The Inspector’s Notebook #14
Good buffer zones make good neighbors

Unless you can show that adjacent fields are managed without the use of prohibited materials, Jim reminds readers, buffer zones are required

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 He was the founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA).

June 16, 2005: As you are planting your fields this season, pay attention to what your neighbors are planting as well. How are they managing their land? Be mindful of where they are using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other prohibited substances, since their practices will largely determine where you need to maintain buffers.

During the inspection for organic certification, the inspector reviews your management of buffers to insure they minimize the risks of contamination for your organic crops. Appropriate buffers must also be maintained in pastures and outdoor access areas used for organic livestock, if needed.

One of the requirements for organic certification is to have “distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones such as run-off diversions to prevent the unintended application of a prohibited substance to the crop or contact with a prohibited substance applied to adjoining land that is not under organic management.” [1]

A buffer zone is defined as “an area located between a certified production operation or portion of a production operation and an adjacent land area that is not maintained under organic management. A buffer zone must be sufficient in size or other features (e.g., windbreaks or a diversion ditch) to prevent the possibility of unintended contact by prohibited substances applied to adjacent land areas with an area that is part of a certified operation.” [2]

In other words, you need to maintain buffer zones along field borders where your neighbors apply synthetic chemicals (or other prohibited substances). This includes farm fields, conservation areas, residences, and commercial operations.

The federal rule does not specify that a buffer zone be a specific width, but 25 to 30 feet is generally accepted by certifying agents as adequate to prevent most contamination from a neighboring field. Buffer zones can be planted to a crop that is managed organically but is sold as conventional.

A buffer can be planted to grass, or better yet, a permanent tree and shrub planting, which can provide habitat for birds, wildlife, and beneficial insects. Significant height in a buffer has the added benefit of protecting your fields and organic crops from contamination by aerial movement of pesticides and from wind erosion.

If you choose to plant your buffer to a crop, the crop is treated as conventional. If sold, you must keep a record of the sale, such as a weight ticket or invoice. Even if you allow your neighbor to mow the buffer for hay, you must keep a written record of the hay harvest (name, date, location of buffer and crop harvested). Certifying agents can give you examples of buffer record forms. You can also download an example of a buffer record from ATTRA’s website, You should also mark all buffer zones on your farm map.

What about an area where your neighbor is not using prohibited materials? Your certifying agent may require you to have your neighbor sign a statement that they are not using prohibited substances in areas adjoining your fields. Once you have written proof that no prohibited substances are applied on adjoining land, the certifier can grant you the option to raise organic crops without buffer zones in affected areas.

1. See the National Organic Program §205.202(c). Land requirements.
2. See the National Organic Program, §205.2, Terms defined for buffer zone.

This material was developed with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Risk Management Agency, under Agreement No. 031E08310147