. While that is a USDA organic requirement, further regulations require that your animals are raised as closely to their natural behavior as possible and are antibiotic-free and hormone-free

Soil testing is an important aspect of organic crop production. The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) guidelines require that you conduct a soil test and document the results if you want to add micronutrients to your soil.

A question our farmers ask us a lot: Does my whole farm need to be organic?

The short answer is not necessarily. But the crops you want to be organically certified need to have a buffer zone between them and non-organic cropland. According to the NOP, those buffer zones need to be big enough and structured well enough to stop any runoff of those prohibited substances we mentioned before. In other words, there can be no contact between non-organic and organic land. It’s recommended that buffer zones are at least 25- to 30-feet wide, but there are no hard and fast rules on sizing. 

Before organic farmers can get approval for organic certification, your farm will need to manage crops and livestock in accordance with the requirements laid out by the NOP. Here are the general timeframes and requirements for transition:

  • Cropland - managed organically for 36 months (three years), but it might be possible to expedite the transition process if your land hasn’t had prohibited substances used on it for 36 months prior to the beginning of the transition period.
  • Slaughter livestock - must implement organic management practices from the last third of gestation.
  • Dairy animals - 12 months of organic management.
  • Poultry - continuous organic management from the second day of life.

What’s NOP?

official USDA Organic seal
Products with this official USDA Organic seal have been deemed by a USDA-approved certifier as adhering to the NOP's strict organic production guidelines.

The National Organic Program (NOP) is a regulatory program that is run by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). The NOP has two important functions: Develops and enforces national standards for organic agricultural products and gives third-party organizations the authority to certify farms, ranches and operations that meet the NOP organic standards. Think of the NOP as the gatekeepers of that coveted USDA organic label. 

According to the USDA, “your farm or business doesn’t need to be certified in order to sell, label, or represent your products as organic.” But you should know that without the  “USDA Organic'' seal, you can’t refer to your products as certified organic, and you can’t apply for federal reimbursement to cover the costs of organic transitioning and certification. Consumers also tend to trust the USDA Organic seal more than other organic labels. That’s why it might be best for your operation to  go for that USDA certification.

How to Transition to Organic from Conventional Farming

  1. K‍now the federal regulations. Organic certification is only granted if you’ve been verified as using farming and processing practices that meet the NOP regulations; this means having an understanding of which practices and materials are allowed and which are strictly prohibited. So you’ll need an Organic Systems plan, which is required to apply for and retain your organic certification.
  2. Contact a certifier before you begin the transition process. These individuals may have additional requirements for certain materials and equipment, so check with your certifier for guidance about rules, regulations, pricing and USDA organic approved practices and materials.
  3. Determine what land to transition. Again, you don’t necessarily need to transition your whole farm at once. You may feel more comfortable "experimenting" with organic production practices on one or two fields. While it is possible to transition an entire farm all at once, there are several options for organic transition:
  • Full Transition - all land in transition at the same time
  • Gradual Transition - one land parcel at a time with intention of eventually certifying all land
  • Split Operation - simultaneous maintenance of both organic and conventional production
  • Immediate Transition - transition from land that has not used prohibitive substances for 36 months

Audit Your Farm

You may also want to to take a good look at your farm and see what farming practices you may need to change to be organic. What are your current inputs? How is your soil health? What about your tillage practices? Do you use cover cropping? Is crop rotation a practice you already implement?

By auditing your farm, you can start getting an idea of how much it will cost you to convert to organic methods. Many of those practices are eligible for funding from federal, state and private organizations. We’ll get to funding options later in this post.

How Much Does Organic Certification Cost?

The costs of organic transitioning vary widely based on your operation size, what practices you already use,  your inspector and more. Typically, you’ll be paying the following fees:*

  • One-time application fee: usually around $200 - $400
  • Annual renewal fee: varies greatly depending on your certifier and sales. Smaller farms can be as a low as $300/400 while large operations can expect to pay up to $16,000 on the more expensive end.
  • Assessment on annual production or sales - varies greatly by certifier
  • Inspection fees - usually around $500

*These fees are estimates based on quotes from a sample of USDA-approved certifiers and will vary greatly depending on which certifier you work with.

That can all add up to a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, so before you apply, make sure to shop around for certifiers. We highly recommend to refer to the USDA database of organic certifiers to be sure you’re choosing a legitimate and up-to-date certifier. Though it’s easier to work with the same certifying organization each year, it’s not a lifelong contract. If you find that you’d like to switch certifiers, take a look at the AMS recommendations for changing organic certifiers.

Get Money for Transitioning to Organic Practices and Certification

Transitioning farmers have a few options for federal funding to help transition to organic.

EQIP - The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) can offer financial assistance to help organic producers improve their operations or help producers transition to organic using a conservation plan tailored to their needs. And you’re in luck! At FarmRaise we specialize in applying farmers and ranchers for EQIP and making them more competitive applicants. You can find out if you’re eligible for EQIP funding for free in under five minutes.

SARE - Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program can offer funding for experimenting and educating others in your community about your farming methods. Let’s say you’re transitioning to organic farming. You want to try a new type of legume cover or companion crop that will naturally deter pests from your kale instead of the chemical pesticide you were using before. Let’s say you then share those pest management results with other farmers by hosting a webinar. SARE funding would be great for that project!

OCCSP and OTECP - The Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP) and Organic and Transitional Education and Certification Program (OTECP) are similar USDA programs that help pay for organic certification. OTECP also covers organic education fees so you can attend conferences or workshops that will keep you updated on the latest organic methods. The programs offer different amounts of funding but generally cover similar expenses. These are cost-share programs so they reimburse you for part of your expenses.

FarmRaise Farm Funding Library - There are a multitude of funding programs for those seeking organic certification. FarmRaise compiles these opportunities into our database, and you can filter through those opportunities to find programs specifically for “organic certification” (see image). We’ll also send you Farm Funding Alerts so you never miss a deadline. Check out how our Farm Funding Library and Farm Funding Alerts work. 

Organic certification funding programs in the FarmRaise Farm Funding Library
You can search through the FarmRaise Farm Funding Library to find organic certification funding programs in your state or island.

Is It Worth Transitioning to an Organic Production System?

Organic farming can help the environment and public health. But there are many aspects of transitioning to consider before going on the journey.

For one, the transition process can take a few crop cycles. During that time, you won’t technically be considered organic. That means that you won’t be able to charge those organic premium prices during your transition. You’ll be paying for the expenses of organic farming without recouping organic produce revenue, yet.

You should also consider that organic farming may be as or more labor-intensive than your current methods, especially in the beginning of your transition. That could all add up to lower crop yields.

However, even if your crop yields are lower, your products will likely be sold at price premiums. In fact, according to the USDA, organic products were sold at premiums up to 236% in 2022.

If you’re interested in getting organic certification, don’t go it alone. A FarmRaise Farm Funding Advisor can help guide you through the transition and lead you to funding opportunities that support your operation’s goals.

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