The Many Steps to Organic Certification

12/7/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent

OCEAN CITY, Md. — While selling organic might mean big bucks, the process of getting organic certification can be a time-consuming and at times, difficult process.

The basics of organic certification was one of many topics covered at the Mid-Atlantic Crop Management School Nov. 19-21 in Ocean City, Md.

The two-and-half day event featured a variety of breakout sessions on soil and water conservation, nutrient management, crop management and pest management.

Other more intensive training sessions included the basics of organic vegetable production, greenhouse vegetable production and trouble-shooting horticultural crops.

Dr. Elsa Sánchez, associate professor of horticultural systems management at Penn State, used her own research experience to explain and illustrate organic certification and management of organic nutrients.

“ Organic’ is legally defined by the USDA and organic growers must be certified by a USDA-approved third-party evaluator,” Sánchez said.

There is a transition period of three years from the last time nonorganic products were applied to the farm when switching from conventional farming to organic production.

The website,, maintains a national list of allowed and prohibited materials in organic production. But it’s also good to check with an organic certifying agency as early as possible since they will have a list of approved organic products at their fingertips.

An exemption is available for growers who sell less than $5,000 worth of produce a year. Otherwise, farmers cannot legally market their products as “organic” without completing the process.

Certification is a six-step process, according to Sanchez. Selection of a certifying agency is the grower’s choice, but finding an agency experienced with the kind of operation a grower has will often save time and money. Sanchez said inspection of an operation can take anywhere from just a couple of hours to several hours.

Growers must also develop and use an organic system plan that lists each substance, source availability and when it is to be used on the farm. Growers also need to be able to demonstrate how they monitor these practices and describe how they keep records, which should be maintained for five years.

There are a number of online resources that have forms growers can use to collect this information. Sanchez said good record-keeping is a wise investment of time since an operation has to be inspected each year. It’s also the best way to compare the outcome of one year’s cultivation practices against another.

Sanchez said controlling substances that can impact a crop is a little harder to do if an operation is adjacent to a conventional farm. Physical barriers may be installed to control the possibility of genetically-modified seed pollen drifting into a field. Sanchez grew organic produce in high tunnels next to high tunnels being managed with conventional farming techniques. She said she protected her crops by closing the end flaps on the tunnels when a nearby tunnel was being sprayed with pesticide.

The remaining steps follow in quick succession: submit your application, schedule the inspection, review your records and tour the facility with the certifying agency; then wait to be notified if you are approved.

To be certified, Sanchez said a producer must use organic seeds or planting stock. For crops other than edible sprouts, an exception can be made for untreated nonorganic seed, or seeds treated with allowable organic substances, if no organic source is available. Annual transplants must also be organically grown. With asparagus and rhubarb — crops that grow from crowns — this is not necessary. Although the first year’s potential harvest is not considered organic, Sanchez said if the plant is managed organically by the second year, it is organic asparagus. These crops are not harvested commercially for three years.

Soil fertility and crop nutrients must be managed with tillage practices. The majority of nutrients are in the top 18 inches of soil. Sanchez said a key step is to have the soil tested and evaluated. Excessive nutrients such as phosphorus, manganese, potash and calcium, can often go undetected.

Without chemical fertilizer, Sanchez said soil fertility has to be nurtured with alternative methods. Adding raw animal manure to the soil is one of the best ways to increase fertility, but it must be incorporated into the soil 120 days before harvest. Biosolids are not allowed.

Organic nutrient application is challenging, Sanchez said. Compost — composed of manure and/or vegetative material — must meet organic standards, too. Compost made on the farm, she said, must be turned a minimum of five times, and the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio has to be at least 25 to 1. It also has to be cured to a temperature ranging from 131 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit for three days. Sanchez said that one of the things she has learned through research is that compost is generally over-applied.

Raised beds are popular with organic growers, but wood-treated raised beds with arsenic can’t be used, although in some cases existing installations may be grandfathered in. Plastic or synthetic mulch can be used, but Sanchez said it must be removed at the end of the growing season.

Some of the most challenging problems facing organic farmers involves controlling pests and diseases. Cucurbits are in demand, but they have to survive cucumber beetles, and one of the diseases they transmit, Erwinia tracheiphila, causes bacterial wilt shortly after the squash or melons blossom.

Sanchez said she’s tried delaying planting to minimize the first generation of cucumber beetles. Mulch has also helped to attract natural predators. Another technique she said was successful was experimenting with the timing of removing the row covers. While in place, Sanchez said they helped to keep beetles out and she introduced bees under the row covers to facilitate pollination, allowing her to leave row covers in place longer.

For more information about Sanchez’s research, go to

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