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The Rules for Obtaining a USDA Organic Certification

Farming rules for obtaining a USDA organic certification, including steps to get certified and allowed and prohibited organic food practices.

| August/September 2002

  • Obtaining a USDA organic certification proves that farmers provide certified organic produce.
    Obtaining a USDA organic certification proves that farmers provide certified organic produce.

  • Obtaining a USDA organic certification proves that farmers provide certified organic produce.

Learn about the rules for obtaining a USDA organic certification, and what is allowed and prohibited when it comes to organic farming.

Obtaining a USDA Organic Certification

Organic farming is not intended to simply substitute natural materials for synthetic ones. It's more complicated than that. The goal of an organic system is to improve the soil and to work within nature's boundaries to grow healthy food. The conventional grower who wants to farm organically has to undergo an attitude shift from quick-fix solution to long-term prevention. For example, insect pest problems aren't cured with a so-called magic bullet like chemical pesticides, but are avoided by nurturing a healthy soil, which supports strong plants that don't attract pests.

Although inputs are only a small part of organic farming, growers need to know what materials are allowed and prohibited under the USDA's organic standards. In general, natural materials are allowed and synthetic materials are not, but there are many exceptions to both categories. For example, tobacco dust (nicotine sulfate) is natural, but it's prohibited because it is a toxic, broad-spectrum pesticide. Bleach, or sodium hypochlorite, is a synthetic substance, but it's allowed for disinfecting tools, buckets, wash basins and irrigation systems. The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, known as the National List for short, gives detailed information. Visit the USDA's website.

Farming Records

The provisions of the new federal law that have elicited the most groans from farmers have been those related to record keeping. Most farmers hate to spend their time writing things down, but the government insists on it. To be certified, a grower must have an organic system plan that describes the practices that will be performed to ensure the stewardship of the soil, lists of every substance that will be used as an input, where it will be used and how often, and anything else the certifying agency thinks necessary to make sure the farmer is in compliance with the law. The farmer also has to keep records, such as a daily journal of all purchases, practices, harvests and sales.

Organic Produce and Land

No prohibited substance can be used on land for three years preceding harvest of the first organic crop. Finding land that is immediately eligible for certification is not an easy task. Cropland is likely to have been treated with chemicals, and even pasture is often fertilized or sprayed with herbicides for thistles and other noxious weeds. Land may have to be put into a three-year transition, in which the grower keeps records about how it's managed in order to get it certified after the three years are up.

Organic land also has to have clearly defined boundaries and buffer zones that prevent contamination by prohibited substances.

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