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I'm applying for certification for the first time. What should I do now to prepare?
Organic certification has four big steps each year: application, initial review, inspection, and final review. Now is the time to start on the first step. It is the most work in the first year—from the second year on, most of the information will carry over from the year before. The learning curve in the first year may be intimidating, but it levels out pretty quickly after that.
Start by selecting a certification agency. The Marbleseed fact sheet “Organic Certification & Tips for Choosing a Certifier” suggests questions you can ask to help you find a certifier that’s suited to your operation. The fact sheet is #19 and found on our website. Browse the Midwest Organic Resource Directory for information about certification agencies in this region. It’s on our web site or available in print by calling the Marbleseed Organic Answer Line, 888-906-6737.
Contact your certifier early.
This will help you make sure you are on the right path. If you’ve ever asked a certification question at a field day or conference workshop, you heard “ask your certifier.” While this may seem like a cop-out, it is actually the best answer for context-specific questions about certification. If you are wondering if you are allowed to do a specific practice within your system, the certifier has the ultimate say on whether it is allowed or not. Even if you’re pretty sure an input is allowed, check with your certifier first. They are only a phone call away.
Make sure that you get your application in with enough time to spare before you need to sell organic crops. This should be a minimum of 90 days before harvest (or you may have to pay a fee to expedite your inspection).
Have the certifier send you an application in the mail, or sign up on their online application system early.
Document your transition date.
When was the last prohibited material applied to the fields you want to certify? What are you planting in the fields that will be certified this year? Your field must pass 36 months since the last application of a prohibited material, such as herbicide or synthetic fertilizer, before you harvest any organic crop. That means if you or the previous manager applied herbicide on 6/14/2017, then your field would be eligible for organic production on or after 6/14/2020. If you have a later transition date, make sure to plant a crop with a harvest date after the transition date. You can plant crops intended to be sold as organic before your transition date—the only thing that matters with the transition date is the harvest.
If you have managed the land for the past 36 months, you can document your own management of the land. If someone else managed the land for some or all of the last 36 months, the previous manager needs to sign a document with some information about how they managed the land. Note that land ownership is irrelevant in organic certification—certification is of both the land and how it is managed. Certifiers have forms that will help you gather the information you need to document your transition date.
Collect and organize your records.
As a certified organic farmer you will have to keep good records, but don’t worry if you haven’t kept perfect records during your transition. Get together what you can from the past three years. Your inspector will look it over and report to the certifier what you have and what is missing. There are some records that you need to have that your certifier will ask you to send in after your inspection. For example, you will need receipts for all seed purchases for the entire transition period. If you have missing seed records, you can probably get these records from your seed supplier. Your certifier will let you know if other kinds of records are missing, like if you forgot to record a cultivation. Your certification letter at final review will help you learn what is missing for next year.
Transition your animals.
The 36-month transition period for land doesn’t apply to livestock. Different kinds of animals and animal products have specific requirements to be eligible to be certified. Dairy animals have to be managed organically for one year before you sell organic milk. They can be transitioned on third year transitional feed from your farm during this transition. Any purchased feed must be certified organic.
Animals meant for organic slaughter cannot be transitioned. They have to be managed organically from the last third of gestation all the way through their slaughter and packaging. Brood animals can come in and out of organic management. Poultry must be managed organically from their second day of life whether they are for meat or eggs.
For a more thorough explanation of certification rules for livestock, see the 32-page Guidebook for Organic Certification. It’s on our web site or available in print by calling the Marbleseed Organic Answer Line, 888-906-6737.
Talk to a Marbleseed Organic Specialist.
Marbleseed has a team of Organic Specialists to help answer your questions about organic production and certification. We can help you answer questions that your certifier can’t—certifiers are not allowed to help you overcome barriers to certification. They can tell you what the rules are and they can tell you if what you want to do is allowed or not, but they can’t give you advice on what to do. If you are a dairy farmer, your certifier can tell you that your cows need at least 30% of their dry matter intake from pasture during the grazing season. They can tell you whether or not you are currently meeting that requirement, but they can’t help you to improve your grazing plan. You can call us through the Organic Answer Line, 888-907-6737, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions.
Posted: Jan 2020
Answer By: Chuck Anderas