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Sound and Sensible Initiative Projects Simplify Organic Certification

Posted by Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program in Food and Nutrition Farming
Feb 21, 2017
Sound and Sensible Infographic
The Sound and Sensible projects educate producers and provide them with the tools and information resources needed to streamline certification, inspections, recordkeeping, and compliance. (Click to enlarge)

USDA’s National Organic Program is the bedrock regulatory program responsible for developing national standards for organically-produced agricultural products. These standards assure consumers that products with the USDA organic seal meet consistent, uniform standards. In addition to protecting the integrity of the organic seal through a rigorous certification process and oversight, we are committed to connecting organic farmers and businesses with USDA resources, including conservation assistance, access to loans and grants, funding for organic research and education, and mitigation of pest emergencies.

The USDA organic seal and the NOP program itself have helped organic producers and businesses achieve unprecedented levels of growth for organically produced goods. The retail market for organic products has nearly doubled in value since 2009 while USDA certified organic operations continue to grow year to year. USDA’s National Organic Program is a leading global standard and major factor in this success.

Last year, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s National Organic Program (NOP) made awards to 14 organizations to support the Sound and Sensible Initiative.  Since then, these groups have worked with hundreds of farmers and livestock handlers nationwide to help them simplify and streamline organic certification and compliance. Now, USDA is ready to share the results of these projects, including an array of valuable tools and resources – templates, decision-making tools, trainings, guides, tip sheets, and videos – with the entire organic community, from certifying agents to certified organic operations, to producers who are considering organic certification for the first time.

All of the projects share a common goal – making organic certification more accessible, attainable, and affordable while maintaining high standards, ensuring compliance, and protecting organic integrity. These projects educate producers and provide them with tools and information resources needed to streamline certification, inspections, recordkeeping, and compliance.

Over the past year, the awarded organizations have helped more than 2,000 U.S. farmers, handlers, and producers by:

  • Conducting training workshops with hundreds of farmers on certification, transitioning to organic, inspections, recordkeeping, and standards compliance.
  • Interviewing dozens of farmers to hear first-hand certification experiences and share challenges, benefits, and lessons learned through training and outreach videos.
  • Engaging more than 50 farmers in peer partnership programs, including “farm walks” led by certified organic farmers to share best practices and a mentorship program that partnered newly certified producers with more experienced operations.
  • Conducting outreach to more than 1,600 producers in typically under-served populations, including Plain/Amish communities, non-English-speaking communities, direct-market farmers, and producer groups.
  • Developing cost-benefit analysis and readiness assessment tools, templates for organic system plans and recordkeeping practices, and guides and tip sheets that address high-interest topics.

Over the next several months, these projects will have an even greater impact on the organic community, as the NOP will release more than 40 tools and resources resulting from the Sound and Sensible Initiative, including:

  • 75 tip sheets or factsheets on the certification process and standards compliance
  • 16 training presentations on a wide range of certification topics
  • 15 informative videos on topics including inspection processes and the value of organic certification
  • Templates for certifiers, USDA field offices and other organizations to develop their own outreach programs, training workshops, and peer-to-peer programs for producers

We will release the products in several phases, grouped by theme and audience.  With these valuable tools and resources, farmers and producers will be better able to understand the benefits of organic certification and decide whether organic certification is right for them.

Through the National Organic Program, USDA has helped organic farmers and businesses achieve $39 billion annually in U.S. retail sales.  USDA’s commitment to supporting organic agriculture has been critical to the sector’s continued growth.  In addition to protecting the integrity of the organic seal through a rigorous certification process and oversight, we are committed to connecting organic farmers and businesses with USDA resources, including conservation assistance, access to loans and grants, funding for organic research and education, and mitigation of pest emergencies.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition Farming

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Loren Imes
Oct 28, 2015

Very interesting. We have been farming organic/not certified for 13 years because of a perceived large amount of paperwork to track our inputs and practices. Looking forward to learning more about how this program will simplify certification.

Todd and Diane
Oct 28, 2015

We, a VERY small family farm in a small community, were certified organic for several years. We gave it up when we felt like the certification process was more like an IRS audit than a collaborative effort to improve the food system. We sent a letter explaining our reasons and guess what we received in response ? A letter threatening to sue us for more than $10,000 if we ever used the word organic in describing our operations. No (as in zero)interest in exploring our experience and making improvements. Good luck getting this system back to what it should be given our experience! We still farm using all organic methods but have no interest in participating in this program unless major changes are made.

Matt Smith - Fresh Wind Farm
Oct 28, 2015

Like Loren Imes, we also have been running non-certified organic for several years. I'm DEFINITELY interested in finding out more about alternative ways to finance and obtain the certification. We are one of three organic farms in our area, and the only one of the three that is not certified.

Bonnie Wideman
Oct 29, 2015

I applaud these efforts. They do, however, seem to focus on enhancing the paperwork aspect of organic certification. I have a suggestion that I believe would enhance compliance and enforcement aspects: after initial certification, make all subsequent inspections unannounced.

carl glanzman
Oct 29, 2015

Iowa redid their application sheets this year. My time, to fill out all forms or revise them had been about 10-14 hours. I used to just revise the information and draw a revision of the planting plan and facility drawings over the base sheets.

The new forms took 89 hours to fill out, while the drawings remained roughly the same. The problem is the seed list was set up by some pretzel head, who set rigid boundaries for data cells that could not be revised, as the form was locked. I plant and grow a large variety of seed, saving most, from year to year. At about 69 hours, I abandoned the filling of the seed form and did a computer revision of the old form.

You must not allow the Iowa Dept. of Ag & Land Stewardship or other departments to make such arbitrary and unreviewed, untested and unworkable revisions/updates of forms without sending out beta versions to the regulated community of certified organic producers, to evaluate.

You should also encourage the use of the OMRI manual, current edition, to refer to the allowed inputs, rather than having to send in empty bags of the input materials by parcel post (read $$$). The reviewer AND the inspector both have access to photos of un-tagged bags, taken at inspection to verify that the materials are OMRI approved.

Ben Weaver
Nov 05, 2015

@carl glanzman - AMS’ future launch of Sound & Sensible deliverables will include materials, including forms, for USDA accredited certifying agents. AMS will continue to work with all certifying agents to reduce burdens for organic producers and processors associated with organic certification. We share your goal of reducing burdens while maintaining high standards, ensuring compliance and protecting organic integrity.

Sandra Webb
Nov 19, 2016

Does this organic "Sound and Sensible" include GMO or other genetically altered products? I REALLY don't think genetically altered crops/livestock should be included due to the fact these would NEVER occur naturally - that is not without human intervention.

"Organic" should not mean people need lawyers, acts of congress and other extraordinary means just to farm without manufactured chemicals. Soil tests, yes; OMRI, yes; and proof, definitely YES! Make it simple and relatively painless to fill out the forms. TIME IS MONEY!

This should be a relatively straight forward "fill -in-the-blanks" type form for people NOT SAVVY in spread-sheets and the like. They SHOULD BE ABLE TO GET HELP FROM THEIR LOCAL EXTENSION OFFICE!

Ryan From MA
Apr 01, 2019

I have never seen so much arbitrary non sense in my life as getting organic certification. Filling out page after page of paper work on how to follow some arbitrary rules creates no value and wastes an enormous amount of time, us farmers could be using actually making organic food.