USDA Certified Organic: The Basics

Agribusinesses typically face tight margins that make it difficult to increase revenue long-term. Many turn to local and national programs for certain credits, grants or other financial incentives to offset these challenges.

While the USDA’s Organic Certification Program isn’t exactly a quick fix, it does offer financial assistance that can help modernize your operations, create a wider market with higher price points, and qualify for private grant and partnership opportunities.

What does it mean to be USDA Certified Organic?

Generally speaking, organic certification incorporates better soil and water management practices, decreases reliance on synthetic products, and limits waste. The certification is available to a variety of agribusinesses, including aquaculturists, horticulturists, packers and handlers and livestock farmers.

Where do I start?

The first step to “certified organic” is contacting a certifying agent accredited by the federal USDA. Florida does not have its own separate organic certification process through the State’s Department of Agriculture. Federally accredited quality certification programs and services are operated by private or quasi-public organizations across the country, like Florida Organic Growers or Americert International in Florida. They have the USDA’s blessing to audit, inspect and approve applications for organic certification locally. You’ll want to think through which local certifier office to work with for the accreditation (consider the certifier’s fees, ability to certify to other standards, and distance from you since they conduct inspections regularly).

How do I make it happen?

Each industry has its own record-keeping requirements, audit and inspection timeframes. Plus, transitioning to a fully organic operation comes with its own set of limitations. For example, if you’re a tomato grower, no prohibited pesticide, fungicide, etc. can be used on the soil for the prior three years. Sodium nitrate compliance, feed inventory, and health records for livestock are all examples of record-keeping requirements depending on what you do. Like I said, the transition to organic is not so quick.

However, if your gross organic annual sales are under $5,000, official certification through the USDA (and the corresponding cost) is not required.  You also aren’t responsible for putting together the more involved “Organic System” plan (think business plan, but for your organic practices) otherwise necessary to be considered organic. Note that if you do qualify for this exemption, you’re limited on what organic labels you can use.

Is it worth the cost?

The local certifiers can provide a breakdown of the anticipated costs for the organic switch specific to the size and complexity of your operations. There are also several financial aid programs available. For example, the USDA’s EQIP program currently offers up to $140,000 over the term of the 2018 Farm Bill for certain costs. See Florida’s local guidelines here. You can also get up to a $500 reimbursement for application fees and inspection costs through the USDA’s Cost-Share Program. And like we mentioned above, once you’re up and running, there are additional grant and partnership opportunities to continue to develop organic practices. Check out the Organic Farming Research Foundation here.

Overall, the organic certification is an involved, transformative process. It’s costly, and it can take time to see its value. But it may make sense to look at the long-term effects depending on the market you’re in and what efficiencies it can bring to your agribusiness.

Questions about USDA Organic Certification? Let’s chat. Contact us at to schedule a consultation.

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Kara Groves

After earning her law degree from University of Florida Levin College of Law and working as a tort defense litigator, Kara is settling down and bought some acreage out in Mount Dora. She has returned to her sustainable, regulatory background to help farmers and locally-focused businesses innovate and capitalize on direct-to-consumer movements across the state. In her off time, Kara is an avid gardener and cook. You’ll often find her in downtown Mount Dora adding to her plant collection or taking client meetings in the local brewery and marketplace.

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