Answers to your certification questions

Over time we’d like to answer as many of your specific questions as possible about how to interpret the new USDA Organic standards, which become official on October 21, 2002. To send us questions now, click here.

To prime the pump, we asked New York Certified Organic for permission to reprint nine Q&As they featured in the April issue of Tails and Tassels, a monthly newsletter they produce in partnership with the Leatherstocking Organic Network. The primary certifiers of New York farmers were asked to respond to the nine scenarios described below and explain how their agency intends to enforce the NOP standards. The answers were compiled from responses by Caroline Hetzel of FVO/ICS, Carol King of NOFA-NY, and Jodi Snyder of GOA.

1. Will the NOP allow a farmer to use conventionally grown vegetable transplants if organic ones of desired varieties are not commercially available? If I grow my own transplants, what are the ingredients I should avoid in the potting soil I purchase?

The NOP states, and all 3 certifiers responding concur, that the use of non-organic annual transplants or sweet potato slips is allowed if organic transplants are unavailable, BUT only if you can prove that the potting soil used contains no prohibited materials and that the seedling production practices meet organic standards. If you can’t document this, or if the potting soil does contain prohibited materials, the production from non-organic transplants for annual crops will NOT be certifiable. Planting perennial non-organic transplants (such as raspberries, perennial herbs etc.), where the crop wouldn’t be harvested until the following year, would be permitted. A quick peak at commercial potting soils used locally show that they may contain wetting agents and synthetic fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers are obviously prohibited, and you will have to document that the specific wetting agent is approved, because synthetic wetting agents are prohibited.

2. I want to increase the size of my pasture, and therefore need to buy some new fence posts. I understand that the NOP prohibits arsenate-treated wood when the wood will be in contact with crops or livestock, but does that also apply to pasture fencing?

Certifiers vary in their interpretation of this provision. While it is clear that treated wood can not be used in construction of greenhouse beds and in animal housing where animals will contact the wood, whether this restriction carries to fence posts is rather confusing. ICS/FVO states that if the fence posts are already in place, they will usually be ‘grandfathered’ in regardless of whether they are treated. However, with new fence construction, farmers should use wood that is not treated with copper/chromium arsenate compounds, and should contact their certifier for specific restrictions. NOFA-NY is allowing treated posts, as long as there is no possible contact between the posts and animals. GOA will allow a farmer to purchase treated posted and age them in a pile for 12 months before use, but the aging must be documented with receipts during the inspection. Some certifiers require a 25 or even 50 foot buffer between treated fence posts and any potential contact with certified animals or crops, though often certifiers will accept smaller buffers if there is sufficient shielding of the posts.

3. I know that the NOP says that I should use organic seed unless the variety that I want is not commercially available. For the past few years, I have been using one 110 day corn hybrid from Pioneer that I really like, but obviously they don't have organic seed for it. NC+Organics has a different 110 day hybrid, but I know nothing about it. Do I have to buy the NC+ 110 day hybrid because it is organic, even though I'd prefer the Pioneer 110 day hybrid?

For the most part, most certifiers are saying that if you make a valiant effort to find organic seed for the variety you want, documenting that you have contacted several likely sources and were unable to locate sufficient quality or quantity of organic seed, then you may use non-organic, UNTREATED seed of the variety of your choice. NOFA-NY is defining ‘commercially available' to mean you should try to obtain your variety in organic seed from three sources, documented by either phone call, written correspondence, or catalog. GOA has an official Seed Search Form that must be completed if non-organic seed is used. If you are unable to obtain your preferred variety in sufficient quantity or if organic seed is more than 3-5 times the usual cost, NOFA-NY is permitting the use untreated non-organic seed.

4. I want to use a product that looks really good but it is not on the OMRI brand-name list. I can not find all the ingredients on the OMRI generic list, my certifier’s materials list, or the NOP National List. One supplier won’t even tell me the ingredients of their product, they say that this is ‘proprietary’ information. How can I determine whether these products are allowed?

Determination of whether a product is acceptable is a real problem for many organic farmers! It is a good idea to become familiar with the OMRI Brand Name list, OMRI generic list, your certifier’s materials list, and the NOP National List (www.ams.usda.gov/nop). However, these resources may not be sufficient to answer all your questions because in many cases, not all of your product’s ingredients will be listed. Some certifiers, like ICS/FVO, are distributing the OMRI lists to all their certified farmers as a resource, while other certifiers expect farmers to acquire these lists at their own expense on their own. ICS/FVO will research labels for their certified farmers, usually at no extra charge, to determine that the ingredients are approved. If the manufacturer is unwilling to divulge proprietary information to you about specific ingredients, it may be possible to get them to directly contact your certifier and describe the product confidentially to the certification staff, and get approval for your use of it that way. The manufacturer of the product may be expected to pay the certifier a technical fee for this approval process. If your certifier is doing a technical review of a product for you, they will expect you not to use any of the product until there is full approval of ingredients, and if the manufacturer is not willing to divulge ingredient information to you OR your certifier, you’d better not use that product! Make perfectly sure that you can prove, in writing, that the ingredients in all the products are acceptable for your certification before using anything!

5. I am submitting my 2002 certification application now, but I can't answer all the questions conclusively because the season hasn't started and I'm not sure of all my crop rotations, inputs etc. I understand how important the NOP considers the Farm Plan. Will there be a chance for me to amend my application/Farm Plan to more accurately show what I've actually done in 2002?

Most certifiers will expect that you submit updated information at the time of your annual inspection, especially if your planting plans change as the season begins. If things on your farm change really significantly at any time, you should contact your certifier immediately with that information. ICS/FVO requests that ICS/FVO-certified farmers submit all updated information whenever anything in their Farm Plan application changes, especially if the changes occur before the inspection. This is to allow the ICS/FVO certification team to review the changes for compliance or concerns before the inspection.

6. I have been composting leaves to spread on my fields as a fertility amendment. I don't pay close attention to turning, temperature, C:N ratio etc, so I can't document whether the composting process meets all NOP compost requirements. There is absolutely no manure or animal products in my compost. Do I still have to apply it within the 120 and 90 day restrictions if the compost only includes plant materials?

All 3 certifiers responding concur - if you use any product that you identify as ‘compost’, unless you can clearly document that it meets ALL the NOP definitions of compost, then your timing of application is critical! This is regardless of whether the compost contains animal products or not. If compost is being applied to a crop destined for human consumption, then the material must be applied no less than 120 days prior to harvest if edible portion of the crop touches the ground, no less than 90 days prior to harvest if the edible portion does not touch the ground. NOFA-NY is not intending to enforce the compost timing restrictions for any compost used before Oct 21, 2002. However, GOA notes that if your leaves contain ONLY plant material, no animal material at all, and if you have not fully documented your composting process, it looks like under NOP 205.203 (c)(3) that you may be able to apply them at anytime without restriction as "un-composted plant material’ as long as you don’t call them compost!

7. I know I have to be careful about avoiding GMO Rhizobium inoculants, but I have also heard that there may be other prohibited ingredients in inoculants. What are some possible ingredients in inoculants and microbial products that I should be watching out for?

Here’s a complicated area of information that is not easily obtainable or understood! Of course, it is essential that you can document that any microbial inoculant products you use are not genetically modified, you need to have a letter from the manufacturer stating that. However, some inoculants contain other products that may not meet organic standards. Look on the ingredients on the label - you must treat inoculants as you would any other purchased input, all ingredients must be approved by your certifier. Keep your inoculant labels, you will need these for your inspection! Be particularly careful with liquid inoculants which may contain sodium sulfite and other synthetic ingredients which are prohibited. Also, irradiation may be an issue with some inoculants. For example, Urbana Laboratories states that the humus in their Traditional Humus, RhizoStick and RhizoFlo Granular inoculants are not irradiated, but the humus in their MegaPrep inoculant IS irradiated, and NOP 205.105 (f) identifies ionizing radiation as an ‘excluded method’ in organic production. Its confusing. Good luck!

8. I really want to increase my organic dairy herd this year. Under the NOP, will I still be able buy conventional replacement heifers and put them through a 12 month transition before milking?

The NOP livestock standards say that organic animal products, including milk, must be from animals raised organically from the last third of gestation, but NOP standards also say that organic milk must be from animals that have been under continuous organic management for at least 12 months. This is an obvious contradiction in the NOP, and it is currently under considerable discussion nationally with strong feelings supporting both ‘sides’. In 2002, different certifiers are choosing to apply the same group of NOP standards differently. ICS/FVO will allow farmers to continue to purchase conventional replacement animals and put them through a 12 month conversion, while NOFA-NY is interpreting the rule to mean that dairy replacements must be from a certified organic source or raised on-farm, that conventional replacements are not allowed and that milk products must come from animals managed organically from the last third of gestation. NOFA-NY sees that the 12 month conversion process is for whole herd conversion, not for replacement animals, and definitely not for any on-farm raised animals. GOA will allow the 12 month transition for new dairy herds or replacement animals, but will not permit an organic farmer to raise their own calves conventionally until they are 12 months away from milking. Remember - regardless of whether an animal qualifies for organic dairy use, the NOP says that an animal must be raised continuously under organic management from the last third of gestation for it ever to be eligible for slaughter stock.

9. My dairy farm is currently certified FVO or OCIA, and I am planning to certify to their NOP level in 2002. On what date can I safely start feeding NOFA-NY certified hay without adverse certification consequences?

FVO/ICS says that if a currently certified FVO dairy farmer contacts the FVO/ICS office in writing now, stating their intention to certify to the ICS (NOP) level in 2002, they can begin operating under the ICS requirements immediately, which include reciprocity between all certifiers that are on the NOP Accredited Certifier list (which is due to be released by USDA on April 21, 2002). Since OCIA did not respond to our questions, we do not know whether OCIA will handle this the same way.


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October 21!
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