10 Tips for Becoming USDA Certified as Organic
Everything organic seems to be at a premium these days—both in price and in cultural capital. If your company is seeking USDA Organic certification for a product, process, or facility, through the National Organic Program, you know it's a long slog through a slightly byzantine process.
Within the United States, organic production is a system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, as well as federal regulations that apply to the land where organic food, beverages, or products are grown. As part of the United States Department of Agriculture, the National Organic Program "develops, implements, and administers national production, handling, and labeling standards" for organics, according to the USDA.
The ability to obtain organic certification has only been around since 2002, and according to Miles McEvoy, the deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, it exists to set "the standards for creating a biological-based crop production system." For processed organic foods, the National Organic Program deals in "product identity, product labeling, and handling all the way from farm to packaged product," McEvoy says.
If you're considering working toward organic certification, first check out the National Organic Program's website for guidelines, for help finding a regional certifier and inspector, and for regulation updates. We've talked to experts on navigating the process of going organic and have compiled their tips below.
1. Before you start, nail down a market.
Just because it's organic doesn't mean it's going to sell, says McEvoy. "What I would tell farmers if they're interested in organics is that they have to find their market first. Just because you grow it doesn't mean you're going to be able to find a buyer right away," he says. For some farms and producers, the process of certification can take years and hold unforeseen challenges. McEvoy stresses the importance of understanding how to clear your certifications, labels, and organic sources of ingredients, but moreover, first make sure there is a market for your product before you even begin.
2. Give it time, lots of time…
…and understand that time can be money. Brian Durkee, the vice president of operations for Numi Organic Teas, says: "With what we've done, one of the biggest challenges for organics, is that it takes investment. If a farmer is practicing conventional agriculture, when they begin their conversion period, they are losing 30 to 40 percent of their harvest. So it is really difficult to convince people that it's worth it. It takes strong partnerships with your suppliers. It requires you to make sure they know you will be their partner in the future, and that you will stand by them." Durkee puts the time frame for crop conversion at a year or two, with full certification taking three years. When growers first wean a field of crops off of pest-killers and weed-killers, "It's like taking a creature out of a bubble: their defense mechanisms are broken down. But after two years of not using pesticides, the plant becomes stronger, and the life cycles of everything around it really flourishes," Durkee says.
3. Really get to know your neighbors.
When an organic-hopeful farm chooses a certifier, but before that certifier's inspectors pay a visit, the farm must complete an organic farm plan, describing where its seeds come from, how it handles pest control, how it identifies product, and what kinds of affects neighbors might have on the product or soil content. That's right: neighbors. "All elements of the ecosystem are part of the organic farm plan, including whether there's a buffer zone, and what kinds of chemicals and processes any neighbors use on the land," McEvoy says. So, before embarking on the process, it pays to nurture good will with any nearby farms, and encourage any of your suppliers to do so, as well.
4. Stay clean, naturally.
Buywell Coffee, a coffee roaster and retailer that's entirely organic and fair-trade certified, and is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, not only makes sure its imported beans are organically grown, but has to watch how it handles the beans in order to keep its certification. "It's a really interesting thing for us because we're a food service company, we have to be extra clean. But with the organic rules you can't use harsh chemicals and disinfectants. So you have to be really careful with what you clean even the office with. Mostly anything that is organic. Bleach is an organic compound, so we use one part bleach to five-parts water. We can use a little bit stronger stuff for the bathrooms, but we've opted to use more green, biodegradable soap, like Seventh Generation," says Chris Aaby, Buywell's sales and marketing manager. "Normally inspectors come once a year, but they can technically come anytime, and they'll look at everything from what kinds of barrels we keep the raw coffee beans in and how we clean them to whether non-organic coffee ever touches that barrel."
5. Budget for fees ahead of time.
There are dozens of certifying agencies across the United States and globe, and each charge fees for their inspections and granting of certification. For small farms or processing facilities, costs can be as low as $200 a year, but for larger companies, sales can range up to several thousand dollars a year. If you're considering embarking on the organic certification process, budget for it, leaving enough open cashflow to handle charges for inspection, licensing, and proper bookkeeping in addition to the costs of individually maintaining the National Organic Program's standards.
6. Stay tiny if you're just testing the waters.
Under USDA guidelines, there is one group of sellers who can use official organic labeling: Companies that make less than $5,000 in retail sales on a calendar-year basis. "You can label as organic if you're following the standards. You're restricted as to where you can sell, though," McEvoy says. "But you can do direct sales through a farmers market or stand, and try out your products on the market."
7. Understand geographical limitations.
Looking to import organic-certified products or goods? There's no shortage of suppliers, but in certain areas of the world, there are slim pickings. Numi, which chooses to work directly with farms, cooperatives, and workers to gain fair-trade and organic certification, has observed that finding organic and socially responsible suppliers of tea in China is a tricky prospect. "You know the joke, 'all the tea in China?'" Durkee says. "Well, in China there are just five cooperatives that are fair-trade certified. If you're trying to operate in organics and social responsibility in china, you're really really decreasing your pool. Especially if you want your tea exported well, internationally certified, and high quality."
8. Think wild.
An alternative to a lengthy (often three-year) certification process might be wild-harvest, or semi-wild harvest products. In areas of Africa and India, produce and dry goods can be harvested without farming, in areas that have never, or rarely, been farmed. That means they've never been exposed to the chemicals organic certification doesn't allow. If that can be proved, it can shorten the certification process to roughly 90 days, Durkee says.
9. Look at fair trade as well.
"Organic and fair trade don't necessarily go hand in hand, but they are close," says Aaby of Buywell, which sells organic and fair-trade-sourced coffee. He explains: "Fair trade is more about sustaining the business, and sustaining the farmland is part of that. For a lot of fair trade farmers, it's a natural fit to get the organic certification, as well, because they are already doing like four of the five things." Aaby says when he visited a cooperative in Peru of about 5,000 families, roughly 3,000 were farming organically. Pairing the certifications can also help your mission-driven business educate consumers about any imported products you might sell. "My big thing is, here locally, everybody is talking about eating local as the new sustainable way to eat. But there are a lot of fruits, nuts, spices, and coffee, that cannot be grown in the United States, and those should be grown sustainably, as well," Aaby says.
10. Build a narrative, and tell your story.
If you've gone through the process of certifying your product, why not flaunt it? Stacy Fader, whose line of spa and salon products, Kumani Essentials, is certified fair trade—which is not the same as organic, but has many overlapping qualities—says: "When we did our first trade show in Washington, D.C., in November, our booth was swamped. It was not only people trying the product and the treatments, but they also loved the story. We had a video rolling of my trip to West Africa, and how we started up and what fair trade means. Visitors were really touched by the story behind the product line, whether we were talking to distributors or retailers. If your product has a storyline, you're really good to go."
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.