Farmers, producers or handlers applying for USDA-organic certification begin by finding a certifying agency. Applicants are not required to use the closest agency and will find that cost often varies between agencies. Once the applicant chooses an accredited agency, the individual or business submits an application packet and organic system plan.
Organic system plans provide a detailed record of all operational practices. They document methods of farming or handling, the use of substances like fertilizers and pesticides, invoices, breeding records, ledgers, tax returns and purchase orders.
After the certifying agency reviews the application packet and the organic system plan, it inspects the farm or facility. Inspectors review fields, equipment, buildings, neighboring land, records of management practices, seed sources, harvesting methods, storage, composting, transportation and sales practices. The inspector and applicant complete and sign an affidavit before submitting it to the certifier.
A certifying agent or committee reviews the application, organic system plan and the results of the initial inspection.
There are three outcomes to the review process. If approved, the applicant can begin marketing products as organic and may use the USDA's organic seal. An applicant with minor discrepancies may be flagged for non-compliance and must address issues or provide additional information before certification. If an applicant has violated standards that cannot be addressed in the short-term -- say they haven't upheld organic farming practices for the required three years -- the application will be denied.
The certification process can take as few as six weeks with some agencies offering costly expedited certification services. However, there is no way to expedite the transition period that is part of the process of becoming organic.
Certification does not expire -- it continues until the farmer or producer no longer wants to be certified, or the agency suspends or revokes the certification. Inspections are done annually, regardless of whether there has been a complaint against practices. If certified organic farmers or handlers produce fraudulent labels, false records or neglect other organic standards, they may face civil fines of up to $11,000.
In the next section, we'll look at the costs associated with organic certification and discuss potential problems with the government's standards and labeling.