Answers to your questions

Developed by The New Farm® Answer Team


    1. General
    2. Certification
    3. Crop Production
    4. Livestock Production
    5. Handling
    6. Labeling
    7. National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances


General questions

What exactly is meant by “organic production”?
Under the USDA’s National Organic Standards, “organic production” is defined as “a production system that is managed … to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” In other words, organic farms are farms which are managed in harmony with natural systems.


Questions about certification

I'm a small farmer. Do I have to be certified to sell my products as “organic” or
“organically grown”?

If your gross agricultural income from organic sales totals $5,000 or less annually, you are exempt from certification (see 205.101.a.1). You don’t have to complete an Organic Farm Plan, but you must comply with the production and labeling requirements of the National Organic Standards. You can sell your products as “organic” or “organically grown” at a farmers market, on-farm stand, CSA, or to a retail outlet, but you cannot sell your products as organic ingredients to be processed by others, and your products cannot be represented as “certified organic” or display the USDA Organic seal (unless you choose to get certified).

I am a small processor. Do I have to be certified?
If your gross agricultural income from organic sales totals $5,000 or less annually, you are exempt from certification (see 205.101.a.1). You don’t have to complete an Organic Handling Plan, but you must comply with the handling and labeling requirements of the National Organic Standards. You cannot sell your products as organic ingredients to be processed by others, and your products cannot be represented as “certified organic” or display the USDA Organic seal (unless you choose to get certified).

What types of records need to be maintained by small farms and small processors who are exempt from certification?
The records need to fit the operation, and they need to demonstrate that the operation has sold less than $5000/year in “organic” farm products and/or less than $5000/year in “organic” processed products. According to the National Organic Program’s website, the records should show that the operation complies with all applicable production, handling, and labeling requirements, and non-use of prohibited substances. Types of farm records might include labels and receipts for all purchased inputs (including seeds and seedlings); production and/or activity logs; field history sheets; and harvest, storage, and sales records. Records should be maintained for at least 3 years and must be available to representatives of the USDA or State Organic Program upon request.


Besides these small farmers and processors, who may use the term “organic”?
Any production or handling operation which is certified by an accredited certifying agent may use the term "organic". Retail operations may also use the term “organic” without having to be certified, but they must have records to show that they purchased organic goods in order to sell these goods as organic. They must also abide by the labeling requirements and protect organic products from commingling and contamination. Handling operations do not have to be certified if they handle only products that contain less than 70% organic ingredients. In this case, they may identify “organic” ingredients in a product’s ingredient statement but must not use the word “organic” on the principle display panel (front of package).

What is the difference between a “handler” and a “processor”?
A “handler” includes any operation that receives, packages, stores, sells, and/or processes agricultural products, but does not include retailers who do not process products. A “processor” is a subset of handler, and includes any operation that cooks, bakes, cures, mixes, cuts, freezes, jars, or otherwise manufactures products, including packaging and enclosing in containers. All processors are considered to be “handlers,” however handlers that do not process are not required to be certified, if the products remain in the same containers or packages they were received in. These “excluded” handlers must be able to show that organic products do not come in contact with prohibited substances, or are not ‘commingled’ (mixed up) with nonorganic products.

My organic certificate is valid for how long?
Your organic certificate remains valid until you voluntarily surrender your certification or your certification is suspended or revoked by the certifying agent, the State Organic Program, or the USDA. On an annual basis, you must update your Organic Plan, pay certification fees, and be inspected. Failure to do so will lead your certifier to propose suspension or revocation of your certificate.

Does the National Organic Program (NOP) have a list of accredited certifying agents?

Yes. The NOP maintains a list of accredited certifying agents posted on the NOP website at The list may also be obtained by request through the NOP office at 1400 Independence Avenue, SW; Room 2510 South Building; Washington, D.C.; 20250.


Who may use the “USDA organic” seal?
Any production or handling operation that is certified by an accredited certifying agent,
regardless of where in the world the production or handling operation is located. No operation
is required to use the seal. The USDA organic seal may not be used on products which contain
less than 95% organic ingredients.

What are the penalties for misuse of the term "organic"?
Any operation that knowingly sells or labels a product as "organic", except in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and the National Organic Standards, may be subject to a civil penalty of not more than $10,000 per violation and the provisions of 18 U.S.C 1001.

Who is responsible for enforcement of the National Organic Program?
USDA, accredited certifying agents, and where applicable, approved State Organic Programs are responsible for enforcement of the national regulations.

If I believe that a violation has occurred, how can I file a complaint?
Any person who believes that a violation of the National Organic Program has occurred may file a complaint with the USDA’s AMS Compliance Division. Mailing Address: NOP Compliance, Agricultural Marketing Service, United States Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Mail Stop 0203 - Room 3529-S, Washington, D.C. 20250. Tel: (202) 720-8311. Fax: (202) 205-5772. Email:

Persons with complaints about certified operations may also direct their complaints to the applicable certifying agents.

To file a complaint, what information is needed?
When you report a suspected violation, be prepared to provide as much detailed information as possible. (Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?). Be sure to include documentation of these details when available. Complete and accurate information helps ensure that the issue can be successfully investigated. Provide your name and contact information if you are willing to discuss the issue further with an NOP Compliance staff member.


Questions about crop production

How detailed does my Organic System Plan have to be?
The Organic System Plan must be detailed enough for the certifying agent to determine that your operation is in compliance with the National Organic Standards. It must describe your farming practices; list all fertility, weed, pest, disease control, and seed inputs you use and/or intend to use, including all ingredients in these input products; list all crops grown and products produced; describe your fertility, pest, weed, and disease management and monitoring programs; explain your recordkeeping system; contain field maps; describe how you prevent commingling and contamination; include a complete description of any labels you use or plan to use on organic products; and contain other information requested by the certifying agent to determine compliance. (See 205.201.a.1-6)

Do I have to follow the Organic System Plan I have filed with my certifying agent?
Yes. Your Organic Plan is a detailed description of how your operation will achieve, document, and sustain compliance with the organic regulations. It is the basis of your certification. Before granting certification to your operation, your certifying agent must concur that your Organic Plan fulfills the requirements of the regulations. Your Organic Plan must be annually updated and approved by your certifying agent. If, at any time, you make changes to your operation which may affect your certification, you must notify the certifying agent to modify your Organic Plan. If you deviate substantially from your previously approved Organic Plan without written approval from your certifying agent, you are no longer in compliance with the regulations and could be subject to suspension or revocation.

Do fields have to meet any size requirements in order to produce organic crops?
No. There are no minimum or maximum size requirements for operations producing under the National Organic Standards.


Does organic seed always need to be used to produce an organic crop?
For edible sprouts, yes, organic seeds are always required. For all other organic crops, producers must use organic seeds, unless they can document to the satisfaction of their certifying agent that organic seed is not commercially available. The National Organic Standards (205.204.a.1) provide that nonorganic, untreated seeds may be used to produce an organic crop when an equivalent organically produced variety is not commercially available.

Section 205.204.a.2 also provides that nonorganically produced, treated seeds may be used to produce an organic crop when an equivalent organic or untreated variety is not commercially available. The seed treatment, however, must be on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production. At the present time, no synthetic fungicides, (such as Captan, Thiram, Apron, etc.), appear on the National List. Therefore, fungicide treated seeds must not be used. The only time that seed treated with a prohibited substance may be used to produce an organic crop is when use of the prohibited substance is a requirement of Federal or State phytosanitary regulations. Non-organic seed may be used to grow perennial crops, provided that the crop is grown under organic management for at least one year before producing products to be labeled, claimed, or otherwise represented as organic.

May I use rhizobial inoculants for legume seeds?
Yes, rhizobial inoculants are natural, non-synthetic materials, and are allowed. The only rhizobial inoculants which are prohibited are those which are produced through genetic engineering. GMO inoculants are considered “excluded methods”, and are not allowed in organic production. Inoculants used by organic producers must not contain any prohibited materials, including inert ingredients. Producers must document that any seed inoculants used or planned for use are free of prohibited materials.

Must cover crop seeds be organic?
Yes, unless equivalent varieties are not commercially available and the lack of commercial availability is adequately documented.


What is meant by the term “equivalent variety”?
A7: The USDA states that “an equivalent variety means a variety exhibiting the same “type” (such as head lettuce types, leaf lettuce types, etc.) and similar agronomic characteristics such as insect and disease resistance when compared to the original varietal choice.” The determination of commercial availability is made by the certifying agent in the course of reviewing the Organic Farm Plan, so it is important to consult with an accredited certifying agency to understand the agent’s policies.

If a producer attempts to source, but cannot find, organically grown seeds which fit the needs of the production system, are adapted to the micro climate, and/or meet established consumer preferences in the form, quality, and quantity needed, and the certifying agent agrees that an equivalent variety is not commercially available, then non-organic, untreated seed can be used.

How should I document my attempts to source organic seeds?

Contact your certifying agent for specific instructions. Be prepared to document your attempts to obtain organic seeds by keeping records of seed purchase orders, seed receipts, seed labels, and records of phone conversations with seed dealers. As a general rule of thumb, you should contact at least 3 seed suppliers in your attempts to source organic seeds. Lists of organic seed suppliers are maintained by the Appropriate Technology Transfer to Rural Areas (ATTRA) and by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)


Do annual transplants have to be organic? What about planting stock like garlic, sweet potato slips, or potato tubers? What about strawberry plants?
The rule makes a distinction between the definition of annual seedlings and planting stock. Planting stock includes "any plant or plant tissue, including rhizomes, shoots, leaf or stem cuttings, roots, or tubers, used in plant production or propagation" and so includes items like garlic bulbs, potato tubers, and sweet potato slips. These must be organic unless not commercially available (see 205.204.a.1-2). Annual seedlings, however, must be organic except only in cases of natural disaster or for phytosanitary reasons. Perennial crops must be from organic sources or else managed organically for 12 months prior to harvest. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has advised that when strawberry or other similar crops are managed as annual crops, they should be considered the same as planting stock (can be non-organic if organic sources are not commercially available).

In the past, my certifier has required at least 25 foot wide buffer zones where my organic fields border conventional crops. Is that still the case?
No, the size of buffer zones is not specified in the national standards and must be determined on a site-specific basis. Section 202.202.c requires distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones, such as runoff diversions or windbreaks, to prevent the unintended application of a prohibited substance to land under organic management. The regulation does not establish a minimum buffer width requirement. The size of the buffer is determined by the organic producer and approved by the certifying agent on a case-by-case basis, depending on the risk of contamination by prohibited materials used on adjoining lands. Depending on site-specific factors (such as adjoining land use, prevailing wind direction, and type of border vegetation), you may not need any buffer, or your buffer may need to be greater than 25 feet in width.
Your Organic System Plan must outline steps that you will take to avoid contamination from neighboring operations, particularly drift of synthetic chemical pesticides. Such steps might include notification of neighbors, posting of “Do Not Spray” signs, planting of hedgerows, and/or maintenance of buffer zones.

While it is important to remember that organic standards are process-based, (rather than product-based), the regulation does contain a maximum tolerance level for residues of prohibited substances. If there is reason to suspect contamination, and tests reveal that a product contains over 5 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s tolerance for a particular substance, then the product can no longer be sold as “organic”.


I know organic agriculture prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Do the standards set a zero tolerance for GMO contamination?
The standards prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms (defined in the standards as “excluded methods”) in organic operations, but they do not establish a tolerance level or rejection threshold. The presence of a detectable GMO residue does not necessarily constitute a violation of the regulations. As long as an organic operation has not used excluded methods and takes reasonable steps to avoid contact with the products of excluded methods as detailed in their approved Organic System Plan, the unintentional presence of the products of excluded methods should not affect the status of an organic product or operation.

However, if a certifying agent has reason to suspect that an organic product has been produced using excluded methods, the certifying agent can call for testing. If the certifying agent determines that a product was intentionally produced using “excluded methods”, then either the operation or a specific field’s production could lose certification and the products could not be sold as organic.

Many consumers of organic products expect such products to be free of GMO contamination. To meet consumer expectations and maintain markets for organic products, it is vital that all organic producers and handlers do everything in their power to avoid GMO contamination of organic products.

Must manure used to fertilize organic crops come from animals raised in accordance with the organic standards?
No. There are no restrictions as to the source of manure. However, 205.203.c requires that producers “must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances.” Therefore, some sources of manure, such as those that contain heavy metals, pathogens, and/or prohibited materials, may not be appropriate for use on organic land.

If I use raw manure, how long must I wait before I harvest my organic crop?
If you grow crops for human consumption and use raw animal manure, the manure must be incorporated into the soil at least 120 days prior to harvest, if the edible portion of the crop contacts the soil or soil particles. If the edible portion of the crop does not contact soil or soil particles. (205.203.c.1.i-iii), manure must be incorporated not less than 90 days prior to harvest

I am applying for organic certification of my farm. However, I used a substance during the 2002 growing season that had been on the OMRI list of approved Brand Name products prior to April 2002, but was removed from the OMRI list and is not allowed now under the National Organic Standards. Can I still be certified, assuming I currently meet all the requirements of the National Organic Standards?
Yes. The USDA has stated that “since the substance had previously been accepted as part of good organic farming practices and you used it in good faith, the status of your land and your eligibility for certification is not affected.” Please note that the OMRI Brand Name List is regularly updated and that many products that were not at first compliant with the National Organic Program standards have been reformulated and are now back on the list, available at Check with you certifying agent for their policy on approved Brand Name products.


Questions about livestock production

Am I allowed to vaccinate livestock against diseases and still qualify as certified organic?
Yes, the National Organic Standards, in 205.238.a.6, allow the use of vaccines for the production of certified organic livestock. Records should be maintained of exactly what vaccines are administered to which animals. Vaccines must not be from genetically engineered sources unless these are specifically added to the National List. (none have been yet).

I have heard that using pressure treated lumber and buying non-certified organic wood chips or sawdust for bedding could disqualify you. Is this true?
205.206.f prohibits lumber treated with arsenate or other prohibited materials from having contact with soil or livestock. Lumber which comes in direct contact with livestock, such as hog farrowing crates or poultry nest boxes, must not contain arsenate or other prohibited materials. Sawdust or wood chips used for livestock bedding must not contain treated lumber. The wood chips or sawdust do not have to be organic, however.

205.239.a.3 requires that livestock be provided appropriate clean, dry bedding. If the bedding is typically consumed by the animal species, then the bedding must be organically grown. Since sawdust is not typically consumed by livestock, it does not have to come from organically grown trees.

Can I use homeopathic treatments to treat my livestock?
The National Organic Standards do not prohibit use of homeopathic treatments in the production of organic livestock. All natural (nonsynthetic) materials are permitted in livestock production, provided they do not appear on the National List at 205.604 as prohibited natural (nonsynthetic) substances. The producer must make certain that such treatments do not contain prohibited substances.


Can I remove organic calves from my farm, raise them conventionally for a year, bring them back to the farm, and then manage them organically for one year prior to the production of organic milk and milk products?
No. Livestock or edible livestock products that are removed from an organic operation and subsequently managed on a nonorganic operation may not be sold, labeled, or represented as organically produced. (205.236.b.1)

Can I sell an organic dairy animal as slaughter stock?
It depends. Dairy animals that have been under continuous organic management since the last third of gestation may be sold, labeled, or represented as organic slaughter stock. Conversely, dairy animals that have not been under continuous organic management since the last third of gestation may not be sold, labeled, or represented as organic slaughter stock. (205.236.b.2) While the parasiticide Ivermectin is allowed for dairy stock 90 days prior to the production of organic milk (205.238.b.2), it is prohibited for use in slaughter stock. Therefore, if a dairy animal received Ivermectin, it could never be sold as organic slaughter stock.

Does a feed mill producing organic feed need to be certified?
Yes. Section 205.237.a requires that feed handling operations, including feed mills, must be certified.


Questions about handling

A processing facility contracts with two farms for their production. Is it possible to certify those two farms under the name of the processing facility if they are contracted to produce organic products only for that facility?
Yes, provided the certifying agent is accredited to certify both farms and processors and has operating procedures in place to handle this type of certification. Production operations (farms) that are contracted to supply organic products only to a specific processing/handling facility can be certified as part of that unit. They must be included in the certified operation’s Organic System Plan and be inspected by an accredited certifying agent. It is also possible to have processing facilities certified as “co-packers”, and be covered under another operation’s Organic System Plan.

At our dairy farm, we operate a small on-farm processing plant, manufacturing cheese and yogurt. Do we have to be certified as a handling operation?
Yes, both your farm operation and your processing operation need to be certified. Contact a certifying agent to request appropriate Organic Farm Plan, Livestock Plan, and Handling Plan forms. It may be possible to inspect the farm and handling operations during the same site visit.


Questions about labeling

Who should approve my labels before I go to print?
Your certifying agent will review your labels for compliance with NOP labeling requirements. Labels normally approved by a Federal agency such as FDA, FSIS, or BATF must also be approved by those regulatory agencies.

Can I make label claims in addition to "organic" on my product?
NOP regulations do not prohibit a producer or handler from making additional claims regarding their product as long as they are truthful and not misleading to the consumer.

Do I have to include the certifier's address on the information panel of my product's package or shipping case?
No. You must identify the certifier's name on the information panel. According to the NOS, (205.303.b.2, 304.b.2, and 306.b.1) the certifier’s name must be “preceded by the statement ‘Certified organic by * * * or similar phrase.” The name of the certifying agent must be spelled out, unless the acronym of the certifier is a registered trademark. All other information related to your certifying agent is optional.


National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances

Does the “National List” show all inputs that can be used in organic production and handling?
No. The National List shows the synthetic substances that are allowed in organic crop and livestock production, and the natural, non-synthetic substances which are prohibited. All other natural, non-synthetic substances may be used in crop and livestock production without appearing on the National List. The National List also shows the synthetic and non-synthetic substances which are allowed in or on processed foods.

Will there be a USDA generic list of allowed natural substances?
The USDA has stated that they do not intend to publish a generic list of allowed natural materials and that all naturals are allowed unless prohibited on the National List. For a generic list of allowed materials, please contact your certifying agent or the Organic Materials Review Institute.