Organic Farming Compliance Handbook

Introduction: Purpose and Use of this Manual

The National Organic Program (NOP) Rule has helped to confer both clarity and legitimacy to the meaning of the term “certified organic.” Both organic producers and the agricultural professionals who serve their needs now have a clear, consistent standard of identity that is backed by the Federal government. As the number of organic farmers and ranchers continues to increase and acreage in certified organic production expands in the Western Region, more Cooperative Extension professionals and federal agency field personnel are being asked questions related to certified organic production practices, particularly with regard to allowable materials, and certification rules and procedures.

 

This manual includes materials for use by agricultural professionals interested in what methods, materials, and practices are compatible and consistent with organic standards. Materials were assembled from the most current national, regional, and local sources.

Our objectives with this manual are to:

  • provide Western region extension personnel and federal and state agricultural professionals a clear understanding of effective practices, materials, and processes that comply with organic standards.
  •  give Western region agricultural professionals access to expertise and informational resources on organic farming that will enable them to stay current on the most effective organic practices and materials.
  • enable Western region extension personnel to adequately answer questions from their clientele regarding effective practices that meet organic standards.

The extension service is an appropriate provider of such advice and recommendations, and has this as part of its core mission. However, to do so, farm advisors, county agents, and other agency personnel need to become familiar with the standards and practices that organic producers must meet, as well as the best sources of information to handle on-going requests.

This manual was adapted from a binder of materials developed for a workshop on organic farming held in February, 2004, in McMinnville, Oregon. The online version is organized in 7 major sections, found below.

The resources in each section include original papers developed as part of this project, as well as publications available from other Web sites. All are aimed at helping agricultural professionals understand the fundamentals of organic agriculture and provide advice that enables producers to meet the organic standards. We have provided what is to the best of our knowledge the most current information regarding compliance with the NOP Rule.

 

Questions from a producer regarding organic certification compliance -- particularly with respect to the use of materials and methods -- should always be directed to the certifier of that producer’s operation. Final production and marketing decisions are the individual producer’s responsibility. This manual can help Western extension professionals assist producers to make such decisions.

Editors:

Brian Baker
Organic Materials Review Institute
Eugene, OR

David Granatstein
Washington State University Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources
Pullman, WA

Laura Morrison
Organic Materials Review Institute
Eugene, OR

Alex Stone
Oregon State University Horticulture Department
Corvallis, OR

Sean L. Swezey
University of California Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems
Santa Cruz, CA

David Chaney
University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program
Davis, CA

Principles of Organic Production

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is organic agriculture?
  • Organic food production is based on a system of farming that mimics natural ecosystems that balance pest and beneficial organism populations and maintain and replenish fertility of the soil.  The term ‘organic’ in the United States is applied to the agricultural products produced on farms that adhere to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) Rule. More on the NOP Rule is contained in Section 3, with specific aspects related to materials review contained in Section 5.

  • How do organic farms manage fertility?
  • Organic farmers manage crop nutrients through a crop rotation that includes cover crops and the application of plant and animal organic matter, generally in the form of compost. Appropriate tillage and cultivation practices improve soil structure, organic matter content and soil microbial life. Mined minerals, and a few allowed synthetic substances are permitted as supplemental sources of nutrients, provided that soil, crop, and water contamination are avoided.

  • Do organic farmers take any precautions when they apply manure on organic farms?
  • Yes. Raw manure and other animal and plant material must be handled in a way that prevents water, soil and crop contamination. In order to be applied without a days-to-harvest restriction, manure must be properly composted. Crops for human consumption that have the edible portion in contact with the soil – including leafy greens – must be harvested at least 120 days after the application of uncomposted manure. Other crops for human consumption must be harvested at least 90 days following the application of raw manure.

  • How are insect pests managed on organic farms?
  • Organic farm systems protect crop damage by insect pests primarily through the use of biological and cultural practices such as crop rotation; diversification; habitat management; beneficial organism releases; sanitation; and timing.  Some natural substances, such as botanicals, and a few relatively non-toxic synthetic pesticides such as soap are permitted by the USDA National Organic Program Standards when used in conjunction with the farm plan and used according to the restrictions found on the National List.

  • How are weeds managed on organic farms?
  • Weed management on organic farms consists of cultural and mechanical techniques such as the rotation of crops that suppress weeds, mulching, tillage, cultivation, water management, and manual weeding. Weeds often help to conserve soil, improve organic matter, and provide beneficial habitat for natural enemies on organic farms. Plastic mulches are permitted provide they are removed at the end of the season. Insects and diseases can help to keep certain weed populations in check. There are a few natural substances that are also used to manage weeds, but the efficacy of these substances is still subject to question.

  • How are crop diseases managed on organic farms?
  • Soil-borne diseases are managed by improving organic matter and biological activity. Cultural, biological, and physical methods such as rotation, sanitation, pruning, and selection of disease resistant varieties are all part of organic disease management. Some natural substances, such as clays, and a few synthetic fungicides such as copper sulfate are permitted by the USDA National Organic Program Standards when used in conjunction with the farm plan and used according to the restrictions found on the National List.

  • What are the requirements for converting to organic dairy production?
  • There are two means of converting dairy animals to organic production:

    1) Animals from conventional sources must be maintained under organic management for 12 months prior to sale of any products as organic. Replacement animals may be added to the herd after a similar 12-month conversion period.

    2) If an entire, distinct herd is converted, a one-time allowance is granted to permit feeding of up to 20% non-organic feed for the first 9 months, followed by 100% organic feed for three months. If this type of conversion is made, all replacement animals must be managed organically from the last third of gestation.

  • How do organic animals meet their nutritional requirements?
  • All agricultural products provided in the feed ration must be organic, with a limited amount of supplementation and additives. Ruminant livestock must have a significant portion of their feed needs met by pasture. 

  • How do producers maintain the health of organic animals?
  • Livestock health care must be based on preventive practices, such as balanced nutrition from organic feed, stress reduction, and preventative practices. Medications on the National List may be used only when necessary, and may not be administered in the absence of illness. Antibiotics are not permitted and products from animals treated with any prohibited medication must be diverted from organic marketing channels.

  • What methods are available to manage parasites in organic livestock?
  • Organic livestock producers rely on cultural practices to minimize parasite infestations. Synthetic parasiticides may be used only if they are on the National List and are prohibited for use in slaughter stock.

  • What are the living conditions for organic livestock?
  • All organic animals are required to have access to the outdoors and exercise areas, and must be provided with healthy living conditions. Ruminants are also required to have access to pasture.

Useful Resources

 

National Organic Program Standards

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the National Organic Program?
  • The National Organic Program (NOP) consists of the regulations and regulatory agents to establish and protect the standards for agricultural products labeled as ‘organic.’  These standards are known as the National Organic Standards. Congress authorized the USDA to establish the NOP by the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. All organic food label claims made in the United States must now be backed by valid certification according to the NOP Rule.
  • Who has to be certified?
  • The USDA regulations require that all producers and handlers that make an organic claim for their products must be certified by a USDA-accredited certification agency. The only exceptions are for small farmers or handlers with less than $5,000 in gross organic sales, handlers that buy and sell without repackaging or changing form, and retailers that do not process food.  Exempt operations must maintain records and follow the exact same production practices as certified farmers in order to label their products as organic.
  • Who does the certifying?
  • The USDA accredits state, private and international agencies to certify agricultural products and food as organic under the NOP.
  • How long does it take to transition land farmed conventionally to organic status?
  • In order to be eligible for organic certification, land must have had no prohibited materials applied to it for three years immediately preceding harvest.
  • Must an entire farm be converted, or can a farm make the transition field by field?
  • A farm can be converted field by field. However, to be certified, a field must have distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones to protect it from runoff and unintended contamination from adjoining land. The farm also needs to have facilities and recordkeeping in place to ensure and document that organic and non-organic crops are not commingled.
  • What are acceptable sources of animals used for organic meat production?
  • Slaughter animals can come from any breeding stock that has been organically managed from the last third of gestation.
  • What sources of poultry are acceptable for organic poultry products?
  • Poultry must be managed organically from the second day of life.
  • Can animals be converted to organic production at the same time as the land?
  • Yes. Livestock operations may convert animals with the land on which they are pastured.
  • What does it mean to be ‘certified organic’?
  • Certified organic means that the food has been grown and handled according to the National Organic Program Standards and inspected by independent state or private organizations. Periodic unannounced inspections are also conducted. Certification includes annual inspection of all farm fields and facilities, farm activity records, plus periodic testing of soil, water and produce to ensure that growers and processors meet National Organic Standards.
  • How can I contact an organic certifier?
  • The NOP website lists all accredited organic certifiers with their contact information at www.ams.usda.gov/nop.
  • How much does certification cost?
  • Each certification body is required to establish and publish fee schedules that are applied fairly to all applicants. Fees vary considerably from agency to agency, and depend on the size and type of organic operation to be certified. Some state departments of agriculture are offering a significant reimbursement under a federal cost-share program.
  • Are farms outside the U.S. subject to the National Organic Standards?
  • In order to market agricultural products as organic in the United States, they must have been produced and handled in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act and the National Organic Standards. The same system of inspection and certification to the standards is applied to foreign operators who export their products into the United States.
  • Is organic certification automatically recognized in other states?
  • All U.S. states and USDA-accredited certifiers accept certifications issued by USDA accredited or recognized certification programs. Foreign governments and international certification bodies have similar organic standards but may insist on additional certification to confirm operators who export organic products meet their standards. Some U.S. certifiers offer this additional service.
  • How does a farm get certified?
  • The operator obtains and reads the National Organic Standards, and conducts a self-assessment to see if the operation meets these requirements in terms of land history, production practices, materials used and recordkeeping procedures. In many cases, some practices and systems need to be modified to comply. Once an operation complies, the operator then selects an accredited certifier, submits an application, gets inspected, meets any conditions identified by the certifier, and obtains a certificate.
  • What are the penalties for misuse of the term “organic?”
  • Any operation that knowingly sells or labels an agricultural product as “organic,” not in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act and the National Organic Standards may be subject to a civil penalty of not more than $10,000 per violation and criminal sanctions based on violation of Federal laws governing fraud and false statements.
  • Must organic farmers use organic seeds?
  • The NOP Rule requires that organically produced and handled seeds be planted when such seed is commercially available for the variety. Annual transplants must always be organically grown unless the Secretary of Agriculture in response to a natural disaster or other major interruption issues a temporary variance. All seed used in organic production must be untreated, or treated only with substances (such as microbial products) that are on the National List. Farmers are required to use certified organic seed when it is commercially available. Commercial availability is based on ability to obtain the seed in an appropriate form, quality, or quantity, as reviewed by the certification agent. 
  • Must annual transplants also be organically produced?
  • Yes.
  • What is an Organic Systems Management Plan?
  • Organic certification requires an Organic Systems Management Plan, also known as an Organic Farm Plan or Organic Handling Plan. These documents identify who is responsible for the organic operation and describe the management and recordkeeping practices to monitor implementation of that plan. The plan serves as a contract between the operator and the certifier. Most certifiers assist operators in developing their plan by providing forms and guidance documents. Organic Systems Management Plans must be updated at least annually in order to maintain certified organic status.
  • How does an Organic Systems Management Plan relate to soil management?
  • Farmers are required to demonstrate that they use appropriate tillage and cultivation practices without negative impacts on soil structure, and manage crop nutrients and fertility using crop rotations, cover corps, and application of organic materials. There is also a requirement that soil organic matter be maintained or improved in a manner that does not contaminate crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or prohibited materials. The farmer must have a system for monitoring all practices and procedures, as well as records for all farm inputs, harvest products, and storage facilities. 
  • Where can I find out more about the NOP?
  • The standards are set and implemented by USDA through the regulations published at 7 CFR Part 205, and are amended periodically, based on recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board.  For more information see the NOP website at http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop.

Useful Resources

 

Organic Systems Plan

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is an Organic Systems Management Plan?
  • Organic certification requires an Organic Systems Management Plan, also known as an Organic Farm Plan or Organic Handling Plan. These documents identify who is responsible for the organic operation and describe the management and recordkeeping practices to monitor implementation of that plan. The plan serves as a contract between the operator and the certifier. Most certifiers assist operators in developing their plan by providing forms and guidance documents. Organic Systems Management Plans must be updated at least annually in order to maintain certified organic status.
  • How does an Organic Systems Management Plan relate to soil management?
  • Farmers are required to demonstrate that they use appropriate tillage and cultivation practices without negative impacts on soil structure, and manage crop nutrients and fertility using crop rotations, cover corps, and application of organic materials. There is also a requirement that soil organic matter be maintained or improved in a manner that does not contaminate crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or prohibited materials. The farmer must have a system for monitoring all practices and procedures, as well as records for all farm inputs, harvest products, and storage facilities. 

Useful Resources

 

Materials Compliance

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What farm inputs are allowed and what materials are prohibited in organic production?
  • In general, the NOP allows natural (non-synthetic) substances and prohibits synthetic substances, unless they appear on the National List.
  • What is the National List?
  • The National List contains the allowed synthetic and prohibited natural (non-synthetic) substances that are exceptions to the general rule for organic production. It is not a comprehensive list of all approved materials, rather it can be described as an “open” list since it contains only 1) synthetic materials allowed for use in crop and livestock production and 2) nonsynthetic (natural) materials prohibited for use in crop and livestock production.
  • Where can I find the National List?
  • The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances is part of the NOP regulations (also called the NOP Rule found at sections 7 CFR 205.600 – 205.606.
  • Who determines if a specific product is acceptable for use on an organic farm?
  • In most cases, the certification agencies determine whether or not the use of a given input on an farm complies with organic standards.
  • Should an organic farmer plan on what inputs to use in the coming year?
  • Organic farmers should anticipate production needs and determine the practices and inputs needed to achieve that production. All fertilizers and pesticides that a farmer intends to use over a season must be included in the farm plan. In all cases, a certified farmer should have any products used on the farm are approved by his/her certification agent before the input is used.
  • Are there any further restrictions on the use of fertilizers and pesticides in organic farming?
  • Farmers need to be aware of the limitations of the National List when it applies to farm inputs. Producers may only use substances listed for crop use on crops. For example, phosphoric acid is permitted in livestock sanitation, but not as a fertilizer. A material listed for a specific use is restricted to that use, i.e. soap is listed for insect control but not disease control. Some materials have specific restrictions, for instance - copper must be used in a manner that minimizes accumulation in the soil.
  • What are the recordkeeping requirements when a farmer uses a material?
  • Farmers are required to document all products applied to crop and soil. One must know all of the ingredients in order to determine whether or not an input complies. Certifiers will review products themselves or rely on an outside service.
  • If a fertilizer is labeled ‘organic,’ will a farmer be able to use it on certified organic land?
  • Fertilizer labeling is regulated by state laws, most of which define organic in a way that is not compatible with organic standards. Caution is needed in evaluating fertilizer labeled as organic, as it might include prohibited synthetics such as urea or sewage sludge.
  • Can pesticides be used on an organic farm?
  • Most pesticides are prohibited for use in organic production, but a number are allowed with restrictions. In crop production, pesticides must have active ingredients that are either non-synthetic or on the National List, and all inert ingredients must be non-synthetic or classified as List 4 –(inerts of minimal concern) by the EPA.
  • What feed additives and supplements are permitted?
  • Natural (nonsynthetic) feed additives and supplements are permitted, as are synthetic substances that are on the National List. These include synthetic vitamins and minerals, which are limited to the amount necessary for adequate nutrition. Slaughter by-products are prohibited for feeding to mammals and poultry, and urea and manure re-feeding is prohibited for all livestock. Synthetic amino acids are not included on the National List, with the exception of a temporary allowance granted for methionine for use in poultry until October 2005.
  • What are we supposed to do when we need to treat a sick animal?
  • Animals that are sick must be treated. A producer who withholds treatment from a sick animal to maintain its organic status can be decertified. If a synthetic animal drug used to treat an animal does not appear on the National List, then the animal must be diverted to conventional channels.
  • Are any parasiticides allowed?
  • Only one parasicitide, Ivermectin is on the National List. It is restricted for use in dairy and breeding stock only. Parasiticides are categorically prohibited on slaughter stock.
  • Will it be possible to tell if a product meets organic standards just by reading the label?
  • The EPA has implemented a new voluntary labeling program to help identify products that meet NOP requirements. Approved registered pesticide in this voluntary program can include the phrase “for organic production” on their labels. Not all products that are compliant with organic rules will be so identified.
  • How is the National List amended?
  • The process can be described in five discrete steps: Petition; TAP Review; Public Comment; NOSB Recommendation; and NOP Rulemaking. The attached flow chart helps to visualize the process.

    STEP 1 — Petition
    A petition is submitted to the NOP to either add or remove a substance on the National List. The NOP reviews the petition for completeness, and sends the petition to the NOSB.  During its initial evaluation, the NOP may also consult with other regulatory agencies if the petitioned substance is subject to their regulations. Petitions are now being posted on the website (http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/Petition/PetitionHome.html.)
     

    STEP 2 – TAP Review
    The NOSB Materials Committee reviews the petition and determines if the petitioned substance qualifies for inclusion on the National List.  If so, it then recommends a Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) review of the substance by a contractor who will evaluate the scientific and technical issues associated with use of the substance in organic production.  Before or after the TAP review is conducted, the NOSB may request additional information from the petitioner. 

    STEP 3 – Public Comment
    Upon completion, the TAP review is posted for public comment and the material is placed on the agenda for the next public NOSB meeting.

    STEP 4 – NOSB Recommendation
    Prior to the NOSB meeting, the appropriate committee (crops, livestock, or processing) meets and develops a recommendation, documenting their reasoning on forms that outline the criteria for material review.  At the NOSB meeting, the substance and issues raised in the TAP review and by public comment are discussed and evaluated.  The NOSB then votes on inclusion of the substance as allowed or prohibited, with a two thirds majority vote required to make a recommendation.  Annotations that place source and use restrictions are often included within the recommendation. 

    STEP 5 – NOP Rulemaking
    The NOP takes the NOSB recommendations through a formal rulemaking, if the recommendation is accepted as consistent with the OFPA.  The recommendation is structured as regulatory text and assigned a Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) section number and published in the Federal Register as a proposed amendment to the National List with a call for public comment.  Following review of public comment and any changes in the regulatory language arising from this review, the NOP publishes a final rule in the Federal Register.  At this point the substance is officially added to the National List.

  • How long does it take to amend the National List?
  • A substance may be removed from consideration at any step of the process. However, steps 1 to 4 are usually completed for all petitions within 12 to 18 months of the filing date, with a minimum of about 145 days needed. Once a recommendation to list a petitioned substance reaches the NOP, it technically enters the rulemaking process (Step 5).  The first amendments to the National List became final in the Fall of 2003, over three years for some of the petitions filed. The shortest time for a petition to make it on the National List was approximately two years.

  • What is the status of a substance recommended by the NOSB?
  • The NOSB’s recommendation does not change the status, so that if the substance is not on the National List and synthetic, it is still prohibited. A non-synthetic substance not on the National List would still be allowed, as would a synthetic substance on the National List that the NOSB has recommended be removed.

Useful Resources