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How do I choose a certification agency?
The standards used by all organic certification agencies are the same USDA organic regulations. Agencies compete for your business based on service and price. The research you do now to choose a certification agency that is a good match for your farm will hold you in good stead for years to come.
You can switch agencies if you are unhappy with the service. However, certifiers usually have an extra fee for a first time application. If you move from agency to agency, you will pay this fee more than once. It is easier and less expensive to stay with one certification agency that gets to know your operation.
To help you find the best agency to handle your certification, start by talking to other organic farmers about their experience with their agencies. The organic farmer community is an invaluable resource in many ways, but especially as you work to establish and develop the very important relationship with your organic certifier.
Ask how long the farmers had to wait for the inspection to occur, their application to be reviewed, and their yearly certificate to be issued. This certification timeline tells you when you can expect to be able to sell your products for the organic price.
Are the agency’s policies, sample forms and templates easy to understand and use? Good record-keeping is an important piece of responsible farming and organic certification. It’s essential that the agency’s policies and templates are accessible and easy for the farmer to use.
Does the agency offer educational activities or field days, and a newsletter? After you talk with the organic farmers in your community, talk to the potential buyers of your organic products. If your buyer has a certification agency preference, you could consider being certified by that agency. If the buyer wants your organic product to be approved for sale to foreign countries, you should verify that your chosen certification agency is knowledgeable of these special certification requirements.
Finally, call a few agencies to compare their fees and timelines for processing your certification. Our Midwest Organic Resource Directory lists contact information for certification agencies. The directory is available on our website as well as a spiral-bound book. Call 888-906-6737 to request a print copy.
Some agencies charge a flat fee plus a surcharge based on the dollar value of your yearly organic sales. Others have a sliding scale dependent on your anticipated organic sales, or on the amount of acreage of various commodities. In addition, some charge a fee to review each purchased crop or animal production input (fertilizers, animal health materials, feed supplements, pest control products, etc.). There may be an extra “membership” fee or “administrative” fee. Make sure you have a clear understanding of all the potential costs so you can make an informed decision. Keep in mind that you get what you pay for. If you want a responsive and helpful certifier, you may need to pay more since it costs money to have trained people on staff to take your call.
Find out if the agency certifies other farms in your region. The cost of certification typically is shared between many producers in a region. It makes sense to share expenses for the inspector’s mileage, food, and lodging with other area farmers, rather than having to carry the financial burden of these costs on your own. Also ask if the agency certifies other operations similar in scope to yours. The agency you choose should be familiar with your type of production—dairy, vegetables, sheep, grapes, nut trees, maple syrup, food processing—so your certification goes smoothly.
Posted: Jun 2016
Answer By: Jennifer Nelson