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Ohio State University Extension


The Organic Certification Process for Farms

Agriculture and Natural Resources
Revised by:
Cassandra Brown, Program Manager; Organic Food and Farming Education and Research Program; Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences; The Ohio State University

Consumer demand for organic products has grown steadily over the past several decades, with U.S. sales of organic food more than doubling from 2008 to 2019 (Figure 1). Meeting this demand through organic certification allows farmers to add value to their products while using sustainable production methods. However, organic certification is the most highly regulated food production program in the United States. This fact sheet will provide an overview of the organic certification process for producers and growers.Chart showing the number of organic farms, and their sales and number of acres, from 2008 to 2019 based on survey data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service.

What Does "Organic" Mean?

Organic production is more than simply eliminating chemical inputs. It involves a holistic approach toward production. Organic producers are required to create an organic system plan (OSP) for their farms that addresses sustainability, biodiversity, and soil health.

Organic farms do not use synthetic chemical inputs such as mineral fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, or antibiotics. Genetically modified organisms, radiation, and sewage sludge are also prohibited. These inputs are replaced by mechanical, biological, or cultural practices. For example, organic weed control tactics include frequent light tillage, higher seeding rates, mulches, and nurse or cover crops. Organic disease and pest control focuses on prevention through naturally bred disease resistance and crop rotations, with organically approved pesticides allowed, especially for horticultural crops.Medium close up of a machine called a finger weeder, which is used to remove weeds that are growing close to young plants in crop fields.

Soil health and fertility are addressed with natural sources of organic matter and soil nutrients, such as animal or green manures, and compost. Similarly, organic livestock producers focus on cultural practices to maintain herd health, including organic feed, excellent sanitation, closed herds, access to outdoor grazing, and preventative health practices. Any natural fertilizers or pesticides used must be approved by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).

What Does "Certified Organic" Mean?

Third-party certification in the organic industry provides independent verification to consumers that farmers are using organic methods. Products bearing the USDA Certified Organic seal follow strict guidelines which are set at the federal level, certified by regional accredited agencies (certifiers), and carried out by farmers and their production partners, including input suppliers, processors, and retailers (Figure 3).

Is Certification Required to Sell Organic Products?

Graphic showing how organic certification is a result of organizations that set and implement standards, and how two groups—retailers and consumers—drive demand for organic products.Farmers who market less than $5,000 annually and follow federal standards for organic production and handling can label their product as organic without going through certification. If producers sell locally and have direct contact with their customer base, the cost of certification may be an unnecessary expense. However, these exempt growers are not able to use the USDA-certified organic label and may not sell to processors for use in certified organic products.

How Will Organic Certification Impact My Bottom Line?

Organic products are sold at a price premium that helps make organic production profitable. The USDA Economic Research Service data for 2010 shows premiums vary by product, ranging from 7% to 60% higher than conventional prices for fresh produce and common processed-food items, and up to 72% and 82% higher for milk and eggs, respectively (Carlson, 2016). In a 2014 study (Connolly & Klaiber, 2014) of local foods sold through Ohio Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations, share prices were nearly 12% higher if the farm was certified organic. An analysis of USDA data for corn and soybean prices by The Ohio State University from 2011 to 2022 showed an average organic-to-conventional price advantage of 2.1- to-1 for corn and 1.8-to -1 for soybeans (Richer, 2023).

Keep in mind that organic producers also pay a premium for many organic inputs, such as feed, seed, or soil amendments. An international review of organic and conventional farms found higher costs for organic producers, due in part to higher labor needs, but also found these costs were offset by the reduced use of purchased inputs such as inorganic fertilizers or pesticides. The study’s authors noted that money spent on labor stayed in the farm's community, while most chemical farm expenditures do not (Crowder & Reganold, 2015). Similarly, an analysis of 2016 USDA dairy-farm data found U.S. organic dairies outperformed conventional dairies of similar size when compared against whole-farm, household, and enterprise measures of profitability (Nehring et al., 2021).

Like all agricultural prices, organic prices are subject to fluctuations in local markets due to consumer demand. Before investing in organic production, farmers should research marketing options available in their area.

Be aware that transitioning to organic production entails a learning curve for those who have relied on chemical inputs. During the three-year transition period, farmers must learn how to better harness biological processes and cycles, investigate new weed and pest control methods appropriate for their situation, research new markets, and invest in new equipment and products. Yields are frequently lower in organic systems, especially in the early years following transition.

During the three-year transition period, organic procedures and products must be used, but products may not be labeled as organic until the transition is complete. For this reason, many farmers transition their operation gradually or use the transition period to build up soil health with cover crops. Certification also requires additional record-keeping, an annual fee, and annual inspections. If only part of an operation is organic, the farmer will need protocols to avoid contamination from prohibited substances. For example, organic products must be transported and processed separately to ensure purity. Transition costs can be partially reimbursed through the USDA's Organic Certification Cost Share Program.

How Organic Certification Works

Structure of the Organic Program

In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, S. 2108, 101st Cong., 1989–1990. This legislation established the National Organic Program (NOP) and set the first national standards for organic production. National organic standards are regularly reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). This federal advisory board meets twice a year to consider recommendations involving the production, handling, and processing of organic products. Meetings are open for public viewing and comment.

The NOP also accredits regional certifiers who ensure that individual farmers, processors, and retailers are complying with the national standards. Organic certifiers employ inspectors who conduct site visits, reviewing the facilities and records of organic farms and businesses to document their compliance with organic standards.

Another important player in organic certification is the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). Founded in 1997, OMRI is an international nonprofit organization that reviews input products to evaluate their use in organic production and processing. A representative from the NOP may serve on OMRI's board of directors. OMRI provides technical reports to the NOSB and individual organic certifiers.

Steps to Organic Certification

Growers obtaining organic certification are required to perform initial steps:

  1. Stop using any prohibited inputs or processes on the farm (or the portion of the farm being transitioned to organic). As described previously, farmers should check with their certifier and OMRI documents to ensure they are adhering to current restrictions. If no prohibited substances were used on the property in the past three years, certification may be sought right away. Examples of land immediately eligible might include pastures or conservation reserve program land.
  2. Choose a certifying agency or organization. Certification organizations and agencies vary in price, services offered, and philosophy. A farmer should choose their certifier early in the process and be careful to match the certifier with their needs. Certifier application materials, standards, and allowed materials lists can be insightful. The USDA Organic Integrity database can be filtered to create a list of certifiers who operate in Ohio (see Resources section of this fact sheet).
  3. Create an organic systems plan (OSP) and application. A certifier should help farmers create an OSP that meets the certifier's requirements and covers all aspects of the farm operation: pest prevention, input sources, sustainable management, animal welfare systems, measures to protect organic integrity (especially for those who are only transitioning part of their farm to organic), harvest, marketing, record-keeping, etc. Certifiers review the OSP to make sure it is complete, meets National Organic Program standards, and includes proper documentation.

    During this phase, transitioning farmers should familiarize themselves with the intensive record-keeping required for organic certification. Individual certification organizations may provide record-keeping forms to use. If not, farmers should begin creating their own system to manage records effectively.
  4. Inspection and review. Once the OSP is approved by the certifier, an inspector will complete an initial on-farm inspection. The inspection serves to verify that the farm is operating according to their OSP and in compliance with organic standards. The inspector will check fields, machinery, buildings, buffer zones, use of adjoining land, and contamination/commingling risks. They will also check farm records, including cleaning protocols, treatments, and purchases. The inspector will review all areas of noncompliance and provide a report.

    The OSP and inspector's report are then submitted to the certifier's certification committee. Four possible outcomes may arise from the final review:
  • certification
  • request for more information
  • notification of noncompliance
  • denial of certification

Notification of noncompliance implies that certification will be granted once the producer fixes problems identified in the review. If the certifier finds that a producer is clearly not going to be able to comply with the organic standards, a denial of certification will be issued.

  1. Begin to market organic products. When certification is approved, farm products can be marketed as certified-organic and the transition process is complete. However, certifiers continue to inspect farms annually. These annual inspections are a great opportunity for farmers to identify areas for improvement, review their processes, ask questions, and glean recommendations and advice from their inspector. Ohio also has a vibrant community of organic farmers willing to compare notes and give advice.

Choosing a Certifier

Your certifier will be your partner in applying organic standards properly. In 2002, ATTRA shared questions to ask when choosing a certifier:

  • How willing and able are they to answer questions about their certification program?
  • Are they members of prominent organizations such as the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)?
  • Do they have a history in certifying your kind of enterprise?
  • Do they offer additional certifications or endorsements that are of interest to you? For example, selling to European markets often requires more stringent production rules.
  • Do your potential buyers (for example processors or retailers) have specific certification requirements?
  • What are the costs of certification?
  • Does the certifier have a reputation—good or bad—with farmers, processors, or others?
  • Do they offer any educational, advocacy, or market development, opportunities?

Resources on Organic Certification and Transition

The National Organic Program (NOP)

The NOP is housed within the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. The NOP website includes detailed information about national organic standards, the transition and certification process, and more.

Other USDA Services

The Organic INTEGRITY Database

Includes search options to help you locate an organic certifier or certified organic farms and businesses in your region. The list is sortable by state, products, and other details.

The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)

OMRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that specializes in the review of substances for use in organic production, processing, and handling. When checking to see if a material is OMRI listed, read carefully. Some products are approved with restrictions which must be documented. And be aware that OMRI approval does not mean a product is effective or has been approved by all certifying agencies.

ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture

ATTRA is part of the National Council on Appropriate Technology and has several publications on organic production, including transition guides and compliance checklists; fact sheets on pest control, soil health, marketing, and specific crops.

Organic Trade Association (OTA)

OTA has a series of organic 101 resources that you can share at farmers markets, websites, or on social media about the benefits and basic standards of organic production. OTA also performs organic market analysis, consumer research, and advocacy.

Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA)

OEFFA is one of many certifiers available to Ohio organic growers, but also offers educational resources to all growers, including workshops, farm tours, local and commodity chapters, an annual conference, and a beginning farmer program.

Organic Food and Farming Education and Research (OFFER)

More resources on organic farming practices and research can be found at The Ohio State University Organic Food and Farming Education and Research program website.


Carlson, A. (2016). Investigating retail price premiums for organic foods. USDA Economic Research Service.

Connolly, C., & Klaiber, H. A. (2014). Does organic command a premium when the food is already local? American Journal of Agricultural Economics 96(4),1102–1116.

Crowder, C. W., & Reganold, J. P. (2015). Financial competitiveness of organic agriculture on a global scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112(24), 7611–7616.

Nehring, R. F., Gillespie, J., Greene, C., & Law, J. (2021). The economics and productivity of organic versus conventional U.S. dairy farms. Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics, 53(1), 134–152.

Richer, E. (2023). Organic corn & soybean enterprise budgets. Presentation at 2023 Organic Grains Conference. Ohio State University Extension.

United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA NASS). (2020). Organic farming: results from the 2019 organic survey.

Originally written February 2006 by Margaret Huelsman and Deborah Stinner, The Ohio State University Organic Food and Farming Education and Research (OFFER) program; and Alan Sundermeier, Ohio State University Extension. Edited by Alan Sundermeier, March 2016.

Originally posted May 22, 2024.