Jim Riddle, University of Minnesota
All farms and ranches, including vegetable growers, who sell over $5000 per year of organic products, must be certified in order to sell their products as organic. Land used for the production of organic vegetables must not have had prohibited fertilizers, pesticides, GMOs, or other prohibited substances applied for at least 36 months prior to the first harvest of an organic crop. Farmers who sell under $5000 per year of organic produce must still follow all provisions of the USDA organic regulations, but are not required to be certified as organic. Non-certified organic operations who sell less than $5000 per year can only sell their products directly to retailers and consumers. Their products cannot be sold as organic feed or as organic ingredients that will be further processed and subsequently labeled as organic. Farms can be certified as organic as a whole farm or on a field-by-field basis.
When you begin transitioning your vegetable operation to organic production, choose a USDA-accredited certification agency, and request an Organic System Plan (OSP) questionnaire or application packet. During the final 12 months of the 36-month transition period, you should begin the application process, so that your operation can become certified as soon as your transition is complete. For most growers, the application, inspection, and approval process takes between three to six months, so don’t wait until the last minute to seek certification.
Visit www.ams.usda.gov/nop to obtain a list of USDA-accredited certification agencies and to download the National Organic Program (NOP) regulation.
It is important to document the last date when a prohibited substance was applied, in order to demonstrate to the certification agency that the field has been free of prohibited substance applications for 36 months and is eligible for organic certification. This is especially important for vegetable growers who produce crops such as lettuce or spinach, which might be harvested early in a given year. In such cases, if you can document the last application of a prohibited substance as being in May of transition year one, for example, then you can harvest organic crops from that field in June of transition year three, since the 36-month transition period has elapsed.
You will need to develop and submit to your certifier a field history sheet, showing the crops grown and inputs applied for at least the past 3 years, for all fields requested for certification. If the land has not been under your control for 36 months prior to the projected harvest of your first organic crop, you will need to obtain and submit a signed statement from the previous farm operator (owner or renter) providing information on the crops grown, inputs, and production practices during the transition period.
During transition, you should establish a soil-building crop rotation and develop effective fertility, pest, disease, and weed management strategies using preventive practices and natural fertility inputs such as compost, mulch, and cover crops. If needed, you may use non-synthetic (natural) biological, botanical, or mineral inputs, or, if these are not effective, synthetic substances that appear on the National List of Approved and Prohibited Substances, which is part of the NOP regulation.
Where prohibited substances are or will be applied to fields, roadsides, drainage ditches, railroad right-of-ways, or under utility lines that adjoin your organic production areas, you should establish buffer zones wide enough to prevent drift of prohibited substances onto the land you are transitioning. During the entire 36-month transition, as well as when you are certified organic, you must: discontinue all uses of prohibited substances, including fungicide-treated seeds, chemical fertilizers, and non-approved synthetic pesticides; implement conservation practices; and set up an appropriate record-keeping system, so that you can track all seeds, seedlings, inputs used, and crops harvested, stored, and sold.
You are required to use certified organic seed for crops you wish to have certified, unless you can document that the seed you need to plant is not commercially available from organic sources in the form, quality, quantity, or equivalent variety that you need for your operation. Proof must be provided to your certifier that you made good-faith efforts to obtain organic seed. This proof can consist of written records documenting telephone calls, results from searches in seed catalogs, or letters from organic seed suppliers stating that certified organic seed was not available. High price is not an acceptable reason for not purchasing organic seed. If certified organic seed is documented as not available, untreated, conventionally-grown seed may be used. Genetically engineered seeds cannot be used. A “Non-GMO Affidavit” should be obtained from seed suppliers for all purchased non-organic seed that has a GMO equivalent. Cover crop seeds used for incorporation as a green manure are also required to be certified organic, unless you provide evidence that organic seed is commercially unavailable.
Annual seedlings used for organic crops must be certified organic. “Annual seedling” is defined by the NOP as, “a plant grown from seed that will complete its life cycle or produce a harvestable yield within the same crop year or season in which it is planted.” This means that organic seedlings must be used for crops such as tomatoes, peppers, many brassicas, and other crops that are not direct-seeded. The only exception is for organic crops destroyed by natural disasters, in which case the certifier, if approved by the NOP based on a declaration of natural disaster, can grant a temporary variance for the crop to be re-planted using conventionally-grown seedlings. In all other instances, use of nonorganic annual seedlings will jeopardize your organic certification for that year, as well as possibly for future years.
Planting stock, used for the production of potatoes, or for perennial crops such as raspberries, strawberries, or apples, falls under a different requirement. “Planting stock” is defined by the NOP as, “any plant or plant tissue other than annual seedlings but including rhizomes, shoots, leaf or stem cuttings, roots, or tubers, used in plant production or propagation.” First, the organic producers must attempt to source organic planting stock, just as you must attempt to source organic seeds. If organic planting stock is documented as commercially unavailable, conventionally-grown planting stock may be used to produce organic crops. The planting stock itself can only be sold as organic after it has been grown organically for one year. The crop harvested from the planting stock can be sold as organic.
In order to produce organic seedlings, or to produce organic crops in high tunnels or other structures, greenhouses must use organic methods and approved inputs, and they need to be described in the operation’s Organic System Plan, or certified on their own. The greenhouse operator, whether on-farm or off-farm, needs to list all organic and non-organic crops grown, and list all fertility, pest, and disease inputs used or planned for use in the greenhouse. Natural materials, such as compost, sand, peat, vermiculite, perlite, and natural rock minerals are commonly used in soil mixes or to fertilize in-ground organic greenhouse production. Carefully review the ingredients in purchased soil mixes; synthetic wetting agents, fumigants, or synthetic fertilizers are not allowed. Often, these ingredients do not appear on product labels, so check with the manufacturer or your certifier to make sure the product is allowed.
Natural botanical, biological, or mineral inputs may be used for pest and disease control. If needed, approved synthetic substances on the National List may also be used. It is always a good idea to check with your certifier before purchasing and applying any input, to make sure that it is allowed for organic production. Make sure to keep receipts and label information for all inputs used or planned for use.
Planting trays, pots, and irrigation lines can be cleaned and sanitized using hot water, alcohols, chlorine materials, hydrogen peroxide, ozone gas, peracetic acid, or soaps. Once again, check with your certifier to make sure that the substance you plan to use is approved. Both active ingredients and secondary ingredients must be approved for items that are in compounded materials.
If the greenhouse is also used for the production of non-organic plants, there must be clear separation between the organic and non-organic areas to prevent contamination, and clear identification and tracking of the organic vs. non-organic plants. If synthetic fertilizers are injected into the water system for the non-organic crops, the injection system must be disabled or a separate watering system used to assure that the prohibited fertilizers are not used on the organic seedlings or crops.
The NOP prohibits the use of lumber treated with arsenate compounds or other prohibited substances for new installations or replacement purposes, where the lumber will contact the crop, soil, or livestock. This means that treated wood should not be used for plant trays, trellises, or posts, where the treated wood will come in contact with organic crops or soil used to produce organic crops. ATTRA has numerous helpful publications, including “Organic Alternatives to Treated Lumber” (Gegner, 2002) available at: www.attra.org/organic.html. Not all wood preservatives listed in the ATTRA publication are approved for organic use. Check with your certifier before using any treated wood. If treated lumber was in place before organic certification, then it may remain, but be aware that some of the toxins in the lumber may be taken up by plants growing nearby.
NOP section 205.205 requires all organic producers, including organic vegetable growers, to implement crop rotations that include, but are not limited to “sod, cover crops, green manure crops, and catch crops” to: a) maintain or improve soil organic matter content; b) provide for pest management; c) manage deficient or excess nutrients, and d) provide erosion control.
The NOP defines “crop rotation” as, “the practice of alternating the annual crops grown on a specific field in a planned pattern or sequence in successive crop years so that crops of the same species or family are not grown repeatedly without interruption on the same field. Perennial cropping systems employ means such as alley cropping, intercropping, and hedgerows to introduce biological diversity in lieu of crop rotation.”
All organic vegetable producers must implement crop rotations, which meet the objectives listed above. Using crop rotations to break insect, disease and weed cycles and improve soil fertility can aid the organic vegetable grower in producing high quality crops.
The NOP regulation has strict requirements on the use of manure and compost in organic production systems. All animal manure must be composted if applied to vegetable crops destined for human consumption, or else certain restrictions apply. If the manure is fresh, or has not gone through a complete composting process, it must be incorporated into the soil at least 120 days before a vegetable crop will be harvested, if the edible portion of the crop comes into contact with the soil or soil particles. In regions where cold limits the growing season, all raw manure should be incorporated in the field during the fall prior to vegetable crop planting, in order to comply with the 120-day waiting period. If the edible portion of the crop does not come into contact with the soil (e.g. sweet corn), raw manure may be incorporated into the soil at least 90 days before harvest.
Compost may be applied at any time. “Compost” is defined by the NOP as, “the product of a managed process through which microorganisms break down plant and animal materials into more available forms suitable for application to the soil. Compost must be produced through a process that combines plant and animal materials with an initial C:N ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1. Producers using an in-vessel or static aerated pile system must maintain the composting materials at a temperature between 131 F and 170 F for 3 days. Producers using a windrow system must maintain the composting materials at a temperature between 131 F and 170 F for 15 days, during which time, the materials must be turned a minimum of five times.”
Organic producers making their own compost must keep records of their composting operation to demonstrate that the compost was produced according to the definition cited above. If the compost is purchased, the grower should ask for documentation from the supplier showing that the compost meets NOP requirements. Keep this documentation, along with purchase receipts, with your other records. If the compost is 100% plant-based, without any animal excrement or by-products, there is no requirement for heating or turning.
Heat-treated, processed manure may be used as a supplement to a soil building program, without a specific interval between application and harvest. Producers are expected to comply with all applicable requirements of the NOP regulation with respect to soil quality, including ensuring the soil is enhanced and maintained through proper stewardship.
According to the NOP's July 17, 2007, ruling, “processed manure products must be treated so that all portions of the product, without causing combustion, reach a minimum temperature of either 150° F (66° C) for at least one hour or 165° F (74° C), and are dried to a maximum moisture level of 12%; or an equivalent heating and drying process could be used. In determining the acceptability of an equivalent process, processed manure products should not contain more than 1x10³ (1,000) MPN (Most Probable Number) fecal coliform per gram of processed manure sampled and not contain more than 3 MPN Salmonella per 4 gram sample of processed manure.”
As always, organic vegetable growers should get label information and check with their certifiers, before using purchased compost or processed manure products.
Prohibited substances are typically synthetic substances that are not allowed under the NOP, although there are a few natural substances that fall into this category as well. Prohibited substances include chemical fertilizers and synthetic herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides, as well as genetically engineered organisms, which are referred to as “excluded methods” by the NOP. Prohibited substances include items such as seeds treated with Captan, Thiram or with genetically modified rhizobial bacteria. All synthetic materials are prohibited for use, unless they have been specifically approved by the NOP and appear on the National List. All natural products are allowed, unless they are specifically listed as prohibited on the same list. As stated, the National List is part of the NOP regulation, in sections 205.600 through 205.606.
The organic regulation mandates that a hierarchy be followed for pest, disease, and weed control. You must start with cultural controls (i.e. disease-resistant varieties or the timing of planting), mechanical controls (i.e. the use of row covers or flaming weeding), or biological (i.e. the use of beneficial insects). If these methods are documented as ineffective, then natural products can be used. If natural products are not effective, then approved synthetic products can be used.
For pest control products, the active ingredients and the inert ingredients must be allowed for organic production. The acceptability of brand name products should be verified with your certification agent. You may also check a product’s acceptability by seeing if the product is listed as approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute.
Mulching is an approved weed control option, with natural materials such as straw, tree leaves, or grass clippings being allowed, so long as the mulch does not pose a risk of contamination with herbicide residues (such as lawn clippings from chemically-treated lawns). Plastic mulches are allowed, but must be removed at the end of the growing or harvest season.
The NOP defines “organic production” as a “production system that is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Promotion of ecological balance and conservation of biodiversity are inherent to organic production.
The NOP requires that organic producers must maintain or improve the natural resources of their operations, including soil and water quality, and minimize soil erosion. Organic vegetable growers comply with these requirements by implementing conservation practices, such as crop rotations, cover crops, grass waterways, and contour strips. Many grow annual and perennial flowering plants, which provide food and habitat for pollinators and other beneficial organisms. Some also erect bird and bat houses to enhance biodiversity, while improving pest control for crops.
During and after harvest, certified organic produce must be kept separate from non-organic produce. There can be no commingling of organic and non-organic products or contamination through contact with prohibited substances. Equipment that is used to harvest conventional crops as well as organic crops must be thoroughly cleaned prior to organic harvest. The grower must document equipment cleaning activities on a “Cleaning Affidavit” or such record. Wagons made from treated wood should be covered with a tarp to avoid direct contact with organic produce. Treated wood bins or waxed boxes that previously held nonorganic produce should not be used for organic crops.
Storage areas used for organic products must be separate and labeled as such, especially if organic and non-organic products are stored in the same facility. If a walk-in cooler is used for organic and non-organic products, the organic products should never be stored below non-organic products, as contaminated water could easily drip onto the organic products.
Organic certification requires an extensive recordkeeping system to document that the products and practices used by the grower comply with NOP requirements. The documentation required of an organic producer is part of the quality system that contributes to consumer confidence in organic foods and results in a premium for organic products.
Many of the records listed below can be combined in one document; for example, field activities, inputs, monitoring, seed planting, and harvest information can be documented either by year or by field on one record.
Examples of the documentation needed include the following:
ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, has organic market farm documentation forms for various production systems available for download at: www.attra.org/organic.html.
You have flexibility to create and maintain records that are appropriate and well-adapted to your operation, but they must disclose all activities and transactions. Under the NOP, records must be maintained for 5 years beyond their creation. Make every effort to keep your records up-to-date, well organized, and readily accessible. And remember – good records lead to better management, improved yields, and higher profits.
Before choosing a certification agency, talk with other organic farmers about their experiences with their certifiers. Also talk to the various certifiers and visit their websites to learn more about their services. The following questions will help you get started:
Specific questions to ask certifying agencies include:
You can also talk to your potential buyers and ask them which agencies they prefer. It is recommended that you carefully select a certifying agency, as it is advisable, but not required, to stay with that agency for many years. Once you’ve contacted a certifying agency, they will send you a packet containing the NOP regulation and an Organic System Plan application form. Some agencies charge a fee for the application packet, others do not. Some certifiers have posted their forms on their websites, available for download.
The Organic System Plan questionnaire included in the application packet requires you to provide the past three years’ field histories for all fields used for organic production; maps of all fields; a list of all pest management strategies and planned inputs; soil fertility program and planned inputs; a list of all seeds and seedlings to be used; harvest, storage, and sales plans for your farm; and a description of your recordkeeping system. OSP forms are typically 15 pages long, and will likely take about 2-8 hours to complete. Though similar, each certifying agency issues its own OSP forms. When re-certifying in subsequent years, the process will go more quickly, as you generally are asked to complete an abbreviated OSP update form.
Once the certification agency has received your OSP, they will review your answers and any supporting documentation to make sure it is complete and you have demonstrated the ability to comply. When all documents have been received and reviewed, the certifier will pass the OSP and associated materials to an inspector, who conducts an on-site inspection. The on-site visit may take two to four hours or more, depending on the size, complexity, and layout of your farm. The inspection will be scheduled when a knowledgeable representative of your farm will be present, and when crops and practices can be observed. The inspector is present to verify whether or not you are following your plan, and that your management practices and inputs are compliant with the organic regulation. Although they cannot give specific advice to aid you in your organic certification process, organic inspectors can answer questions about the organic regulation and discuss farming practices in a general way.
The inspector will verify that the information on the OSP is correct. The inspector will also walk through the fields you are requesting to be certified, observing the conditions of the crops, soil, weeds, insects, conservation practices, etc. The inspector will look at the borders of organic fields that adjoin conventionally-managed land to make sure that adequate buffers are maintained to prevent pesticide drift or overspray from contaminating the organic crops. You will also be asked specific questions about your weed control strategies, pest management practices, and fertility program. The inspector will want to know your long-term soil building plans, crop rotation schedule, and efforts to maintain or increase biodiversity, to be assured that you are taking a holistic approach to organic crop production.
Field histories, weekly notebooks, storage records, input records, sales records, product labels, seed tags, and input receipts will all be reviewed during the inspection. The inspector will also visit post-harvest handling, input, and crop storage areas; examine production and harvesting equipment; and review labels and market information. You may be asked to provide yield and sales information for your organic crops, to determine if you have adequate land to produce the quantity of organic crops sold. At the conclusion of the inspection, the inspector conducts an exit interview, sharing observations, identifying any additional information needed, and reviewing all issues of concern. The inspector does not make the decision on your certification status, however.
After the site visit, the inspector submits an inspection report, along with any additional documentation collected at the visit, such as fertilizer tags or seed receipts, to the certification agency. After reviewing the inspection report and your complete file, the certification agency will decide whether your farm meets NOP requirements to become certified.
There are four possible outcomes:
If a certifying agent finds that the applicant is not in compliance with NOP requirements, a written notice of noncompliance is issued to the applicant. In many cases, the applicant can be certified, if certain changes are made. The notice of noncompliance will include a description of the violation(s), as well as a date by which correction(s) must be completed. It will also provide information about documentation that the grower must submit to the certifier to verify that corrective actions have been taken. A follow-up site visit may be necessary to assure that the correction(s) have been made. If an applicant doesn’t comply or fails to respond, a denial of certification will be issued. Similarly, if correction is not possible, a denial of certification will be issued.
Applicants who receive a notice of noncompliance or a denial of certification can apply for certification with another agency, but prior notices of noncompliance and/or denial must be revealed to the new agency, along with a description of all corrective actions.
Once you become certified, you must maintain your certification each year by paying your fees, submitting an updated OSP that describes changes from the previous year, and having an annual on-site inspection. If there were any minor noncompliances identified, verification of correction must also be submitted as part of your OSP update before your annual inspection. The inspector typically performs one inspection of each operation per year, during which the inspector reviews your OSP, conducts a complete site visit, and writes a report based on evidence and observations. The inspector's report is submitted, along with your updated OSP, to the certifying agency for review. Though most inspections are scheduled in advance, there is the possibility that you will receive an unannounced inspection to verify the OSP is being following and your operation is in full compliance with NOP requirements.
If a certified operation commits fraud or otherwise violates the NOP regulation, the operation's organic certification may be suspended or revoked. If so, the certification agency sends the operator a written notification of proposed suspension or revocation, stating the:
The operator has 30 days to request mediation or file an appeal with the USDA. If the mediation or appeal is successful, certification is reinstated. If the mediation or appeal fails, certification is revoked. Revoked operations are not eligible for certification for five years. Submitting an appeal is a long and cumbersome process and entails presenting clear documentation - it is best to be complete and transparent with your organic operation's information before the process gets to this point.
If the certified operator has signed a licensing agreement to use the certifying agent's seal, the certifying agent can directly suspend or revoke the operator's right to use the seal.
Any certified operation that makes a false statement or knowingly sells or labels a product as organic that is not produced in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 shall be subject to:
Organic vegetable production is a rewarding experience that provides the grower with an opportunity to truly be a part of the natural system, while producing safe, healthy, and abundant organic food. Certification may be somewhat cumbersome when you are first starting out, but it helps to protect the organic claim, provides a level playing field for all producers, and is well rewarded in the marketplace. Hopefully, after a few years, you will be comfortable with your paperwork system, will understand the details of the organic regulation, and look forward to your annual organic inspection!
This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.