In the first post of this series Demystifying “Organic” Part 1 of 3 we discussed the labeling system of organic products as well as what that label does and does not mean.

Today I would like to discuss the process of becoming a certified organic farmer, who can afford it and who cannot, and purchasing local vs. organic foods.

To review, growing organic means diversifying your land (rotating crops, etc.) to promote diversity among the plants and animals raised by the farm. Organic farms must also have a minimal amount of of-farm inputs and the management practices should restore, enhance, and promote a healthy environment.

The certification process

To receive certification for this you must complete an organic plan (or how your management system works) and a certification application for the USDA. Other things farmers seeking certification must do and keep in mind include:

  • Separate certifications or use of specific certification agencies depending on type of product and where it will be marketed
  • The farm land must be treated organically for 3 years before the harvest of the organic crop before it can become certified organic
  • Farmers must choose a certification agency that is active in their area, fortunately MOSES makes this easier by having a list of active agencies by area.

Farmers must complete an application questionnaire detailing their strategies for controlling weeds and insects, soil fertility, inputs like seeds and fertilizers, harvest and storage plans, as well as maps showing their fields. These maps should include 4 year field history, sizes, borders, and names for each field. This questionnaire takes generally 2-8 hours the first year and must be completed annually.

Once complete the application is mailed to the farmer’s certification agency.

The certification agency will then review the application and all attached documentation to be sure all important items have been included.

At this point an inspector will be sent to the farm with the reviewed application to review the process on-site. This process can take between 2 and 4+ hours depending on the size and complexity of the farm. Inspectors can explain organic standards but are not allowed to make recommendations to what is already being done on the farm. At the end of the inspection the inspector will summarize any concerns or need for more information for the farmer.

Farmers are required to pay the cost of inspection which includes: an on-site inspection and written inspection report as well as mileage, lodging, and meals for the inspector. Usually inspectors are assigned to inspect the farms in a geographic region, allowing the included farms to split the cost of the inspectors travel… which can help lower costs. Farmers also have to pay the certification agency for reviewing their application and report.

Once the inspection process is finished the inspector will submit his report along with all documentation collected during the visit, the farmer’s file, and the inspector’s invoice to the certification agency. With this information the agency can decide to approve the farmer for organic certification, approve the farmer for organic certification with some conditions (ie: improve documentation on field history), or deny organic certification.

The farmer will now be notified by the agency of his certification status and if approved will receive an annual organic certification certificate. If certified the farmer may now sell “Certified Organic” products. Organic standards need to be followed through out the year and a renewal application must be submitted each year. If a renewal application is not submitted the agency will revoke the farmer’s certification.

Each agency is required by the USDA to make unannounced visits to the farmer’s site to preform inspections through out the year. The visits are chosen randomly and can occur at anytime.

Who can afford certification?

Grub: ideas for an urban organic kitchen by Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry includes an interesting chart titled Who are you buying your organics from? 1999-2004 The information from the chart came from Philip Howard’s Organic Industry Structure pamphlet. Click the link to read it. Points of interest:

  • Most of our commercial organic products come from a dozen companies.
  • Heinz Hain Celestial produces the most organic products with sub brands like Heinz Organic, Earth’s Best, Celestial Seasonings, Arrowhead Mills, Westsoy, Soy Dream and Rice Dream.

NewFarm.Org also has a visual chart:


My reason for showing these charts is simple, I want to show you who can easily afford organic certification and who can easily begin earning millions off the label… regardless of whether or not these companies actually believe in the core values of the organic label. Imagine Organic Coke and M&Ms!

On the other side of the spectrum lie our local farmers. Farmer Joe is not the owner of a multi-million dollar company and he cannot afford the application fees and inspector invoices that come with organic certification. But if you asked him personally he would tell you his process and it might fit the bill even more than the processes of Coke-Odawalla’s products or M&Ms-Seeds of Change’s.

Keeping it local

One farmer once stressed that “certification shouldn’t be a substitute for knowing and trusting your farmers and food sources.” And with that statement comes the purpose of the Demystifying Organic series:




I’ve known people who are more concerned about the style of pen they purchase or the brand of shoes they are wearing than they are of the food they are putting in their mouth. To that I simply say get to know your food.

Where did it come from? Are you ok with the distance it traveled? Are you ok with the conditions it was raised or grown in? What about the condition of the farmers who worked their? What about the condition of the factory who processed it?

Analyze this because these questions go beyond any seal or pretty package marketing or fancy catchy wording.

Yes, our current organic movement is needed. The exposure of the toxins and chemicals and lack of reality in our everyday foods is needed. But the ability to relate to your food is also needed, especially in a society who considers eating to be a chore that must be dealt with quickly.

I invite you to attend a local farmer’s market. At this time of year fruit and vegetable stands are bursting out of the country side and into urban cities. Farmers of all ages are smiling behind wooden crates of green, yellow, orange, and red tomatoes. Barrels of squashes and lettuces are peaking out of the backs of pick up trucks all over the nation. Some stands will display certified organic signs and some will not… but all stands will be able to tell you exactly how your food was grown, raised, harvested, and stored. All stands will be able to tell you your food’s story, and in my opinion that is more important than any label.

The AMS at USDA has a map with farmer’s markets listed by state. Click here.

Local Harvest is another amazing resource. You can find your local farmer’s market by zip code or city as well as local Community Supported Agriculture or CSA programs, even local restaurant guides. Check it out, you may be surprised by all the locations that pop up!

The Demystifying Organic series is coming to an end. Tune in for part 3 of 3 for a list of fruits and vegetables that should be purchased organic whenever possible and a list of books, websites, and movies to look into to further your organic education.



Lappe, Anne. Grub: Ideas for an urban organic kitchen. The Penguin Group, New York: 2005.