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Organic 101: Five Steps to Organic Certification

Posted by Miles McEvoy, National Organic Program Deputy Administrator in Food and Nutrition
Oct 10, 2012
Reece Latron uses a tractor to carry baskets of greens harvested from Amy's Organic Garden in Charles City, VA. While the certification system is rigorous to ensure integrity of the USDA organic label, thousands of producers and handlers continue to invest in these activities to market their products as organic. USDA Photos by Lance Cheung
Reece Latron uses a tractor to carry baskets of greens harvested from Amy's Organic Garden in Charles City, VA. While the certification system is rigorous to ensure integrity of the USDA organic label, thousands of producers and handlers continue to invest in these activities to market their products as organic. USDA Photos by Lance Cheung
This is the eighth installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

The USDA organic label is backed by a certification system that verifies farmers or handling facilities located anywhere in the world comply with the USDA Organic Regulations. Certification entails five steps:

STEP 1: Develop an organic system plan. The organic system plan is the foundation of the organic certification process. Created by the producer or handler seeking certification, it details how an operation will comply with the regulations based on its unique characteristics.

While plans differ based on operation type and needs, they address all practices of the farming or handling systems, such as tilling, grazing, harvesting, storing and transporting. They also specify approved substances used during the growing or handling process, monitoring practices for organic systems, recordkeeping systems, and barriers that prevent commingling with nonorganic products or contact with prohibited substances.

STEP 2: Implement the organic system plan. Have it reviewed by a certifying agent. Organic operations are certified by private, foreign or State entities that have been accredited by USDA. These entities are called certifying agents and are located throughout the United States and around the world. Certifying agents are responsible for ensuring that organic products meet all organic standards.

STEP 3: Receive inspection. Every operation that applies for organic certification is first inspected on site by a certifying agent. These comprehensive top-to-bottom inspections differ in scope depending on the farm or facility. For example, for crops they include inspection of fields, soil conditions, crop health, approaches to management of weeds and other crop pests, water systems, storage areas and equipment. For livestock, they include inspection of feed production and purchase records, feed rations, animal living conditions, preventative health management practices (e.g., vaccinations), health records, and the number and condition of animals present on the farm. At a handling or processing facility, an inspector evaluates the receiving, processing, and storage areas used for organic ingredients and finished products.

STEP 4: Have a certifying agent review the inspection report. The inspector presents findings to the certifying agent following observation of practices on the farm or facility as they compare to the organic system plan. In addition to the inspection points mentioned above, the inspector also presents an assessment of the risk of contamination from prohibited materials and might even take soil, tissue or product samples as needed. The inspector also analyzes potential hazards and critical control points and makes sure procedures to prevent contamination are adequate.  From there all findings are presented the certifying agent for review.

STEP 5: Receive a decision from the certifier. If an operation complies with the rules, the certifying agent issues an organic certificate listing products that can be sold as organic from that operation. The organic farm or facility continues to update its plan as it modifies its practices, and an inspection is done at least once a year to maintain certification. (See “What is Organic Certification?”)

Owner Amy Hicks harvesting organic greens at her farm. Every operation that applies for organic certification is first inspected onsite by a certifying agent. These comprehensive top-to-bottom inspections occur annually to maintain certification. USDA Photos by Lance Cheung
Owner Amy Hicks harvesting organic greens at her farm. Every operation that applies for organic certification is first inspected onsite by a certifying agent. These comprehensive top-to-bottom inspections occur annually to maintain certification. USDA Photos by Lance Cheung

While the certification system is rigorous to ensure integrity of the USDA organic label, thousands of producers and handlers continue to invest in these activities to market their products as organic. Earlier this year, USDA featured how Bob and Kathy Stolzfus are extending their vegetable-growing season in Florence, Miss.; veterans are training for organic careers in San Diego, Calif.; and Sarahlee Lawrence is implementing conservation measures on her food and flower operation in central Oregon.

In light of the continued growth of organic, USDA’s new Organic Literacy Initiative helps prospective farmers, ranchers and processors learn about not only how to be certified but also how to access related USDA programs. It features a toolkit that helps farmers and businesses answer the question, "Is organic an option for me?" A look at the resource guide will also help current and prospective organic customers access various USDA programs that support organic agriculture.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition

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Susanna Watts
Oct 11, 2012

Please send me information about becoming a farmer, how to be certified organic, etc... thank you

Oct 11, 2012

What a humorous little rationalization!

I'm certain no one at USDA, nor most of the people who visit this website, will see anything at all wrong with it, either.

Five "easy" steps.

Here's the thing, dopes: farmers farm; they don't write business plans, they farm; they don't "implement" business plans, they farm; they don't review and analyze reports, unless they're soil reports that clearly indicate how much lime or sulphur to use to amend their soil.

Step one is a function of a CPA, and unless the farmer is one for his "real" job, he has to hire one who is familiar with the organic certification regulations so that he knows what needs to be put into the "organic" business plan so that it will pass muster with the "certifying agent". Because I'm pretty sure that "Don't give my steer no growth hormones or nothin that ain't allowed" is not going to be acceptable as the farm's organic plan.

Ergo, the farmer has to hire a CPA to do this for him, and also to keep his books for him so that the organic certifying inspection won't turn into an IRS audit where the taxpayer uses a shoebox full of receipts to prove that no growth hormones were ever bought.

This costs money ... and a lot of it. The only people who have this kind of money are dilettante farmers who have outside jobs [and very well-paying outside jobs], or large agri-business outfits ... for whom the organic label was never intended.

"Certifying agents" are in the business of certifying organics; they have to be paid for their services, whether those services are "reviewing business models" of organic processing, or doing the actual busy-bodying of the certification. And who pays them? Why THE FARMER of course.

More money.

And once again, the only people who can afford it are those with well-paying outside jobs, or industrial ag.

For any farm wondering whether the inspector even knows what he's inspecting in the first place will either need to have the farmer being fluent in regulation-ese, or hire someone who is. This would be an administrative law loyyer. More money. And, as before, the only ones who can afford this are those with well-paying outside jobs [possibly as an administrative law loyyer], or those who have loyyers on-staff ... such as industrial ag.

And do all this as a yearly recertification? It costs thousands. For small farmers who don't even MAKE thousands, and can't afford to feed their livestock growth hormones because it simply doesn't pay off at their scale, to spend thousands on certifying what any imbecile with eyes can see for himself is a waste of time, effort, money, and ulcer medication. And all to get a fractional return? Not worth it.

Yet it was exactly THAT type of farmer for whom the "organic" label was desired in the first place, and whom by and large are prevented from using: it is prohbitively expensive and procedural.

When USDA confiscated the term "organic" they asked for input on how it should be handled. The only input the USDA actually listened to was given by Monsanto, Cargill, American Farm Bureau, and all the other "usual suspects" of industrial agriculture. As a result, the reuls defining what IS organic, and how to go about proving it, are geared toward large industrial agriculture, who operate by business plans, have the CPAs to write them, and have on-staff loyyering to read your arcane rules and decipher them.

USDA's continued preference for industrial ag, and their ambivalence or [more commonly] outright hostility toward small and family farming is well-advertised in these "five simple steps", not to mention the reams upon reams of rules behind these steps. ...rules that only a loyyer can make sense of, and which now includes over 300 agri-chem compounds that "organic" was intended to keep out.

How did those 300+ chemical compounds make it to the "allowed to be organic" list if not by pressure from agri-business?

"Organic" is a scam, bought and paid for by Big Ag. Yes, consumers wanted "organic" food for all the right reasons, but they made the mistake of demanding that the government give it to them, rather than them finding out for themselves where their food comes from. Consumers are lazy, government helps them out by benefiting industrial ag, and small farmers lose their market niche.

Congratulations, guys. You couldn't have harmed small farms more if you'd set out to deliberately do so.

Please do me a favor: stop helping. You aren't good at it.

Oct 17, 2012

Why aren't you putting up my rebuttal to your fancy-pants schlock?

Mar 22, 2013

This guy got swag. ^

Mar 24, 2013

Interesting comments from rwilymz--thanks for including them.

Apr 24, 2013

This guy up here as no clue... farmers DO have business plans and DO implement them. Farmers ARE businessmen. Please tell me a farmer that doesn't say they're a business persona and "just farm" no...

Apr 24, 2013

Also, we have been certified for 13 years. Neither of my parents ever worked off the farm to pay "expensive" certification fees. Fees are based on operation size so they're actually affordable for producers that go organic. Organic is not a scam and is saving family farms. The year we went organic the average pay price was $10.47 conventional, an all time low in my lifetime. We are PROUD to produce a wholesome product free of chemicals and drugs for our consumers for nearly $30/cwt :)

Armand Aronson
May 29, 2013

It would be nice if there were links, "how-to" links with each step. I'm ready to start step one. I've tried contacting certifying agents but they didn't get back to me. I'm not sure where to find the requirements of the certifying plan. I am a retired 'business guy'starting small time farming. I could write the plans if I could find the requirements. I'm still working at it, but could the five steps be made more specific?

Jan 02, 2014

rwilymz- thanks for the heads up.

George Madosky
Aug 26, 2015

I can use some help and guidance with marketing, weed issues & finance.

Thank you very much for looking at my request. also to talk about certifying.

George Madosky

Big John
Sep 07, 2015

That rwileymz is full of it. If you go to the NOP page, I think most people can find the "National Organic Guide Book" that outlines so many of the considerations of the farmer to convert to organic. You don't need a CPA, and most farmers that I know of are already using a business plan for their operation to control inputs and influence outputs and yields so typically this is right up their ally.

Dr. Thomas L. Curtis
Dec 18, 2015

We are still interested in doing the Organic Progressive Farming in Michigan/Ingham County and Genesee County zones. Please assist us with as much linkage as possible with Michigan State University, East Lansing, and other Institutions of Higher Learning that will assist us in developing a state-of-the-art operation to empower international & domestic distribution of foodstuffs.

Ramesh Chand
Aug 30, 2016

we are growing vegetables like cucumber,capsicum,tomato in our farms.From this year we have not used any chemical firtiliazer,fungicide and pesticide.

Jan 12, 2017

Hey rwileymz, I get it that most regs are co-opted by the big industrial lobby, however... who is calling whom a dope here? Farming is a business. All businesses need a plan to be successful. All businesses need to have regulatory constraints as well, to protect the consumer and to protect the environment. For too long we have sucked up to this mythology that farming needs to be done by a family, all other models are corrupt, and we need to subsidize "family" farming. I have no sympathy for "poor small farmers"... if you don't like the pay and can't make the business model work, get out - do something else. Quitcherbitchin. ITS A BUSINESS.

Dennis George
Apr 30, 2017

Hi there,

I am an organic Farmer and spice exporter based in Kerala, India. I would like to know how to get USDA certification.


Hazel thomas
Jun 03, 2017

I have a SMALL herb garden that I grow organic. I water with rain water and use organic fertelizer from Lowes. I keep all chickens that I can jidey from city. This is all my response to the polluted world and greedy Pharmaceutical companies that lie and overcharge us for poison. I am a retired RN. This is a hobby with about 50 herbs. I am well read and have garden since a I was a small child. I want this to be a true organic garden. However the cost to be certified is way out of my budget. Are there options. I teach and pass on my knowledge to all who are interested. As a RN I want to help others off chemicals and to a healthy life style. Hazel Hill RN SC

Ben Weaver
Jun 05, 2017

@Hazel thomas - thank you for your comment. Actual certification costs or fees vary widely depending on the certifying agent and the size, type, and complexity of your operation. Once you are certified, the USDA Organic Certification Cost-Share Programs can reimburse eligible operations up to 75 percent of their certification costs. If your farm or business receives less than $5,000 in gross annual organic sales, it is considered “exempt” from two key requirements, certification and documenting using an Organic System Plan. Your farm or business doesn’t need to be certified in order to sell, label, or represent your products as organic. However, you may not use the USDA organic seal on your products or refer to them as certified organic.

Amanda Keathley
Jul 24, 2017

I want to get approved to do transportation for puppies. I don't know how to go about it

Ben Weaver
Jul 26, 2017

@Amanda Keathley - thank you for your comment. A person with a commercial business that moves animals from one location to another is considered a transporter under the Animal Welfare Act and must be registered with the USDA. To apply for an Animal Welfare Act license/registration please contact one of the USDA Animal Care offices below:

(all states east of the Mississippi River, plus Minnesota)

920 Main Campus Drive
Suite 200
Raleigh, NC 27606        
(919) 855-7100

(states west of the Mississippi River)

2150 Centre Avenue Building B
Mailstop 3W11
Fort Collins, CO 80526-8117        
(970) 494-7478

Tony Volta
Sep 23, 2017

Very informative. Thank you for the information. I'm looking forward to learning more.

Diane Marie moore
Sep 25, 2017

I am a legal organic canabus grower in Washington state but with new regulations and prices dropping its very difficult . So I'm interested in organic vegetables so I need to know how to get started legally looking forward to getting started

Stanley Kumiega
Sep 26, 2017

Thanx 4 all the helpfull info. Which I believe will help guide me in the right direction in making the ultimate decision 2 b green. This is what has made us survive. All the gmo antd antibiotics have shown there shortcomings. A nation of overweight and unhealthy individuals. Lets all get healthy and go GREEN!

Sean Salas
Oct 26, 2017

Where is the incentives program to encourage growth of the organic food supply. Where are the subsidies for provides better than average quality foods? Where are the subsidies?

Dec 09, 2017

i am trying to find out how to become a certified gardner

Ahmed Farha
Feb 02, 2018

i would like to have my farm inspected for certification.

Ella Fitzbag
Mar 17, 2018

I have 21 raised frames beds, 12’x4’. And a few fruit trees. I use organic methods, seed and soil amendments. I grow a variety of vegetables for my family and local food bank. I sell a few but the money is not worth the expense and work to set up at farmers markets around here. I want to be certified because food bank recipients need organic fresh produce. their poor food quality further enhances their misfortunes. Then I’ll set up a stand and sell to the public. I want to sell the hay to organic ranchers. We have about 37 acres. It has not been farmed or poisoned or fertilized for decades.

I’d like to be USDA organic certified. How much will it cost and does my small beds and acreage qualify? I look forward to hearing from you.

Elysia Taylor
Apr 01, 2018

How long does farmland have to state unused before it can be Certified ORGANIC?

Ben Weaver
Apr 02, 2018

@Elysia Taylor - Thank you for your comment. Before producers can use land to raise organic products, they must ensure that no prohibited fertilizers or pesticides have been applied to the land during a three-year transition period. Some lands, such as fallow or pasture lands, may be immediately certified if three years have already passed. For more information on transitioning to organic production, view our fact sheet, Making the Transition to Organic.

burtie roberts
Apr 11, 2018

certifying agent. Organic (i want to open organic farm and cafe , can somebody help me with the paper work and certifying
thank you burtie roberts

Dr. Kleiner
May 08, 2018


May 29, 2018

I have a facility. We produce a berverage. I would like to know how to get USDA certification. So what do i need? and how?

Ben Weaver
May 31, 2018

@Helen - There are five basic steps to organic certification:

  1. The farm or business adopts organic practices, selects a USDA-accredited certifying agent, and submits an application and fees to the certifying agent.
  2. The certifying agent reviews the application to verify that practices comply with USDA organic regulations.
  3. An inspector conducts an on-site inspection of the applicant’s operation.
  4. The certifying agent reviews the application and the inspector’s report to determine if the applicant complies with the USDA organic regulations.
  5. The certifying agent issues organic certificate.

To access additional resources and frequently asked questions about becoming a certified organic operation, visit our website at

Touchy subject
Jun 10, 2018

I am interested in getting a certificate for organic gardening of medical marijuana. My meds have always been chemical free. I use no fertilizer or pesticides, never have. Can I get a certificate for my small 3 acre farm?? Looking forward to seeing a response. My patience deserve clean medicine.

Aug 21, 2018

I am a specialized loose leaf tea supplier. I import certified organic tea from Asia, store in my facility and sell it online. I am planning to repackage these organic teas. Do I need to get my facility to be certified Organic to do this? If I am not re-packaging the product, can I still continue as supplier of Organic tea?
Appreciate your guidance

Ben Weaver
Aug 23, 2018

@Das - Under the USDA organic regulations, packaging organic agricultural products and labeling for retail distribution is a processing function (§205.2) that requires certification. This applies to all agricultural products that are intended to be sold, labeled, or represented as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic…” (§205.100).

If you are not repackaging or relabeling organic products, you are not required to be certified (§205.101).

For information on how to become certified, please contact a National Organic Program (NOP) accredited certifying agent. Our List of NOP Accredited Certifying Agents is available online.

Elena Silverman
Sep 06, 2018

How to certify mushrooms growing on sawdust spawns?

Marcia liepold
Nov 09, 2018

We are researching going organic

Vishal Sharma
Jul 03, 2019

My company name is Indian Aroma exports, I need USDA organic certificate for Essential Oils..
Please guide me

Ben Weaver
Jul 03, 2019

@Vishal Sharma - thank you for your comment. Products imported from India would be covered under the U.S.-India Recognition Agreement. The Agreement allows the country of India to accredit certifying agents in India to certify Indian operations to the USDA organic standards. Please see the International Trade with India page for more information. We recommend working directly with one of the certifying agents on the list.

Jason Lin
Jul 19, 2019

Dear Mandan/Sir,

My name is Jason Lin. My organic certifier issued the organic certificate to me, but I can not find the list on USDA website. They told me that USDA usually updates the data per year. I am not what they said is correct. Can you verify it? Thanks