Under United States Department of Agriculture regulations, most businesses that sell more than $5,000 of organic products per year must have certification. This applies to farms, handlers, processors and online vendors. The USDA doesn't manage the certification process but outsources it to a network of accredited U.S. and overseas agents.
Check Transitional Status
Some organic farms or facilities don't qualify for immediate certification and must go through a 36-month transition period before they can earn the USDA organic seal. This may affect your application, so it's worth checking if its conditions apply to your land. If you produce raw organic products and you have used prohibited substances on the land in the past three years, you'll have to go through transition. If this is the case, you can still work with a certifying agent and go through the application process, but you can't formally certify for 36 months.
Find a USDA Certifying Agent
Whether you're applying for immediate certification or looking for help with the transition period, your first step is to locate an accredited agent that can certify your operation. Agents set their own certification fees and services, so you should investigate costs and options before you choose one. Typically, you'll pay application, assessment, inspection and renewal fees during the process. You should also check agency certification procedures to help you assess the information you'll need to submit during the application process.
Prepare Certification Information
Some agents require you to complete an initial application before submitting full details of your operation. Others ask for all information in the initial packet. According to the USDA website, you must supply a detailed description of your operation, information on your organic products and details of substances used on your land in the previous three years. You'll also submit a written organic system plan for review by your agent.
Complete Review and Inspection Procedures
Your certifying agent reviews your information to check that your operation meets organic regulations. If it does, you'll move on to the inspection stage. An inspector visits your site to ensure that it does or can comply with regulations. He also checks that your organic system plan matches your operations and that you have not used prohibited substances. This may involve soil, water, seed, waste and product sampling. Your agent issues your organic certificate if you pass the inspection. Certification lasts for one year, after which time you'll have to update your agent and go through an inspection to verify that you still meet standards.
Help With Transition and Certification Costs
If you have to go through a transition period, you may be able to get financial and practical help from the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program. This can help you move from conventional to organic production to meet certification standards. The program is also open to certified operators. The USDA also operates cost-share programs, which could reimburse up to 75 percent of your certification costs.