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  A Publication of UVM Extension's Vermont Vegetable and Berry Program

National Organic Standards and What They Mean to Growers

by Vern Grubinger
Vegetable and Berry Specialist
University of Vermont Extension

Organic agriculture is booming. Although just 2% of the U.S. food supply is grown using organic methods, over the past decade sales of organic products have increased by 20 percent a year! That makes ‘organic’ the fastest growing sector of agriculture. In 2001, retail sales of organic food in the U.S. were about $9 billion. Organic farmland has been increasing, too. It doubled between 1997 and 2001, and now stands at over 2 million acres in 48 states, about half of that in cropland.

But last year, the rules for organic farmers changed. After more than a decade of development, USDA’s national organic standards went into effect in October 2002.  No longer can products be sold as organic without being certified. And only state and private organizations that are accredited by USDA can provide organic certification. Organic farmers, certifiers, handlers and retailers are all required to abide by the national standards; selling or labeling a product as organic without following the standards can result in a civil penalty of $10,000.

So far, USDA has accredited over 50 certifying organizations across the country and more than 30 in foreign countries. To become certified, a farm must work with one of these groups to complete the paperwork and on-farm inspections that verify that the farm has, and follows, an organic plan.  Farms that sell less than $5,000 of organic product annually are exempt from certification although they are still expected to adhere to the organic rules.

An organic farm plan must include a description of practices and procedures used to produce and handle food, and a list of all substances used in production or handling. Monitoring practices and record keeping procedures must also be described. On ‘split operation’ farms that produce both organic and non-organic crops, the methods for separating them must be described, including clear boundaries and buffer zones.

To be eligible for organic certification, a field must have no prohibited materials applied for 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop. Prohibited materials include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as sewage sludge and genetically engineered organisms.

Good stewardship is required of organic farmers. They must use cultivation practices that maintain or improve the condition of the soil and minimize erosion. Crop nutrients and soil fertility must be managed through rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials.

If raw animal manure is applied to soil, an organic crop cannot be harvested for 90 days, if the edible portion does not have direct contact with the soil, or for 120 days if it does. If the manure is composted according to the standards, then there is no harvest restriction.

All seeds, annual seedlings, and planting stock used to grow organic crops must be organically grown, too, except when an organic variety is not commercially available. Non-organic planting stock may be used to produce a perennial crop but it can be sold as organic only after the planting stock has been managed organically for a year.

Organic insect control can be accomplished with cultural practices that enhance crop health, mechanical or physical methods, introduction of predators or parasites, and use of lures and traps. Weeds can be managed organically by mowing, flaming, or mulches, including plastic mulch, so long as it’s removed from the field at the end of the season.  The use of pesticides is allowed, provided they contain only organically approved materials. These include biological, botanical, and mineral inputs, as well as some synthetic products approved for organic production.

Unless specifically prohibited, natural compounds are allowed in organic farming. And unless specifically allowed, synthetic materials are prohibited. A National List has been established to identify synthetic substances that may be used (such as plastic mulch or fixed copper fungicides) and natural substances that cannot be used (arsenic or tobacco dust, for example).

While organic growers have far fewer pesticides to choose from than conventional farmers, there are quite a few effective and safe active ingredients on the market, with more being added all the time. Organic insecticides include B.t., kaolin, neem, and spinosad products, to name a few. Trichoderma, potassium bicarbonate, copper and sulfur are some organically-allowed disease control materials. There are even a few organic herbicides, made from corn gluten meal and plant extracts.

It’s up to the organic farmer to be sure that they avoid prohibited materials. Certifiers can provide helpful guidance, as can the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), a nonprofit organization that specializes in the review of substances for use in organic production, processing, and handling. The OMRI Generic Materials List and Brand Name Product List provide guidance on materials allowed under the USDA National Organic Program standards. See: www.omri.org.

A good source of information about production of organic crops is ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas), funded by the USDA. It provides information and technical assistance on a range of sustainable agriculture topics. They have many publications on organic farming available by calling 800-346-9140 or on line at: attra.ncat.org/organic.html.

Along with standards about farming practices, USDA developed organic labeling rules to help consumers know the exact organic content of the food they buy.  The green and white ‘USDA Organic’ seal tells consumers that a product is at least 95 percent organic.  Products made with 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients can say so on the label (made with organic fruit, for example), but they can't display the seal.  Products made entirely with organic ingredients can display the seal as well as the label ‘100% organic’.

To find out more about the national organic standards and their implementation visit the USDA’s National Organic Program at: www.ams.usda.gov/nop.

Published: November 2003
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