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Frequently Asked Questions

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Frequently Asked Questions

We know that the certification process can be daunting. Sometimes you just want a quick answer to a pressing question. To help you reach your certification goals, we’ve compiled a list of questions we’re frequently asked by our operators.

On March 19, 2024, USDA will begin enforcement of STRENGTHENING ORGANIC ENFORCEMENT (SOE), the largest update to organic regulations since 2002. We’ve compiled the most common SOE questions in THIS BLOG POST

All About Organics

What is organic agriculture?

Organic agriculture is an agricultural system that focuses on sustainably managing resources while abstaining from the use of most synthetic inputs in order to preserve and protect the health of land, water, animals, and communities.

What is organic farming?

Organic farmers focus on sustainable practices that cultivate healthy soil. To that end, organic farmers:

    • Use organic, non-GMO seed
    • Control weeds, pests, and disease through natural methods like crop rotation, cover crops, flame weeding, and more
    • Establish buffer zones to prevent accidental application of prohibited substances

What is organic livestock production?

Organic livestock focuses on humanely raising mammalian and poultry livestock. To that end, organic livestock producers must comply with organic regulations, and organic livestock must:

    • be managed organically from the last third of gestation (mammals) or second day of life (poultry)
    • have year-round access to safe, organically certified outdoor spaces; access to outdoor space can only be limited if conditions would harm the animals (ex: inclement weather)
    • fed 100% certified organic feed
    • raised without use of antibiotics, growth hormones, animal byproducts, or other prohibited feed ingredients

What is organic processing?

Processing is the act of taking a raw material—like an ear of corn, or eggs—and altering or modifying the raw material for the purpose of storage, transportation, or sale. For the final product to be organically certified, the processed item must be made from organically certified raw materials.

How can I organically certify my processing operation?

Processing operations must submit an application with organic system plan and undergo an on-site inspection. Additionally, processors should ensure thorough documentation of operational process and materials.

Although record keeping is a vital part of the organic certification process for all operations, it is particularly important for processing operations. In order to obtain organic certification for your processing operation, you must maintain records that include:

    • Source of organic ingredients and organic certificates for ingredients
    • Percentage of every ingredient – including salt and water
    • Product flow chart from source to sale
    • Transportation records
    • Facility and storage maps
    • Proposed labels
    • Equipment clean down records

Can I use GMOs and be certified organic?

Scientists create GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, by altering an organism’s genetic code to create a desired trait, like resistance to disease. At a surface level, this seems like a win-win. But organisms adapt to changing conditions, and diseases, weeds, and other pests have adapted to resist the benefits of GMOs. This means that operators must apply more chemical inputs to their crops in order to achieve the same results they achieved in the past. For this and other reasons, GMOs are prohibited in organic farming, livestock production, and processing.

Does my entire operation need to be certified organic?

Nope! You can certify part of your operation as organic or your entire operation as organic. The choice is up to you, and you should make your decision based on your operation’s needs and resources. 

Many operators find that a hybrid approach serves them best, including farmer Ryan Albinger and processor Variety Coffee. Others, like Askegaard Organic Farm and Bessette Creek Farm have found success operating 100% organically. 

When deciding whether to partially or completely transition your operation to organic, you should consider your: 

    • On-farm resources
    • Current finances
    • Available time
    • Knowledge of organic practices
    • Access to support–including mentorship

Finally, remember that the transition to organic takes time. Even if your goal is to operate 100% organic, it is okay–and might even be best for your operation–to gradually transition over time. 

Why Obtain Organic Certification

What is the purpose of organic certification?

Organic operators go through a rigorous certification process to ensure their practice complies with regulations set by their accreditation organization (USDA, CFIA, MAFF, SENASA, etc.). After obtaining certification, operators may label their produce and other products as organic.

Organic labeling instills a sense of trust in consumers and ensures consumers that crops and products have been produced without the use of prohibited substances such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and are free of GMOs.

Maintaining certification requires annual paperwork, record keeping, and inspections. This ongoing process helps ensure that operators continue to meet organic regulations, and this review process helps maintain the integrity of and trust in the organic marketplace.

I already follow the requirements for organic certification. Do I need to be officially certified to label my products as “organic”?

If you use the word “organic” in your labeling or apply an official organic seal, like the USDA organic seal, you must obtain organic certification through an official certification agency. This means that processors as well as producers must obtain organic certification.

Are any operations exempt from organic certification requirements?

If you use the word “organic” in your labeling or apply an official organic seal, like the USDA organic seal, you must obtain organic certification through an official certification agency. This means that processors as well as producers must obtain organic certification.

What are the benefits of transitioning to organic?

One of the primary goals of organic agriculture is to improve the health of soil by establishing ecological balance and increasing biodiversity. The benefits of healthy soil are numerous and include better:

    • water regulation
    • soil retention
    • nutrient cycling

Studies have found that this increase in soil health leads organic crops to outperform conventionally grown crops during drought conditions by up to 40%.

Additionally, organic operators are able to access fast growing organic markets locally, regionally, and internationally; secure premium prices for their organic products; access technological supports; and more!

I want to get certified. What’s my first step?

The first step to organic certification is research. The more, the better! Numerous resources exist, but below are some sources that might be particularly helpful:

    • Familiarize yourself with organic certification standards for your target market(s). For USDA certification, familiarize yourself with the USDA Regulations and Handbook. For CFIA certification, consult the Canadian Organic Standards
    • Attend on-farm organic field days. You can find information about upcoming events affiliated with OCIA International on our Events page.
    • Attend an organic conference or trade show. Annual conferences include the Marbleseed Organic Farming Conference in February, Natural Products – Expo West in March, Natural Products – Expo East in September, and ACRES Conference and Trade Show in December.
    • Talk with organic producers in your area.

Organic Certification Process

What if I need help during the certification process?

We know that the organic certification process can be daunting, and you will likely have many questions as you go through each step of the process. The good news is you don’t need to go through your certification journey alone.

The OCIA International website contains a wealth of information that can help answer basic questions. Some resources that are particularly helpful include the following pages:

Important documents pertaining to the certification process can also be accessed online under the RESOURCES tab in the website menu. Use the imbedded search bar to locate needed documents.

Finally, you can always email or call your certification coordinator directly. If you don’t have an assigned certification coordinator, email info@ocia.org and your question(s) will be forwarded to the appropriate party.

Please note: OCIA International, like all certifying agencies, is not able to consult with operators.

How much does organic certification cost?

The cost of organic certification varies depending on a wide range of factors including your operations size and scope. The average cost for organic certification is between $750 USD and $1,250 USD. Generally, certification costs increase the larger an operation is.

US based operators may apply to the NOP Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP).

Do any programs exist to help offset the cost of organic certification?

US based operators may apply to the NOP Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP). As of 2023, the program will pay up to 75% of certification costs, not to exceed $750 per scope.

This means that an operator who both grows crops and processes those crops would be eligible for up to $1500 in OCCSP cost-share refunds.

How long does it take to get certified?

After the initial transition period*, organic certification typically takes 3-6 months. Individual operator timelines will vary based on a variety of factors, including:

    • How complete the initial application is. Timelines increase if additional information is required/requested.
    • Availability of inspectors. Like other segments of the agriculture industry, there are busy seasons and slow seasons for inspections.
    • Growing season. Operators who hope to certify crops must have their crops inspected in field.

*Remember: operators transitioning conventionally managed fields to organically managed fields must go through a 36 month transition period that begins after the last application of prohibited inputs. This is to ensure land is free from all prohibited substances.

What does the organic certification process look like?

Initial certification with OCIA International is a six-step process:

    • Adopt organic practices (some operators will need to undergo a 36 month/3-year transition period)
    • Submit an application
    • Application Reviewed by OCIA International
    • Inspection
    • OCIA International reviews inspector report
    • Certification granted or denied

To maintain organic certification, each year you will submit an updated organic system plan and have an operation inspection.

What is an organic system plan?

An organic system plan (OSP) outlines how your operation meets organic regulations. The OSP is the foundational piece of the organic certification application. Your OSP will likely include:

    • Description of products produced
    • Inputs and materials used in growing/production process
    • Records tracking harvest/production quantities/sales
    • Maps of fields/facilities

Each scope (crop, livestock, processing, wild crops) has additional requirements to ensure compliance with organic regulations.

Do I need to update my organic system plan every year?

The organic system plan (OSP) is a living document and should be updated anytime a practice or procedure on your operation changes.

An updated OSP is part of the annual renewal process.

What kind of records to I need to maintain for organic certification?

You cannot obtain or maintain organic certification without sound records that prove your operation complies with organic regulations.

Every operation will require different records based on the operational scope. Record-keeping templates are available on the OCIA International website.

What is the purpose of an inspection? How should I prepare?​

The purpose of your organic inspection is to verify that the information in your organic system plan (OSP) is accurate, and that your on-site practices comply with organic regulations.

It is important to properly prepare for your inspection. Your inspector will need access to your records and complete access to your operation—including areas that are not organically certified. Failure to grant access or share records could result in a noncompliance.

Will my operation be inspected every year?

Yes. In order to maintain your organic certification, you will have to undergo a site inspection every year. You will also need to submit an updated organic system plan (OSP) prior to your inspection. 

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Thank you for submitting your organic certification application! OCIA looks forward to working with you.

For applicants who are new or currently under suspension, please see the end of the page for some important notes.

An estimate for your 2023 certification and inspection fees was sent with the login information. Please promptly send payment to the address on the invoice. If you are a new applicant, OCIA will not review your file until payment is received.

If you are submitting hardcopies of any supporting documents, please mail them to the address on the invoice. Failure to submit required supporting documents may lead to delays in the review.

Once a complete file is received, OCIA will complete a pre-inspection review. During this process, OCIA will contact you if additional information is needed. Please respond to any communication from OCIA in a timely manner.

Please contact OCIA International if you have any questions.

New applicants: Please be reminded that as a new applicant, your operation currently cannot label or sell product as organic. If organic certification is granted, an organic certificate will be issued and product can then be sold as organic.

For farm operations, the inspector must see your crop in the field, so check-strips must be left in all fields requested for certification if any harvest occurs prior to inspection. For hay fields, any hay harvested prior to inspection cannot be certified as organic.

For suspended operations: Please be aware that no product can be sold as “organic” while suspended and previous product is no longer “organic.” For farm operations, any crops currently in storage are no longer organic and must be sold conventionally. Only crops harvested after reinstatement, if it is granted, may be sold as “organic.” Any crops harvested from fields prior to reinstatement must be sold conventionally.

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¡Gracias por enviar su solicitud de certificación orgánica! OCIA espera trabajar con usted. Para los solicitantes que son nuevos o están actualmente suspendidos, consulte el final de la página para conocer información importante.

Se le envió un estimado de los honorarios de certificación e inspección 2023 con la información de inicio de sesión. Envíe puntualmente el pago a la dirección que figura en la factura. Si usted es un nuevo solicitante, OCIA no revisará su expediente hasta que se reciba el pago.

Si envía copias impresas de cualquier documento de respaldo, envíelas por correo a la dirección que figura en la factura. Se podrá producir demoras en la revisión si no se envían los documentos de respaldo necesarios,.

Una vez que se recibe un expediente completo, OCIA llevará a cabo una revisión de preinspección. Durante este proceso, OCIA se comunicará con usted si necesita información adicional. Responda a cualquier comunicación de OCIA de manera oportuna.

Póngase en contacto con OCIA International si tiene alguna pregunta.

Para los solicitantes nuevos: recuerde que, como solicitante nuevo, su operación actualmente no puede etiquetar o vender productos como orgánicos. Si se otorga la certificación orgánica, se emitirá un certificado orgánico y el producto se podrá vender como orgánico.

Para las operaciones agrícolas, el inspector debe ver su cultivo en el campo, por lo que si se produce alguna cosecha antes de la inspección, se deben dejar franjas o surcos de verificación en todos los campos solicitados para la certificación. Para los campos de heno, cualquier heno cosechado antes de la inspección no puede certificarse como orgánico.

Para operaciones suspendidas: tenga en cuenta que ningún producto puede venderse como "orgánico" mientras está suspendido y que el producto anterior ya no es "orgánico". Para las operaciones agrícolas, cualquier cultivo actualmente almacenado ya no es orgánico y debe venderse de manera convencional. Solo los cultivos cosechados después del restablecimiento, si se otorga, pueden venderse como "orgánicos". Cualquier cultivo cosechado de los campos antes de la reinstalación debe venderse de manera convencional ".

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Thank you for submitting your organic certification application! OCIA looks forward to working with you.

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¡Gracias por enviar su solicitud de certificación orgánica! OCIA espera trabajar con usted.

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