ask-tom-pictureDear Tom –

I am interested in getting certified as an organic producer. How do I select a USDA accredited certification organization? Thanks

— Perplexed

Dear Perplexed:

You have 94 choices for a certifying organization which is accredited by USDA. About half of those are located outside the US, so if you are in North Carolina it may make sense to pick a domestic organization. A state-bystate list is available on-line.

Some states offer certification at a very affordable rate but North Carolina chose to offer a cost share program instead.

That program pays 75% of the cost of certification up to $750. Be sure and apply for this financial assistance if you do chose to become certified. They will need a receipt from your certifier.

When the National Organic Program (NOP) was passed in 1990 the USDA began the process of adopting a common set of organic standards intended to apply across the US. They also required all organizations interested in issuing certifications under those standards to apply for accreditation by the USDA. In North Carolina the most popular certifier at the time was the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) They chose not to continue certifying under the NOP so many of us were left with the choice that you are now facing.

My main criteria are competence and affordability. Presumably an accredited organization has demonstrated some level of competence in order to be approved by USDA. I suggest also looking at the number of years that they have been certifying and how long their staff has been working for the organization. It might also be helpful to know how many farms that they certify annually.

The cost of certification has five components:

  1. base fee
  2. inspection fee
  3. travel fee
  4. annual assessment
  5. your time involved in the process.

When you submit an application for organic certification (a few dozen pages usually) staff at the certification organization review your materials and then contact an inspector to come to your farm for an on-site inspection. That inspector is either an employee of the certifier or an independent inspector. All organic inspectors have been trained and licensed to conduct inspections.

The certification organization’s in-house staff cost is covered by the base fee (usually several hundred dollars), the inspection fee is usually around $100 unless your farm is complicated or you are seeking additional approvals like on-farm organic processing. In most cases they will assess a travel fee to get the inspector to your farm – either mileage or the cost of the trip divided by the number of farms inspected on the trip.

Another possible cost component is an assessment by the certifier which is a share of your gross income from organic sales. Not all certifiers use an assessment but if you have large sales annually, it can be a significant cost. It’s usually a fraction of one percent of your sales but it also requires that you disclose your annual gross income and some farmers would rather not share that information.

We have used three certifiers and were pleased with each. After CFSA withdrew from certification we went with Quality Certification Services (QCS) which is a sister organization of Florida Organic Growers. FOG has been around for many years. Two years ago I left QCS because of uncertainty about the travel cost related to inspections and switched to Clemson University Department of Plant Industry. Since we are outside South Carolina they charge mileage from the state line but that is a fixed cost that we can know in advance. The NC Crop Improvement Association did inspections for a while but they stopped a few years ago. International Certification Services in North Dakota picked up some of their former clients so they may be worth considering too.

The “your time” cost varies with each farm I’m sure, but it takes me 20-40 hours each year. I keep the application in electronic form so the annual update is mainly just updating the field histories and adding any new materials that I intend to use or new crops that I intend to explore. Showing the inspector around and correspondence is the rest of the time. Since the NC cost share program mentioned above covers most of the cash cost, my time is the main component of our certification expense.

I know of no “consumer reports” for certification agencies. My direct experience is limited so there are probably many fine organizations that I did not mention. I hope my experience is useful as you make your choice. Thanks for your inquiry.
— Tom

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Tom Elmore

Tom Elmore

Tom Elmore is co-owner and operator of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester NC. He has grown certified organic fruits and vegetables for 25 years and serves on the Boards of the NC Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association and the Organic Growers School.