Are you already growing what you consider to be organic produce? Should you take the plunge and become certified?
Organic graphic by Aquir/shutterstock.com. Carrots by Subbotin a/Dreamstime.com.
First the good news: Consumption of certified organic food is growing and not letting up. According to the Organic Trade Association's 2012 survey, the industry grew by 9.5 percent in 2011 to reach $31.5 billion in sales; of this, $29.22 billion was in organic food and beverages. Organic food now represents 4.2 percent of overall food sales, up 4 percent from 2010. Who wouldn't want a piece of this action?
Now the not-so-good news: It costs money and time to become a certified organic grower. It takes at least three years to transition your land and crops to being herbicide, pesticide and chemical-free (if you are not already growing organic crops). There is also lots of paperwork and bureaucratic hoops to jump through for the green USDA certified organic seal.
Are you already growing what you consider to be organic produce? Should you take the plunge and become certified? That depends on how much produce you're growing, and how much it means to your business to get the certified seal.
Many small organic growers have decided that the certified organic label is simply not worth it. They may use all the federal guidelines for organic growing - and let their customers know it - but forgo the federal certification process because they feel the paperwork and bookkeeping are too costly for a small operation.
If you're a small grower, or are growing small amounts of organic produce on your conventional farm, this approach is perfectly fine, since you're operating within USDA regulations and are considered an "exempt" operation - as long as you meet the USDA definition of "small," which is $5,000 or less of gross agricultural income from organic sales per year. If you fit into this category (and you should be keeping records to prove it), you don't need to be certified organic to sell, label or represent your products as organic.
However, even these small operators have limitations. To make the claim "organic" at all, the USDA says that small operations need to follow other requirements in the USDA organic regulations, including:
* Maintaining records for at least three years.
* Not using the USDA organic seal on your products or referring to them as "certified organic" (you can say they are "organic").
* Not selling products as ingredients for use in another business' certified organic product.
Any farm that sells more than $5,000 in organic products per year (gross sales) must be certified organic. You cannot make a marketing claim to be organic without certification. Period. For more information on this requirement, visit http://1.usa.gov/M3oP4T.
"If you are a large producer and sell at a farmers' market, you can certainly have a conversation with your customers and talk about all the organic practices you use in your operation," says Ann Baier, a sustainable agriculture specialist with ATTRA and organic inspector for the past 14 years who works out of her office in Davis, Calif. "But you can't use the word 'organic' as a label claim or in signage."
Efforts Under Way to Make Certified Organic Paperwork Less Painful
The USDA National Organic Program has recently taken steps to reduce paperwork to obtain the USDA certified organic seal. According to a USDA blog post, the "Sound and Sensible" initiative (introduced in April 2013) "involves identifying and removing barriers to certification, streamlining the certification process, focusing enforcement, and working with farmers and processors to correct small issues before they become larger ones." The goal, the blog says, is to make organic certification accessible, attainable and affordable for all operations.
The five principles of "Sound and Sensible" include:
1. Efficient processes (to eliminate bureaucratic processes that do not contribute to organic integrity).
2. Streamlined record-keeping (so that the required records are not a barrier for farms to maintain organic compliance).
3. Practical plans (to support simplified organic system plans that clearly capture organic practices).
4. Fair, focused enforcement (to focus enforcement on "willful egregious violators" and handle minor violations in ways that lead to compliance).
5. Integrity first (a focus on factors that impact organic integrity the most).
The USDA/NOP notes that this initiative is still in its development stage.
Baier, who was an organic inspector before the federal rules went into effect in 2002, says that many California farms were farming organically before the USDA rules. Some continue to operate as organic farms without the official certification label.
"When you have rapport with customers, the certification doesn't matter as much, but it does help facilitate commerce in larger operations," she says.
Certification: Too complex or just good business?
If you're already selling more than $5,000 worth of organic produce, you may wonder if it's worth it to make the leap and get an organic certification from the USDA.
What's stopping you may be the cost of certification and the bookkeeping involved in maintaining your certification. (See sidebar: Efforts Under Way to Make Certified Organic Paperwork Less Painful.)
Baier says that while there is a perception that the bookkeeping is burdensome, she believes the records most farms keep for a certified organic operation are not much different than what is kept in a well-run business.
"Most farms want to keep records of production and sales ... even if it is not required for certification," says Baier. This kind of exacting record-keeping is invaluable for identifying problems and making better business decisions, she notes.
Harriet Behar, organic specialist with Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and certified organic vegetable grower in Gays Mills, Wis., agrees. "The bookkeeping that is required for you to be a certified organic farmer actually makes you a better farmer," says Behar. "You become a better observer and have historical records that help you manage your farm better. The best organic farmers also have the best records and use those records to make sound business decisions."
Ben Dougherty, left, is an experienced organic farmer mentor in the MOSES farmer-to-farmer mentoring program. Kelli Tennyson was his mentee in 2012.
Photo courtesy of Harriet Behar/MOSES.
The cost of certification
Certification costs can vary; for a small to medium-sized vegetable farm, it can cost $500 to $750 per year. Behar notes that this can be a barrier for small growers or growers transitioning to organic.
Up until 2012, this regulatory financial burden had been lessened by a cost-share provision in the farm bill, whereby farmers could get reimbursed up to three-quarters of the cost of certification or $750, whichever was less. However, the farm bill expired on January 1, 2013, and while some parts of the bill are still functioning, the cost sharing became a stranded program, notes Behar.
The organic certification costs are a bone of contention among farmers. "Many organic farmers feel that since they pay taxes, they should not have to pay an extra user fee to have government oversight," Behar says. "There are plenty of USDA programs where [the cost for] this kind of oversight is not passed on to the farmer."
Still, until the details of the farm bill are ironed out in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, farmers who want to become certified organic will have to foot the entire bill for certification themselves.
Should you take the leap to certified organic?
Experts agree that the USDA certified organic seal goes a long way in making a farm's produce more marketable and profitable, particularly if a farmer wants to sell beyond a local market.
Karan Chanana, chairman of Amira Nature Foods, a specialty basmati rice company that also sells certified organic lentils and legumes, is a firm believer in the benefits of the organic certification process, in spite of the amount of time that it takes to get certified and establish the infrastructure.
"The ROI for companies is considerable, particularly when compared to operating without organic certification," says Chanana. "Noncertified organics are not as commercially viable, because certification provides credibility to a product, and therefore places it into the premium category. This becomes an investment for raising yields and thereby makes organic farming worth the effort."
How much more profitable can your farm become with the certified organic label? That depends on your market and what you grow.
Three Basic Steps to Becoming USDA Certified Organic
The very first thing you should do is contact a reputable organic certifying agent who is accredited by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). To find one, visit http://wwww.ams.usda.gov/nop and search "certifying agents." Your certifying agent will help you with the following steps to certification.
1. Application - Your certifying agent will provide you with the right forms to fill out. Your agent will review your application and let you know if your farm is in compliance with NOP regulations and standards.
2. Inspection - The agent will schedule an inspection of your farm's organic production and handling operations.
3. Certification - After the application and inspection process, your agent will write a report and file it with the NOP. If there are no concerns or problems and the fees are paid, you will be allowed to use the USDA certified organic seal.
Note that if your agent thinks that you are not NOP-compliant, you will have to make the necessary changes before certification is completed.
Ann Adams, director of community services with Holistic Management International, a nonprofit that works with farmers and ranchers around the country in whole-farm planning, says the organization frequently consults with farmers about the viability of organic certification.
"When we are working on farmers' financial plans, sometimes some have said it is not worth it," notes Adams. This is particularly true if a farm has a local pool of customers and doesn't need an outside entity to certify its organic practices. "For some people, becoming certified organic doesn't pencil out because of their income level and the relationships they have with their customers," she adds.
Each farm needs to look at its market and products and decide if a certified label is economically feasible and if there will be a return on the investment, says Baier. "It all depends on where you are selling and what you are selling ... for dairy farms, for example, I know of dairy farmers who had to go organic or go out of business. But it is different for different farm operations. It depends on the market and product."
Matt Ewer, president and co-founder of Indianapolis-based Green BEAN Delivery and owner of Feel Good Farm, Sheridan, Ind., agrees.
"Just like any business, it is important to have a disciplined game plan," says Ewer, whose company delivers organic produce and natural groceries to more than 12,000 members across the Midwest. His farm produces certified organic vegetables on 60 acres. His advice for the best ROI for certified organic produce is to make sure you have reliable business partners for the crops you want to grow.
"Secure your market ahead of your crop planning and harvest ... and don't try and grow everything. At the most I would grow four to five crops," advises Ewer.
Benefits go beyond profit
The benefits of growing certified organic crops go beyond the potential increased profits, says Behar. "As an organic inspector, I often see the organic certificate hanging on the wall next to pictures of the grandkids. It is something to be proud of; it is an achievement of a gold standard," she says. "It is not just access to a market, or a pain in the neck in bookkeeping and paperwork ... it is truly an achievement."
For the majority of organic farmers, it is also a visible commitment that they want to raise the standards of organics, as well as the quality of life for themselves and the planet, notes Baier.
"I don't buy organic just because it's less pesticides for me personally," says Baier. "I think many certified organic farmers take a broader view ... it is for less chemicals in our air, our environment and farmworkers. It is a contribution to a better community."
The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.