The Inspector’s Notebook #5
5 tips for complying with noncompliances
Take time now to understand and correct outstanding issues on your certification contract

By Jim Riddle

Editor’s NOTE:

Certified organic farmers do an odd thing – they pay people to visit their farms with a critical eye to assure they are adhering to every aspect of the USDA’s national organic standard.

The farmers should already be trying to produce, harvest and market their organic crops, livestock and related products by these rules. The on-farm review of fields, facilities and records by an approved inspector sent by the farmer’s accredited organic certifier is the critical point in confirming that the farmer and the farm meet the organic standards – and can prove it to anyone who needs to know.

The visits are pivotal for applying farmers to become certified, and for certified farmers to keep that certification. For the good of organics, we want to help build the foundation for effective inspection visits. We’ve asked Jim Riddle to provide an inspector’s inside view to help farmers understand an inspector’s role, responsibilities and limitations.

In the months ahead, Riddle will elaborate on many items to help farmers understand regulations that apply to them, and how to document their compliance.

Jim Riddle has been on hundreds of farms in the inspector role, and he’s been inspected himself during his time as a farmer. His leadership in bringing professional training to inspectors helped to earn greater acceptance of organic farming in the U.S. He serves as vice-chair of the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on organic agriculture policies and regulations. He has been an organic farmer, gardener, inspector, educator, policy analyst, author, and consumer.

Jim Riddle serves as vice-chair of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and organic policy advisor for NewFarm.org. He was the founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA).

November 9, 2004: By now, many organic farmers have been inspected and have signed certification contracts with their certifying agencies.

If you have any “minor noncompliances” or “issues of concern” listed in your Certification Contract or in the letter you received from your certifier, have you made the necessary corrections?

This is an extremely important step in the certification process. Your operation has been evaluated to identify areas where you are noncompliant with the National Organic Program (NOP). In some instances, you need to respond immediately to those requirements in order to be granted or to maintain organic certification. In others, you may need to discontinue using a prohibited substance or implement a specific record, such as better documentation of your searches for organic seed.

In our own certified organic vegetable operation, we had one noncompliance this year…..adding in the phrase “organic” to our vegetable labels. Joyce uses a computer to print our labels, so it was easy to insert “organic” into the product label information. I didn’t need to send in any verification, but this will be checked by the inspector next year.

Here are some tips to make sure you comply with all certification requirements:

  • Carefully read the certification contract. Depending on the policies of the certifying agent, you may need to sign it and send a copy back.
  • Understand the requirements. If you do not understand what the certifying agent is requiring, call them up and talk to the person who signed the letter or contract.
  • Respond to requests for information. Your certifying agent may be asking for more information, such as what inoculant you intend to use on alfalfa seed or an ingredient label for a livestock health care product you want to use. The sooner you get this information to them, the sooner your certification will be completed.
  • Respond to conditions for certification. Your certifying agent may request verification of aspects of your Organic Farm Plan. You may need to obtain signed statements from neighbors that are not using prohibited fertilizers or pesticides on your borders, so that you don’t need to maintain a buffer. If a water test is required because you are using water to wash organic products, get the sample into the lab and send results to the certifying agent as soon as you receive the results. Send any requested verification in to the certifying agent as soon as possible. Keep the certifying agent informed as to your timeline if more time is needed.
  • Take the time to make the change. If you need to discontinue a prohibited product, such as a dairy-cow feed-supplement premix that contains mineral oil, research an approved substitute. Talk to your livestock nutritionist, the certifying agent, other organic livestock producers, or give ATTRA a call (1-800-346-9140 or www.attra.ncat.org). If a record is required, such as an equipment cleaning log, go ahead and design that record (or use a sample provided by your certifying agent). Put it in your ring binder or folder where you are keeping other records (or on a clipboard in the equipment shed for easy access). Then it is ready when you need to use it. ATTRA has examples of many types of forms for organic farmers, vegetable growers, orchardists, berry growers, and livestock producers.

Noncompliance requirements will affect your certification in the future. You will need to show how you corrected the requirements in next year’s Organic Farm Plan Update application. The certifying agent will carefully review your updated plan to check if you made corrections. And the inspector will go over these issues during the inspection. They may even be identified as noncompliances again.

Your response is critical to your organic future. If you do not address minor noncompliances, your certification could be suspended or revoked. The sooner you make the changes, the easier your certification will be in the future.