College-wide Navigational Links | Go to Local Content
Main Content |

Sustainable Agriculture: Programs

Organic Certification

USDA Organic logoThe USDA adopted standards for Organic Certification in 2002 in order to expand consumer confidence for products labeled as organic. The certification allows producers who adhere to a minimum set of standards and practices to utilize the “USDA Organic” label, which can provide a valuable marketing advantage for a variety of farm commodities including fruits and vegetables, row crops, livestock, seed, flowers, and processed goods. Small producers selling under $5,000 per year can use the term “organic” without acquiring certification; however they must still register with Georgia Department of Agriculture and comply with all organic standards. The primary constraint for uncertified small producers is a restriction on using the USDA organic seal.

Third Party Certifiers
The National Organic Program (NOP) uses “third party certification” to evaluate and insure conformance with the organic standards. Third party certifiers are accredited by the USDA and can be either state or private entities. These certifiers provide assurance to consumers that organic production methods are being followed by reviewing documentation and conducting inspections. Identifying a third party certifier is one of the early steps in acquiring organic certification.

How to Become Certified Organic

A decision to seek organic certification should be carefully considered before beginning the process. Here are some of the key aspects to consider:

  • Identify Markets – Due to the time and cost involved in acquiring organic certification an assessment of the demand, prices, and access to markets that pay a price premium will insure that certification is a feasible and financially sound decision.
  • Land Eligibility – Land utilized for certified organic production must either have records demonstrating that no prohibited substances (synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) have been used for a period of three years, or lands must begin a three year transition period in which no prohibited substances are used.
  • Familiarity with Practices and Materials – One challenge in preparing for organic certification is becoming familiar with “ecological production principles” that form the basis for organic farm management decisions. There are a growing number of resources for such information. One of the most comprehensive locations for information on allowed practices and the certification process is the USDA’s National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, also called ATTRA. The Rodale Institute also has a “Transition to Organic Training Center” with a step by step course in the principles and practices of organic production.
  • Time and Resources for Documentation – The amount of time required to document certification activities varies by farm size. Certification requires routine documentation of management practices including materials purchased and applied, applications of approved pesticides, and other management activities.
  • Registration– All Georgia growers, livestock producers, processors, handlers, and distributors who use “organic” in their labeling must register with the Georgia Department of Agriculture.  All agencies or groups certifying “organic” products in Georgia also must be registered.  Retailers who do not process or repackage certified organic commodities are exempt from registration. Additional information on registration requirements through the Georgia Department of Agriculture and registration forms can be found on their website (Ga Dept of Ag > Agencies > Divisions > Plant Industry > Organic Agriculture), or call Dr. James Sutton, organic program manager, (404) 656-1264 for more info.
  • Cost of Certification - An annual certification fee is collected from your third-party certifying agency. Different certifiers have different fees. A full list of certifiers can be found on the resources page. For an example of certifier fees you can see the Georgia Crop Improvement Association ( Look under Organic > Program Administration and Policy Manual. A typical example of fees is $400-$500 for an application administration fee, a mileage fee for inspection, and additional fees for re-inspections, processing operations, and greenhouse production.


Steps Towards Certification

Once a decision is made to pursue organic certification, here is an outline of the steps towards certification.

  1. Study the Requirements – read the National Organic Program (NOP) requirements carefully to be certain you are in compliance. These standards are available on the NOP website or through your certifying agency.
  2. Contact a Certifier – Each producer can choose any certifier from amongst the 55 accredited certifiers in the United States. A full list can be found on the NOP website. Look under Certifiers > USDA Accredited Certifying Agents. A decision in choosing a certifier may be based on the different fees charged, proximity of the certifier to your location, or consideration of certain certifier’s recognition for high standards. Many people choose certifiers that are nearby to reduce the mileage fees charged for inspection. Abbreviated list of certifiers in the regionMore Info >>
  3. Application of an Organic Systems Plan – The main component of an application for organic certification is the Organic System Plan (OSP), which provides a detailed outline of all relevant aspects of your operation including how you intend to operate your farm in compliance with the NOP standards. Details on the content of this plan can be obtained from your certifier, from ATTRA, or you can see a example of the paperwork provided by the Carolina Farm Stewards. The plan will include all farm practices to be performed and the frequency, list of substances and how they will be used, description of monitoring practices, a description of the recordkeeping system, practices to prevent commingling of organic and conventional products in a split operation, a map of all farm acreage, field histories, and additional information. The producer will submit this written plan with the application to the certifier. For a good outline of the questions and practices to consider when completing an OSP see the Organic Crops Workbook produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) available on the ATTRA website, or contact your certifier. more info >>
  4. Review by the Certifier – After all application materials are completed and submitted to the certifier they will be reviewed for compliance with NOP standards and additional information requested if needed.
  5. Inspection by the Certifier – Once the application is considered to be complete an inspector will be assigned to insure that the producer is operating according to the organic plan and in compliance with organic standards. The inspector will review all written records documenting management practices, seed sources, inputs used, compost production, conventional production done on the farm, and records of harvest, storage, transportation, and sales.
  6. Review of the Inspection Report and Approval – Following the inspection all findings will be submitted to the certifier and reviewed either by an individual or committee with expertise in organic farming and certification standards. The certifier will either a) Grant approval for certification, b) Request additional information, c) Notify of areas of noncompliance, or d) Deny the certification. Once certification is granted, the producer can begin marketing using the USDA certified organic seal.

More Info

Look here for more links to federal, state and non-profit information on the National Organic Program and the certification process.

USDA – National Organic Program

Georgia Department of Agriculture
Dr. James Sutton, Organic Program Manager
Phone: (404) 656-1264
Google GA Dept of Ag
Click on Agencies > Divisions > Plant Industry > Organic Agriculture

Georgia Crop Improvement Association
Terry Hollifield, Executive Director
Phone: (706) 542-2351
Click on Organic

National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA)
Click on Organic Farming

Carolina Farm Stewards

The Rodale Institute

Abbreviated List of Certifiers

Fertilizer and Seed Certification Services
Clemson University
511 Westinghouse Rd.
Pendleton, SC 29670
Contact: David S. Howle
Phone: 864-646-2140
Scope: crop, livestock, wild crop, handling
Accredited: 4/29/02

Georgia Crop Improvement Association, Inc.
2425 South Milledge Ave.
Athens, GA 30605
Contact: Terry Hollifield
Phone: 706-542-2351
Scope: crop, livestock, handling

Oregon Tilth
470 Lancaster Dr.,
Salem, OR 97301
Contact: Chris Schreiner
Scope: crop, livestock, wild crop, handling
Accredited: 4/29/02

Quality Assurance International
9191 Towne Centre Dr., Ste. 510
San Diego, CA 92122
Contact: Joe Smillie
Phone: 858-792-3531
Fax: 858-792-8665
Scope: crop, livestock, wild crop, handling
Accredited: 4/29/02

Quality Certification Services -- (Formerly FOG)
P.O. Box 12311
Gainesville, FL 32604
Contact: Marty Mesh
Phone: 352-377-6345
Scope: crop, livestock, wild crop, handling
Accredited: 4/29/02