Organic Certification in an (Organic) Nutshell

September 8, 2022

By Chris Grigsby, Director of MOFGA Certification Services, LLC

For those of us who work within the certified organic landscape every day, we sometimes miss that becoming familiar with what certified organic means, and doesn’t mean, isn’t something that everyone is familiar with. This is the case for both farmers and producers, as well as consumers. I’m going to do my best to explain the ins and outs, as well as how important organic is for a sustainable local and regional food system, human and environmental health, and the planet.

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What It Takes to be Certified Organic

Organic certification, under the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), is a third-party verification system of production practices for agricultural products marketed as “certified organic.” Producers have different requirements, depending on production scope, and there are four scopes: crop, wild crop, livestock and handler (processing). All scopes have to use approved products for things like soil amendments and fertilizers (crop), cleaners and sanitizers (all scopes), healthcare treatments (livestock) and processing aids (handling). The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances guides the certifier’s decision to “approve for use in organic production and handling.” Products like the above are “approved for use,” not “certified organic.”

The crop and wild crop scopes are similar in that the certifier is verifying that land producing organic products is “certifiable,” with the primary requirement being that the land has been free from applied prohibited substances for at least 36 months prior to the production and harvest of organic crops or wild crop harvesting. Farmers “transition” land that has not met this requirement, using the last date of applied prohibited substances as the start of the transition period. Certifiers use affidavits and attestations from the producer, or owner of the land, to verify this requirement. In addition, crop producers must maintain or improve soil health and fertility, use cover crops and other methods to deter pest and disease, and ensure that all post-harvest handling is compliant to both NOP and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards.

Livestock production (including dairy), in most cases, requires a producer to be certified to the crop and livestock scopes to produce certified organic “feed” for the certified organic animals. If a livestock farm is producing value-added products on farm, like cheese, they are also certified to the handler scope. Livestock requirements include: adequate pasture for ruminants, appropriate housing, approved healthcare treatments, year-round access to the outdoors, and allowances to exhibit natural behaviors. Dairy farms can complete a one-time, whole herd transition from conventional to organic production, which requires a one-year transition period. Organic offspring must be managed organically from the last third of gestation (certified organic feed, approved healthcare, etc.).

Processing/handling producers must meet the handling requirements of the regulations, including use of certified organic ingredients in most cases, preventative measures and systems to ensure no commingling or contamination with non-organic products or ingredients, approved cleaning and sanitizing, and specific labeling requirements. Products that would be certified under the handler scope are those that have been processed beyond a raw agricultural item, including maple syrup, sauerkraut, yogurt and meat cuts, and also includes crops that have been dried or cured beyond their original form.

It is common for an operation (whether a farm or processor) to produce certified organic and non-organic products at the same farm or facility. A coffee roaster, for example, is able to produce organic and non-organic coffee in the same facility using the same equipment, so long as procedures are in place to ensure that the integrity of the organic coffee is not compromised.

Why Support Certified Organic?

By providing the background about the requirements of being a certified organic producer above, I hope that it helps to understand how certified organic products make it to the market and why it is so important to continue to expand support of local certified organic producers. By making a commitment to being certified organic, and making these claims, the producer is adding a lot of extra work to their plate to be compliant. They need to prove their activities through recordkeeping, allow the certifier to inspect their farm or facility at least once per year, adhere to strict labeling requirements, and do things like purchase more expensive seed or fertility inputs. Most certified organic operations align philosophically with the tenants of organic production, and the third-party verification provided by a certification agency (accredited by the USDA) gives the consumer assurance that all requirements have been met. Farms and processors create a holistic approach to food production, which ultimately provides the most nutritious, healthy and regulated food offerings in the United States.

At MOFGA, we are proud of our certified producers, and aim to spotlight the amazing products and efforts they go through to bring them to you. All told, MOFGA-certified producers account for roughly $125 million in annual sales, have 60,000 acres in organic production, grow over 200 different crops, and produce over 3,500 value-added products.

Over the years, certified producers have provided MOFGA with direct quotes of why certifying their products as organic is important to them. I’ve gathered some of these quotes here, to provide some context on why they choose to certify — for themselves and their communities. I hope that by highlighting the hard work these producers undertake to provide the healthiest food possible, you’ll get a better understanding of the importance of supporting organic producers, and expanding that support, so we can continue to have a thriving local and organic community of producers. Happy eating!

Quotes from Organic Producers

“Organic production guides us to pay careful attention to the health of the people we feed and the soil in which our food grows. We are proud to have MOFGA Certification Services independently verify and certify our organic practices.”

– Brittany Hopkins, Wise Acres Farm, Kenduskeag (Crop)

“Before our first crop was ever sown, we knew organic farming and gardening practices were important to us. Food transparency is a big reason why we originally got involved in farming. Investing in fair and certified organic practices from the start just made sense. Being an organic grower, to us, means providing the highest quality food to our community while maintaining proper land stewardship and a small ecological footprint.”

-David Andrews and Erin Donahue, Tiny Acres Farm, Central Maine (Crop)

“I feel like it is not just about the production of safe food for consumers, but also about how the farm interacts with the natural world as a whole. I value the farm inspection that happens during the growing season after plans and certification paperwork have been submitted. I think that it is so important to meet in person, walk around the farm, show records and receipts, and talk about the operation.”

– Laura Neale, Black Kettle Farm, Lyman (Crop)

“One important thing to remember about organic certification is that it ensures the integrity of the product from start to finish, from growing practices to production protocols to cleaning procedures. When you buy organic, you can feel confident that the best practices have been used at every step, and that there has been no contamination with chemicals or non-organic ingredients. We believe organic ingredients and practices protect not only our own health, but the health of our farmers, ecosystems, and the planet in general. The annual MOFGA inspection (while somewhat daunting!) helps us think through our systems and processes, and inevitably helps us find things we have missed in our planning. We’re hugely grateful to MOFGA for their help and guidance, from the very beginning.” 

-Nomad Pasta, Belfast (Processor/Handler)

“Our existing customers are deeply concerned with where their food is produced and how it is raised. MOFGA is well known for its role in the organic farming movement and the USDA Organic seal is recognized across the industry. The organic stamp by MOFGA signals to customers that they can trust their food and its sourcing — and feel good about feeding it to their families.”

-Atlantic Sea Farms, Biddeford (Sea Vegetables and Handler)

This article was originally published in the fall 2022 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

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