A Small Producer’s View on Upcoming Changes in Organic Production
For smaller family farmers, there is often little time or resources to spare for additional requirements to maintain organic certification. As word of SOE makes headlines throughout the organic industry, the National Organic Program (NOP) staff around the country know many small producers wonder what this rule will mean for them.
Organic farmer and NOP lead auditor Lars Crail has spent time thinking through the same questions for his certified orchards of pears and wine grapes tucked into the hills of Northern California. An organic farmer with over twenty years under his belt, Lars knows firsthand how much work it takes to manage an organic operation. While larger, more complicated operations, processors, and others with longer supply chains have a lot to consider before March 2024, the task may not be as hard for many small operations closer to their customers and suppliers. Lars’ operation is a good example of a smaller, compliant operation that will only need to review and adapt a few practices. Lars was kind enough to walk us through how he is preparing, and talked about how he sees SOE benefiting smaller operations through greater transparency in all organic supply chains.
As a producer, how do you feel about SOE crossing the finish line?
“Terrific! SOE codifies a lot of best-practices, National Organic Standards Board recommendations, community input, and practical experience from the NOP team. SOE also demonstrates USDA’s support for continuous improvement as the organic community matures and grows to accommodate increasing consumer demand. Our team now has more oversight and enforcement tools to keep up with the marketplace, which in the end helps make organic food and products available to more families across the country.
Parts of the rule, like requiring everyone to have a written fraud prevention strategy as part of their Organic System Plan, are a significant leap forward in combatting fraud. This requirement makes it explicit that everyone shares responsibility for watching for fraud across their supply chain, whether that’s buying organic seed or stock down the road, relying on family workers, and selling at local farmers markets and co-ops, or buying inputs and selling products across State lines or to processors for worldwide distribution. I appreciate this ‘united front’ approach to keeping the bad guys out. Greater transparency is the best way to ensure that we are all held to the same standards. Working together makes a fairer playing field for all of us.”
As you read the rule and reviewed it against existing practices, was there anything you think a smaller producer may find surprising?
“One big change is the number of required unannounced inspections. A lot of surveillance has been happening in practice, but now specific minimum requirements are written into the regulations for certifiers. NOP will be working with them to be sure they are fully using this important oversight tool. I expect they are already communicating this to their certified operations and letting producers know what to expect and how to prepare. Unannounced inspections and residue testing that target higher risk parts of the supply chain, regions, and commodities are great enforcement tools to help certifiers find and remove fraud from the system faster. Producers need to stay on top of required recordkeeping and be understanding when the inspector arrives. An unannounced inspection is not an accusation, but the visible act of proactive surveillance has a strong deterrent effect on those in the vicinity who might think fraud is worth the risk. For those of us who follow the rules, undergoing an unannounced inspection will be no big deal.”
What kinds of questions are you talking about with your certifier to prepare for SOE?
“At the operation level, there aren’t really a lot of questions for a small farm like mine. Inspections happen, and organic system plans need to be updated, and we already expect that. What really needs to be communicated is that producers are ultimately responsible for compliance and need to understand the regulations themselves. Certifiers can provide the resources so you can understand what is required, but we farmers also need to read the rule and think through which changes will have an impact on our operation – like the written fraud prevention strategy – and how to accommodate the change before the deadline in March 2024.”
“Organic compliance at every point in the supply chain, from producer to consumer, is at the heart of SOE,” Lars said, “No matter the size of the operation, all producers must follow the rules. Luckily, most small organic operations already have good systems in place, with only minor adjustments needed to comply.” Lars thinks that the most needed changes fall into the category of good recordkeeping and traceability.
“The goal of SOE was not to make compliance harder for the honest organic farmer. Instead, the goal is to raise the cost of fraud for bad guys, level the playing field for the good guys, and continually strengthen consumer trust in the value of the organic seal.”
As a small producer, what are you doing to manage the links in your supply chain?
“I’m talking to everyone I buy seeds, stock, and other inputs from. I’m making sure anyone who works in my orchard understands the rules and why it's so important that we follow them. It’s not enough to just pay attention to what happens inside the fence, I share responsibility for checking up on those I buy from and those I sell to so that families enjoying my peaches, or a glass of wine made in part with my grapes, can have confidence that the USDA organic seal has me and many others standing proudly behind our work.”
What part of SOE do you feel is most helpful?
“The new grower group regulations open up new opportunities for very small operations - before there were no specific regulations covering grower groups. NOP relied on good farming practices and National Organic Standards Board recommendations to apply the pre-SOE regulations to really small producers who wanted to work together. Having rules made specifically for this type of very small operation is a substantial positive change for farmers and their local or regional consumers.
For larger operations, I imagine the new labeling requirements will have a big impact on transparency, especially the wholesale labeling requirement, which was not explicitly laid out before. Mandatory acreage reporting will also allow faster more robust mass balance checks for larger or more complex operations. SOE really examines the entire supply chain, so everyone should be certified. Having more people focused on – and held responsible for – confirming traceability of a product from production to consumer is a critical improvement.”
Lars concluded by emphasizing that, “The main thing is that this is not ‘one size fits all.’ Smaller operations really can benefit from the changes coming from SOE. Most are already doing exactly what is needed, and with a few slight adjustments, SOE should not be costly or time-consuming for small farms. Larger operations will feel more of the effects of the changes from SOE because they tend to have lengthier, more complicated supply chains with more product to manage as organic from farm to table.”
Dr. Jennifer Tucker heads the USDA National Organic Program, the federal agency responsible for oversight of certifiers and enforcement on the use of USDA organic seal. She expanded on Lars’ farmer-perspective with an illustration of how SOE touches every single point in the supply chain using the example of a simple organic granola bar. “When you or your children are eating that organic snack, you know the oats may have been grown in Indiana, the almonds may have been grown in California, the chocolate chips may have come from beans grown and processed in South America, and the yogurt coating was made with milk from an organic cow who ate organic feed. Then another company in a different state may have combined all those ingredients to create the granola bar. SOE makes sure that USDA has authority to effectively oversee the individual supply chain of every one of those ingredients. This traceability across the supply chain is part of what is unique and special about the organic seal.”
With organic products selling at a premium and consumers placing an increasingly high-value on the health and climate-smart benefits of organically produced goods, Dr. Tucker says it’s as important as ever for everyone in the organic community to be working together to support consumer confidence in the USDA organic seal. “We stand with farmers, and everyone involved in getting organic products to market,” she said. “We believe the value in the USDA organic seal is the ‘many hands’ working together for the common good.”
With the continued growth of the organic industry creating more business opportunities and a thriving $67 billion organic retail market, the Strengthening Organic Enforcement final rule comes at a good time. From suppliers and producers to handlers and brokers, SOE reinforces legitimate organic trade, and helps squeeze out fraud.
“USDA invests a lot into protecting the seal and growing the organic community. The new authority we have through the Strengthening Organic Enforcement final rule helps us do it faster and better, making sure everyone along the supply chain is certified,” said Dr. Tucker.
To help certifiers and producers understand the changes SOE brings, NOP staff have been training certifiers and inspectors, updating web resources, and developing new training modules - available for free in the USDA Organic Integrity Learning Center. Learn more about SOE and USDA oversight and enforcement at www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/strengthening-organic-enforcement.
National Organic Program is a federal regulatory program that develops and enforces consistent national standards for organically produced agricultural products sold in the United States.
NOP also accredits third-party organizations to certify that farms and businesses meet the national organic standards. These certifiers and USDA work together to enforce the standards, ensuring a level playing field for producers and protecting consumer confidence in the integrity of the USDA Organic Seal.
Issue: Jul 2023
By: National Organic Program Staff