FAQ: Becoming a Certified Operation

How can my operation become certified to the USDA organic standards?
Organic certification verifies that your farm or handling facility located anywhere in the world complies with the USDA organic regulations and allows you to sell, label, and represent your products as organic. These regulations describe the specific standards required for you to use the word “organic” or the USDA organic seal on food, feed, or fiber products. The USDA National Organic Program administers these regulations, with substantial input from its citizen advisory board and the public.

Who Certifies Farms or Businesses?
Your farm or handling facility may be certified by a private, foreign, or State entity that has been accredited by the USDA. These entities are called certifying agents and are located throughout the United States and around the world. Certifying agents are responsible for ensuring that USDA organic products meet all organic standards. Certification provides the consumer, whether end-user or intermediate processor, assurance of the organic product’s integrity.

What Can I Be Certified to Produce?
The USDA organic regulations recognize four categories of organic products:

  • Crops: A plant that is grown to be harvested as food, livestock feed, fiber, or used to add nutrients to the field.
  • Livestock: Animals that can be used for food or in the production of food, fiber, or feed.
  • Processed products: Items that have been handled and packaged (i.e. chopped carrots) or combined, processed, and packaged (i.e. soup).
  • Wild crops: Plants from a growing site that is not cultivated.

Do I need to be certified?
Most farms and businesses that grow, handle, or process organic products must be certified. Overall, if you make a product and want to claim that it or its ingredients are organic, your final product probably also needs to be certified.

Are fertilizers and pest control materials eligible for organic certification?
Materials used in organic production must comply with the USDA organic regulations, 7 CFR Part 205. The USDA organic regulations do not require certification of inputs, such as fertilizers, soil amendments, and pest control materials. Some input manufacturers choose to apply for approval by a third party, but this is not required. For more information on evaluation of materials used in organic crop, livestock, and handling operations, see Policy Memo 11-4.

Is There a Transition Period?
Yes. Any land used to produce raw organic commodities must not have had prohibited substances applied to it for the past three years. Until the full 36-month transition period is met, you may not:

  • Sell, label, or represent the product as “organic”
  • Use the USDA organic or certifying agent’s seal

USDA provides technical and financial assistance during the transition period through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Or, access a variety of funding options, conservation programs, and other programs and services for the organic sector at usda.gov.

How Much Does Organic Certification Cost?
Actual certification costs or fees vary widely depending on the certifying agent and the size, type, and complexity of your operation. Certification costs may range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Before you apply, it is important to understand your certifier’s fee structure and billing cycle. Typically, there is an application fee, annual renewal fee, assessment on annual production or sales, and inspection fees.

Once you are certified, the USDA Organic Certification Cost-Share Programs can reimburse eligible operations up to 75 percent of their certification costs.

Can I Use the USDA Organic Seal?
All raw certified organic products may be labeled with the USDA organic seal. Learn more about organic labeling, including which processed or multi-ingredient products may use the USDA organic seal

How Do I Get Certified Organic?

To become certified, you must apply to a USDA-accredited certifying agent. They will ask you for information, including:

  • A detailed description of the operation to be certified.
  • A history of substances applied to land during the previous three years.
  • The organic products grown, raised, or processed.
  • A written Organic System Plan describing the practices and substances to be used.

Organic Certification Process:

  • Producer or handler adopts organic practices; submits application and fees to certifying agent
  • Certifying agent reviews applications to verify that practices comply with USDA organic regulations
  • Inspector conducts an on-site inspection of the applicant’s operation
  • Certifying agent reviews the application and the inspector’s report to determine if the applicant complies with the USDA organic regulations
  • Certifying agent issues organic certificate

Annual Recertification Process:

  • Producer or handler provides annual update to certifying agent
  • Inspector conducts an on-site inspection of the applicant’s operation
  • Certifying agent reviews the application and the inspector’s report to determine if the applicant still complies with the USDA organic regulations
  • Certifying agent issues organic certificate

Additional Resources

Regulations and Resources

Those seeking certification will need to become familiar with the following resources:

USDA Organic Regulations. 7 CFR Section 205 includes all USDA organic standards, including prohibited practices, requirements, and the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Materials.

Program Handbook. This compilation of guidance documents, policy memos, and instructions is intended to clarify policies and assist those who own, manage, or certify organic operations with complying with USDA organic regulations.

Use of the USDA Organic Seal. This page discusses the appropriate use of the USDA organic seal and provides versions of the seal at both print and screen resolution.

Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) (pdf). The Act that established the NOP and its authority to enforce agricultural products sold, labeled, or represented as “organic” within the U.S.

Preamble. If you are interested in the history of the USDA organic standards, you may want to review the preamble to the final rule, which established the National Organic Program.

**For operators in California. Please note that California operates a State Organic Program, which allows this state to mandate additional requirements before an operation could obtain certification. Certifying agents should also be able to answer questions and provide oversight of any additional requirements in California. Learn more