By Hannah Packman, NFU Communications Coordinator
Although Organic Certification has only been offered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for about 15 years, there are already more than 20,000 organic operations nationwide. According to the USDA, Organic Certification is given to operations that “demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” Certified producers must adhere to specific guidelines in order to obtain and maintain their status
Organic certification offers a number of benefits to farmers and ranchers. First and foremost, it opens the door to burgeoning new markets and valuable economic opportunities, both locally and internationally. Buyers of all sizes and types are pursuing more organic options due to increasing demand, giving certified producers a leg up in accessing a variety of markets. In 2016, organic product sales grew 11% from the previous year, dwarfing the 3% growth of the general food market.
Furthermore, organic farming is often significantly more profitable than its conventional equivalent. Many consumers value organic production methods for their perceived environmental and health advantages, and are consequently willing to pay a premium for food grown using such practices. Although that premium varies from product to product, on average, organic crops bring in 30% more than their conventional counterparts. This financial benefit far outweighs the additional costs of organic production techniques.
Despite the benefits of organic certification, many farmers who already employ organic practices, or are interested in doing so, have not pursued certification. There are a few reasons for this. For one, the cost of certification can seem prohibitive. Certification costs vary between several hundred and tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the operation and the certifying agent. Generally, there is a one-time application fee as well as annual inspection, renewal, and assessment fees.
Additionally, there is a three-year transition period for previously non-organic land to be used for certified organic production. During this period, producers must adopt organic management practices, avoiding all synthetic chemicals and other banned substances and production methods. Unfortunately, for the duration of the transition, producers cannot sell their products as organic, and thus cannot capitalize on the benefits the label offers.
Because the upfront costs are significant and the economic gains delayed, many farmers do not think they can afford to transition their land and are consequently hesitant to begin the certification process. However, the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) offers several options to financially assist producers with receiving and maintaining certification. One such option is the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP), which is available to certified organic and certified transitional producers in all American states and territories who have paid certification fees. NOCCSP offers reimbursement for up to 75% of certification costs annually, up to $750 per certification scope.
In addition to certification costs, FSA can assist with other transition expenses. For instance, their Conservation Loan (CL) program can provide funds necessary to implement conservation practices that contribute to organic transition. FSA also offers loans for storage facilities, low-interest loans, and financial assistance for crop losses due to natural disasters, as well as services such as mapping and reporting, all of which may prove useful to aspiring organic producers. Moreover, transitioning farmers can apply for USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s (EQIP) Organic Initiative, which provides financial and technical assistance to developing and implementing various conservation practices.
Are you considering transitioning to organic production? What barriers have you encountered in the process? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!