Farm Fresh Perspectives: Should you get certified organic?

I am not an organic inspector, but I have been out to a couple of farms and gardens lately, speaking with their owners about the prospect of getting certified organic. Would you be surprised to find out that I have told several of them not to get certified? Well, I have.

Some farms that could be certified choose not to be because they disagree with the federal government’s management of the National Organic Standards; others simply don’t think their consumers demand the certification.

In my opinion, the more compelling argument to forgo organic certification is a financial one. Each grower needs to carefully compare what he is going to have to put into the process of getting certified organic to what he is going to get out of it.

The certification process does have costs associated with it, including application fees, inspection fees, and annual renewal fees. Talking to some friends in certification agencies, the very least I have ever heard of anyone paying for his initial organic certification fee is $650, but generally fees amount to more than that. Many certification agencies also charge a user fee equal to a certain percentage of the gross income from the organic farm; this fee will vary by agency.

For operations that require organic certification for their end market and receive a premium for their crops that is sufficient to cover the cost, then the proposition makes financial sense. For farmers who sell to retailers, restaurants or wholesalers, organic certification may simply be a required cost of doing business, so that farmer had better make sure his or her returns justify the costs of certification.

Besides monetary costs, organic certification will also require a certain time investment. Many people are amazed by the amount of planning and paperwork that goes into an organic certification. An aspiring organic farmer must create an organic production and handling plan, which consists of field maps, production histories, pest control plans, soil fertility regimens, cleaning protocols, transportation methodologies, animal health procedures, and on and on and on. It is a lot to think about and detail on paper before the grower has ever even dealt with the situation. However, all of this record keeping will force a grower to make plans for how he or she is going to deal with all manner of situations, helping that farmer to be more prepared and more successful.

Such records also allow for a high level of traceability, so if the integrity of any food product becomes problematic, it can be traced back not just to a county or a farm, but to a specific lot of product that came out of a specific field or specific animal. In short, organic paperwork is a management-intensive system, just like the farming.

There is one loophole. If a grower uses certifiably organic production practices and still makes less than $5,000 annually from the sale of organic products, that grower can call his or her product “organic” at market. However, that grower cannot call it “certified organic” or use the USDA Organic seal, and he or she must maintain the same kind of paperwork and record-keeping as a grower who is certified. If that exempt grower ever has the organic integrity of his or her products called into question, the grower must be able to show those plans and records or be subject to heavy fines.

In my opinion, if you are not making more than $5,000 from your organic production, it is hard to justify the time and risk you’d face by calling your products organic.

Growers should also keep in mind that not every consumer demands certified organic products, and there are alternatives. On, the Consumer’s Union has an index of 137 food labels that indicate one sort of value-added certification or another. A farmer could get his or her crops “Food Alliance Certified,” or get his or her livestock “Certified Humanely Raised.” Each of these programs has a separate label, separate regulations, and different fees.

The “Certified Naturally Grown” program is not related to the National Organic Program, but it uses all the same standards (plus a couple of additional rules). Also, it has no set fees, simply a suggested donation of $50.

Interested growers should examine the rules and fees of the different certifications to decide which type is most appropriate for their farm and their customers. Federal organic certification is very meaningful and can certainly open doors to a lot of markets. If that is the best marketing decision for your farm business, go for it. If it’s not, there are still other ways to differentiate your farm, your products and your story.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the March 15-21, 2006, issue

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