Background

Published in January 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) rule has proven to be one of the biggest changes to the National Organic Program (NOP) since its inception.

Designed to protect organic integrity and bolster farmer and consumer confidence in the USDA organic seal, SOE targets organic control systems, farm-to-market traceability, import oversight authority and enforcement of organic regulations. Organic supply chains have become increasingly complex, and the SOE was crafted out of an effort to increase transparency in the organic market.

The USDA currently estimates that, as a result of the SOE rule, approximately 1,000 domestic businesses will require organic certification for the first time. Those affected include not just producers, but businesses and organizations throughout the organic supply chain. The rule features a 14-month implementation period, and compliance is required by March 19, 2024.

New Regulatory Changes

The most significant change is that more operations in the organic supply chain will be required to become certified organic. Previously, only producers interested in selling organic products would need certification. Under the new SOE rule, anyone that produces, but also handles, organic products will need to become certified. Under the new rule, “handling” products involves the sale, processing or packaging of agricultural products, including but not limited to, trading, facilitating sale or trade on behalf of a seller, exporting for sale in the U.S., combining, aggregating, packing, repackaging, labeling, storing, receiving or loading. In other words, businesses that do not even physically handle products may still need to become certified organic if they engage in any of the above activities.

The rule also requires that operations label non-retail containers with critical information designed to prevent contamination and support traceability. “Non-retail” containers can include everything from produce boxes, bulk containers, harvest crates, storage bins and more, and the label must include language identifying the contents as organic.

Regarding on-site inspections, the SOE requires that all certifiers conduct a minimum number of unannounced inspections per year. This was previously required through guidance in the NOP Handbook, but is now codified in USDA regulations.

Language has been added that requires certifiers verify traceability within an operation, as well as traceability to their certified suppliers. The rule also mandates that inspectors conduct mass-balance audits to confirm that an operation’s inputs match its outputs, in an effort to detect the fraudulent use of nonorganic ingredients.

Organic traceability recordkeeping is also becoming stricter. When using a non-certified intermediary, such as an exempt wholesaler or shipping company, certified operations will now have to maintain records showing both the last certified operation to possess or handle the product, and that organic integrity was maintained by the intermediary.

Impact on Small Organic Producers

Though the rule is designed to build consumer trust in the organic label and strengthen compliance with organic regulations, small organic operations and processors will be forced to comply with the new SOE processes in the same manner as any large operation.

While a very small organic operation, one with annual gross sales of $5,000 or less, is still exempt from needing certification, many questions remain around the SOE’s potential impact on organic supply chains, and the degree to which any problems may be passed on to organic producers downstream.

Small producers may face pressure from buyers to provide produce in sealed, tamper-evident retail packaging (STERP) to avoid any requirement that the buyer become certified. Using STERP could increase costs for small producers, while not using STERP could limit their overall ability to sell produce.

Storage facilities will be required to be certified if they store products for producers not sealed in STERP, which may result in storage sites currently used by small producers refusing service to avoid new certification requirements. If storage locations begin requiring STERP, this new cost would be passed on to producers.

Though the new mass-balance audits required by SOE could increase overall inspection time, and thereby certification cost for producers, many small farms have their fees covered by the national Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP). The changing non-retail labeling requirements may also have cost implications for small producers, though it is too early to know to what extent.

Overall, major downstream impacts on small producers will need to be examined in 2024 once enforcement of the rule begins in March. There are likely still many processors and other supply chain businesses waiting to decide on whether to pursue certification, and it remains to be seen what disruptions this will have on producer-purchaser relationships.

Summary

The Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule proves to be one of, if not the most, widespread change to organic policy since the formation of the NOP. Impacting producers, certifiers, processors, exporters, and more, this rule will reduce the number of uncertified entities throughout the overall organic supply chain and strengthen supply chain traceability.

This effort, however, has the potential to pass along direct and indirect costs to producers, regardless of their size. Cost and paperwork associated with certification continue to persist as a barrier to new and existing organic producers, and implementation of the SOE is likely to exacerbate this. Further analysis will be needed once enforcement begins to determine the size and scope of costs passed on to producers, as well as support and outreach needs for producer compliance.

Outreach for new and existing organic producers should emphasize a streamlined approach for guiding producers through the required recordkeeping process, as well as a continued push for improved training among organic certifying agents.

A downloadable version of this post is available.


This work was supported through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP). TOPP is a program of the USDA Organic Transition Initiative and is administered by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) National Organic Program (NOP).

About the Author

Matt Kneece is CFSA’s policy director, which oversees CFSA’s advocating for state and federal policies that better support local food, organic farming, and resilient regional food systems. He works closely with CFSA members and allies to educate policymakers on issues of importance to the local, organic farming communities and spearhead grassroots communications in support of specific policy needs.

A native of South Carolina, Matt combines a background in governmental affairs and public policy with a passion for sustainable agriculture to serve as CFSA’s policy director.

Read more about Matt in his staff Q&A!

Photo credits:
Lead photo: Open Door Farm in Cedar Grove, NC, by Stacey Sprenz. Second: Red’s Quality Acre in Durham, NC, by Angelina Katsanis.

Background

Achieving and maintaining organic certification can often be a daunting prospect for producers, and a specific set of requirements must be met before they ever apply.

To be officially certified as organic, products must be grown and processed according to federal guidelines that address soil quality, animal husbandry practices, pest control, additives, and more. Produce must be grown on soil that has had no prohibited substances, including most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, applied for three years before harvest; for organic livestock, animals must be fed all-organic feed, not administered antibiotics or hormones, and raised in natural living conditions. 

However, certified organic producers face pressure on the supply and demand side of production. Becoming certified organic is often expensive, takes several years to achieve, and requires higher labor costs than conventional farming.

To navigate the process, local, state, and federal organizations engage in specific outreach efforts to get straightforward, free resources to producers. This article explores some of the existing educational resources available and identifies areas for improvement in ongoing organic education outreach.

Existing Education Resources

With the continued proliferation of organic farming, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) website has greatly expanded their available resources for producers exploring or seeking to maintain certification. The National Organic Program features a landing page and FAQ section for producers interested in organic certification and is divided into basic and advanced sections.

The online Organic Literacy Initiative, launched via a 2011 USDA working group, provides producers with detailed information about organic agriculture and the programs and services USDA offers to support it. The resources include a resource guide that outlines how each USDA agency supports organic agriculture and contact information, an Organic 101 training module about what organic means and how certification works, and a factsheet that contains information about organic standards and certification.

Land grant universities supplement existing USDA outreach by offering a combination of educational outreach and technical assistance. Clemson University, for instance, operates a USDA Accredited Certifying Agent through its Department of Plant Industry, as well as providing a resource hub for producers exploring the viability of organic certification. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) also provides a variety of competitive grants for education and outreach activities that support sustainable agriculture systems, many focusing on organic production and marketing.

Risk management education and outreach partnerships from USDA’s Risk Management Agency also ensure that producers get the information they need to effectively manage their risk through difficult periods and remain productive.

Non-profit organizations at the state, regional, and federal level also provide organic certification consulting for conventional farmers transitioning to certified organic, beginning farmers interested in organic certification, and farmers interested in using organic production practices in general. These resources include on-farm visits, transition and production handbooks, and more.

CFSA Survey on Organic Education

Primary Information Source

Carolina Farm Stewardship Association conducted a survey among 129 North and South Carolina producers to collect feedback on the organic certification process, as well as the overall accessibility of resources that support producers’ certification journey.

The majority of respondents (33%) get their information directly from private certifiers. 23% of respondents identified state extension agencies as their primary source for organic resources and information. 19% rely on technical assistance from non-profit organizations, tied with 19% who use information directly from the USDA’s website, and 14% use recommendations and referrals from fellow producers.

Note: There is some overlap between state extension agencies and private certifiers, as Clemson University is a USDA Accredited Certifying Agent, and some respondents selected both.

Gaps in Resource Materials

While producers acknowledged a wide range of access to information regarding the organic certification process, 66.7% of producers identified the time-consuming nature of required paperwork as surprising and a barrier to maintaining or achieving organic certification. 21% of respondents stressed a gap in organic training among inspectors themselves, citing undertrained or uninformed inspectors as a barrier to organic certification. 9% cited confusing language around the regulations themselves, specifically around washing, packing, and processing, and 4% cited a need for more resources on best management practices for pest management.

Overwhelmingly, frustration and confusion around the paperwork required to achieve and maintain certification is one of the largest complaints from producers. Certified operations must keep records that detail their production practices, including production, harvesting, and handling of their agricultural products, and must be made available for review by certifying agents. For new producers or nonorganic producers transitioning to organic, this paperwork often comes as a shock, requiring much more intensive documentation than standard farming practices.

For instance, a mandatory Organic Systems Plan (OSP) requires detailed documentation of harvest, tillage, livestock management, and all amendments used, along with date and precise location of application. Activity logs require a detailed record of any farm activities, including irrigation, mowing, weather, and more. Compost production records require a meticulous outline of how compost-production processes satisfy the required regulations. Equipment cleaning logs require documentation of method and frequency of cleaning farm equipment to ensure nonorganic products do not contaminate organic crops. Producers must also complete buffer crop disposition records, indicating what happens to crops that are grown on buffer land that is organically managed but may be exposed to a risk of outside contamination.

Altogether, this paperwork is time-consuming enough that a full-time staffer could struggle to keep up, but most small and mid-sized producers face the daunting task of managing it themselves, in addition to the daily rigors of farming.

Many resources currently exist from the National Organic Program, state extension agencies, and nonprofits that outline the paperwork required, but producers still identify paperwork as a prohibitive burden to certification and would likely benefit from a walkthrough on easy recordkeeping schedules and efficient logging.

An irony in researching the existing gaps in organic research materials was that, when asked about improved access to resources, many of the respondents identified inconsistent inspectors as most needing access to better training materials. Developing a method of standardizing training and compliance will continue to be critical for pending organic producers to have a clear and actionable path to certification.

Several respondents identified confusion around the language of organic regulations themselves, and as one producer specifically cited, around “translating washing/packing/processing regulations, as they are meant for larger producers and thus confusing (for smaller producers).” Producers may benefit from scale-specific guides and resources to help them navigate the respective regulations relevant to the size of their operation.

Summary

While there continues to be a wealth of resources on the organic certification process available to producers, the amount and time-consuming nature of paperwork required to achieve and maintain certification continues to be daunting and is routinely cited by producers as the primary barrier to certification. 

Outreach for new and existing organic producers should emphasize a streamlined approach for guiding producers through the required recordkeeping process, as well as a continued push for improved training among organic certifying agents.

A downloadable version of this document is available here.

This whitepaper was supported through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP). TOPP is a program of the USDA Organic Transition Initiative and is administered by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) National Organic Program (NOP).

About the Author

Matt Kneece is CFSA’s policy director, which oversees CFSA’s advocating for state and federal policies that better support local food, organic farming, and resilient regional food systems. He works closely with CFSA members and allies to educate policymakers on issues of importance to the local, organic farming communities and spearhead grassroots communications in support of specific policy needs.

A native of South Carolina, Matt combines a background in governmental affairs and public policy with a passion for sustainable agriculture to serve as CFSA’s policy director.

Read more about Matt in his staff Q&A!

Photo credit: all photos taken by Stacey Sprenz at the Scale-Appropriate Equipment for Increased Efficiency & Mechanization on Small Farms workshop held at Open Door Farm, Cedar Grove, NC, during CFSA’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference, 2023.

Background

Consumers are spending more on organic food than ever, with sales of USDA-certified organic products growing steadily over the last decade, increasing around 8 percent annually. The overall number of certified organic farms grew at a commensurate rate between 2019 and 2021, increasing by 5% to a total of 17,445 nationwide. Certified organic production uses sustainable practices prioritizing biodiversity and soil health. At the same time, certification allows producers to charge a fair price to meet the rising consumer demand for environmentally friendly products.

To be officially certified as organic, products must be grown and processed according to federal guidelines that address soil quality, animal-raising practices, pest control, additives, and more. Produce must be grown on soil with no prohibited substances, including most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, applied for three years before harvest; for organic livestock, animals must be fed all-organic feed, not administered antibiotics or hormones, and raised in natural living conditions. 

However, certified organic producers face pressure on production’s supply and demand side. Becoming certified organic is often expensive, takes several years to achieve, and requires higher labor costs than conventional farming. Should producers allow their organic certification to lapse, or if enough producers stop pursuing organic certification altogether, local and regional organic markets would see an enormous impact. 

Financial Size of Organic Markets

According to the 2021 Organic Survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, nationwide sales of organic food products generated more than $11.2 billion in farmgate sales, a 13% increase from 2019. Marketing practices in the certified organic sector showed that $2.02 billion in organic products were sold directly to retail markets, institutions, or local and regional food hubs. 

In the most recent survey, South Carolina featured 40 certified organic production operations that generated $34 million in sales. North Carolina featured 335 certified organic operations that sold $308 million worth of products, placing North Carolina in the top ten U.S. states for overall certified organic sales. 

The largest sector of organic markets continues to be livestock and poultry products, such as milk and eggs, comprising $2.86 billion of total 2021 organic sales. This is followed by fruits, tree nuts, and berries at $2.2 billion and livestock and poultry such as broiler chickens and cattle at $2.1 billion. Vegetables, particularly lettuce and spinach, followed at $1.91 billion and field crops at $1.49 billion. 

The ability to charge a premium for certified organic products is a large driver in this growth. For instance, per the latest Weekly Retail Organic Price Comparison from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic strawberries cost $4.37 per pound, while inorganic strawberries cost $3.27. Similarly, organic tomatoes cost $2.80 per pound, while inorganic tomatoes cost $1.61 per pound. These increased prices are directly related to the increased labor required to meet the standards required for organic certification.
The price premium for organic crops range anywhere from seven percent above the conventional price for spinach to as much as 82 percent for organic eggs. On average, farmers can expect to see a median price premium of 32 percent for their organic crops, though this number often fluctuates higher and lower due to market demands.

Barriers

Despite the continual growth in organic sales in the Carolinas and nationwide, barriers to earning and maintaining organic certification continue to exist for producers. 

To formally apply for organic certification, producers must pay certification and inspection fees that average approximately $2,813, an increase of more than 85% from 2012, when the national average was only $1,500. In addition, producers are required to keep meticulous records and documentation to verify organic integrity, increasing labor and time costs. 

Potential farmland must also be set aside for buffer zones between organic production and non-organic land, excluding potentially profitable land from production for an extended period of time. Other factors affecting organic agriculture’s profitability include the potential for lost productivity during the transition period and the issue of producers not being able to charge an organic premium during the transition. 
The 2022 National Organic Research Agenda (NORA), which surveyed more than 1,100 certified organic farmers nationwide, highlights that certification costs and burdensome recordkeeping requirements posed challenges for one-quarter to one-third of all survey respondents.

Organic Market Price Discovery

The price discovery process in local and regional organic markets remains elusive and incomplete and complicates the planning and financial research required for producers exploring organic farming. 

For example, the terminal markets in Columbia, S.C., and Atlanta, G.A. currently only publish organic market reports for bananas and ginger. Most organic purchasers typically seek specific products from specific buyers, resulting in little to no reporting for organic wholesale prices. Terminal markets often purchase turndown items from commercial grocery stores and other retail outlets at a massively discounted price for attempted resale. 

Discussions with the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and Agricultural Marketing Service staff outlined that terminal markets typically only publish price reports on products that arrive at the market, offering little information for prospective organic producers on profit projection.

Support for Existing Programs

With increasing constraints caused by inflation, supply chain disruptions, and increased input costs, the pressure on all producers continues to be severe. Combined with the added costs of becoming and remaining certified organic, it is critical that state and federal organic support programs remain funded and viable. 

Multiple resources exist at the state and federal levels to provide organic operations support and funding. These include: 

Despite organic products representing six percent of U.S. food system sales, total USDA investment in organic infrastructure and support remains below two percent of the agency’s annual research budget. For instance, annual funding for intramural USDA organic research through the Agricultural Research Service reached a high of $18 million in 2006 before declining to around $12 million from 2014 to the present. SARE, the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, saw its organic research funding drop from $5 million in 2010 to $2.5 million in 2019. 

These programs, along with research and support programs at state and regional universities, provide critical financial support to bolster certified organic operations and offset associated costs. 

Summary

Organic sales in the Carolinas and throughout the United States continue to be driven by increasing consumer demand despite farm and livestock operations’ obstacles to organic production. This growing sector results in a substantial economic impact, but policy solutions are needed to protect this growing sector. 

These solutions include increasing funding levels for the organic cost-share program and USDA’s conservation incentive programs and allowing more organic and transitional costs incurred during certification to be reimbursed. Reform is also needed in the recordkeeping process to simplify recordkeeping requirements and data entry to reduce the burden on prospective and established organic producers.

A downloadable version of this document is available here.

This whitepaper was supported through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP). TOPP is a program of the USDA Organic Transition Initiative and is administered by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) National Organic Program (NOP).

About the Author

Matt Kneece is CFSA’s policy director, which oversees CFSA’s advocating for state and federal policies that better support local food, organic farming, and resilient regional food systems. He works closely with CFSA members and allies to educate policymakers on issues of importance to the local, organic farming communities and spearhead grassroots communications in support of specific policy needs.

A native of South Carolina, Matt combines a background in governmental affairs and public policy with a passion for sustainable agriculture to serve as CFSA’s policy director.

Read more about Matt in his staff Q&A!

The Road to Organic Certification

Are you interested in learning more about the USDA NOP organic certification process? If so, take a walk on the Road to Organic Certification and watch how Candice Howard successfully certifies her sustainable farm and how Bruce Baxter successfully transitions his farm to certified organic.

by Eric Soderholm, Organic Transition Coordinator

In considering whether organic certification is right for your farm, the recordkeeping requirements are often one of the major turn-offs for farmers that are already strapped for time. However, many of those that actually seek certification can testify to the positive results of consistent documentation of farm inputs, field activities, pest problems, harvest yields, market sales and other pertinent information. Each growing season brings new challenges and is riddled with unpredictable factors. With an extensive history of past decisions and the results, a farmer is better equipped to avoid unnecessary risks and repeated failures in the field and marketplace. Your records are a tool to help you save time and understand what parts of your operation are most profitable.

(more…)

by Eric Soderholm, Organic Production Coordinator

Once you choose a certifying agent to work with to certify your operation as USDA Organic, you will be asked to complete an application that provides information about your operation. This application serves as your farm’s Organic System Plan (OSP) and will be your first formal communication with your certifying agent as they assess whether your operation is in compliance with National Organic Program (NOP) regulations. It is a good idea to spend some time reviewing a blank application to understand what information you will need to gather and document. The amount of time it takes to successfully certify your farm will depend on the amount of detail you include in your OSP. If it is incomplete or lacks necessary specifics, you will be asked for additional information and will thus delay the next steps of the certification. This process can already take a minimum of two months, so plan ahead and be thorough.

(more…)

Compiled by CFSA

How to Use This Handbook

There is no recipe for transitioning to organic production and certification. Furthermore, we recognize that it can be tough for farmers to find the time to fairly evaluate the possibility of certifying their farm. In the spring and summer of 2012, CFSA conducted extensive research to identify the challenges that organic operations face in North and South Carolina. Information was gathered through online surveying, farm visits, and through interviews with farmers, certifying agents and organic inspectors. The results were used to create this handbook as a guide for those considering organics within the region.

The aim of this publication is to highlight the common pitfalls for produce farmers in organic transition and provide focused resources that address them. Our hope is that this handbook can save farmers time and connect them with the most useful information, written by experts in the field, to help them successfully navigate their organic certification process.

The handbook is organized into seven sections that correlate to the National Organic Program (NOP) regulations for crop production. Browse the links within each section to learn more about everything from the certification process to production considerations to marketing options. Whenever possible, listings of Carolina-specific resources (certifying agents, certification cost share, organic seed sources, fertility inputs, reported problem pests, wholesale opportunities, etc.) were compiled for easy reference.

We encourage your feedback on this project. Please contact us with suggestions, questions, or comments.

CFSA’s Organic Transition and Production Handbook for Produce Farmers

Organic Certification

Recordkeeping

NOTE: For even more great resources, including templates that you can use to calculate the profits and losses on your farm, don’t miss our page on recordkeeping!

Allowed and Prohibited Substances

Developing an Organic System Plan

Soil Fertility

Pest Management

Insect Pests

Weeds

Diseases

Marketing

The development of this resource was made possible through funding from the South Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.