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.
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.
Organic Produce and Soil
The farmer must work to improve or maintain the soil's health and minimize soil erosion from tillage and cultivation practices, by using crop rotations, cover crops and the use of approved soil amendments. Raw manure cannot be used within 120 days before harvest of a crop where the edible portion touches the soil (such as carrots) or within 90 days before harvest of a crop where the edible part doesn't touch the soil (such as tomatoes). Compost has to be made according to strict standards. This is one of the areas where experts disagree, and some changes are expected to be made to the final compost rules.
The farmer cannot burn crop residues. Sewage sludge is absolutely banned. CCA pressure-treated lumber — treated with arsenic and chromium — cannot be used where it will be in contact with the soil.
Organic Seeds and Plants
Seeds must be organically grown unless the grower can show an organic equivalent variety was not commercially available. Organic transplants must be used for annual crops. Non-organic planting stock can be used for perennials, but the crop won't be considered organic until it's been grown in an organic system for a year.
In an organic system, spraying with pesticides (even allowed biological pesticides) is considered a last resort. Organic farmers are supposed to try these methods first:
• releasing predators or parasites that will naturally curtail the pest species;
• developing habitat such as borders of flowers for naturally occurring enemies of pests;
• using nonsynthetic controls such as lures, traps and repellents.
Weeds Herbicides are not allowed. Weeds should be controlled by mowing, cultivating, hand weeding or flame weeding. Natural mulches such as hay and straw are fine, but plastic mulch can only be used if it's removed from the field at the end of the growing season.
Disease should be controlled if possible with management practices such as variety selection and crop rotations. As a last resort, biological and botanical substances on the National List can be used.
Organic Poultry and Eggs
Organic poultry and poultry products must be under continuous organic management beginning the second day of life. The animals must be fed organically grown feed. No drugs, including hormones, can be used to promote growth and no plastic pellets can be fed for roughage. Feed containing urea or manure, and feed containing slaughter byproducts are all banned.
The animals must have access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, an exercise area, fresh air and direct sunlight, when the animal's age and the weather make it appropriate.
Dairy animals must be raised in an organic system for a year before milk can be sold as organic. Organic feed, access to pasture, fresh air and sunlight are required. The same prohibitions governing poultry feed apply to livestock feed. The USDA also has strict rules about animal health care, describing what medications and vaccines can be used.
Conclusion: The rules are quite complicated and may seem overwhelming at first, but any good gardeners who have tried to grow food with a respect for nature will probably find themselves well on their way to organic eligibility. Whether you choose to get certified will depend on many factors, such as whether your potential customers require it and whether you think it's worth the expense. We weigh these factors every year, and have always decided in favor of certification. In fact, we're filling out the application right now for next year's certification. But that's not to say at some point we won't give up our Organic label and become "Eco-Logical" or "Wholesome." Like most market gardeners, we're waiting to see what the federal organic program will yield.
Lynn Byczynski and her husband, Dan Magentas, grow four acres of vegetables and cut flowers near Lawrence, Kansas. She is the founder and editor of Growing for Market newsletter.
Read more about organic shopping and growing here:
A Guide to Organic Growing and Shopping