The USDA organic regulations address three basic categories of propagation materials: seeds, annual seedlings, and planting stock. The term “seeds” is self-explanatory. “Annual seedlings” are transplants of annual crops that have been removed from their original place of production and replanted elsewhere. “Planting stock” is defined as any plant or plant tissue other than annual seedlings but including rhizomes, shoots, leaf or stem cuttings, roots, or tubers, used in plant production or propagation.
Ideally, only organic seed and planting stock would be used in organic production. When you purchase organic seeds, transplants, and planting stock, you are assured that the variety is not genetically engineered and that any seed treatments that may have been used are allowed for organic production. However, because the organic industry represents only a fraction of the total agriculture industry, organic seeds and planting stock may not be available.
- Organic seeds must be used unless they are not commercially available.
- Seeds may not be treated with prohibited substances.
- Genetically engineered varieties are prohibited.
NOTE: § 205.204(a)(4) states: “[N]onorganically produced planting stock to be used to produce a perennial crop may be sold, labeled, or represented as organically produced only after the planting stock has been maintained under a system of organic management for a period of no less than one year…”
Organic seeds must be used unless they are not commercially available. When an equivalent organic variety is not commercially available, conventionally grown seed may be used. The determination of “equivalent” is made by the farmer, who takes into account the plant variety, maturity dates, disease resistance, and other desired characteristics. In order to use conventional seed, the farmer must provide documentation to verify that:
- the organic seed was not available;
- the variety is not genetically engineered; and
- the seed was not treated with prohibited materials.
Transplants, starts, or seedlings used to produce an annual organic crop must have been organically grown. This section of the regulations applies to tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, flowers grown from transplants (e.g., snapdragons sold as cut flowers) and similar crops. The farmer must have documentation that the transplants are organic. Documentation may be obtained by an organic certificate from the seller or an invoice on which the purchase is identified as organic. If large quantities of transplants will be needed, it will be necessary to order them well in advance.
A variance to use conventional seedlings to grow an organic crop may be granted only if the original transplants were destroyed through “…drought, wind, flood, excessive moisture, hail, tornado, earthquake, fire or other business interruption…” Contact your certifying agent to obtain a variance.
Whenever possible, organic planting stock should be used for organic production. At the time of this writing, many plant varieties are not commercially available in sufficient quantity, which may require the use of nonorganic planting stock. However, it is necessary to search for organic sources and to document that search.
Planting stock for annual crops is subject to the same requirements as seeds for annual crops. Note that this part of the rule applies to crops like garlic, white potatoes, and flowers grown from bulbs (e.g., daffodils or tulips sold as cut flowers).
Planting stock for perennial crops may be obtained from nonorganic sources but must be under organic management for at least 12 months before the first harvest of an organic crop. This rule applies to tree fruits (e.g., apples, peaches, pears), nuts (e.g., walnuts, pecans), berries (e.g., blueberries, caneberries, strawberries), grapes, asparagus, lavender, lilies, and others. Some perennial crops are managed as annuals in some climate regions (e.g., strawberries, caneberries). If this is the case, then the rules for annual planting stock apply.
Although the seeds, annual seedlings, and planting stock used in organic production must not be treated with prohibited substances, there is one exception. Treatment with prohibited substances is allowed when the application of those substances is a requirement of Federal or State phytosanitary regulations. For example, strawberry crowns may be required to be treated with fungicides prior to interstate shipments.