Growers planning to label their products "organic" are required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to become certified. That means finding a third-party or state certifying agent to evaluate their growing operations to determine if they meet a lengthy list of standards.
Home gardeners need be certified only if they market their organic products and then only if they exceed $5,000 in sales a year.
Growers must submit an "organic system plan" that has to be approved before the USDA-accredited certifiers will perform their onsite evaluations. The plans must be updated and the growing operations and processing facilities inspected annually.
Those who pass muster are then certified by the agent and are allowed to use symbols or certificates in selling or describing their produce as organic. The agent, in effect, has tried to ensure that the grower is presenting the real, uncontaminated goods.
"A certified farmer has about 60 pages of rules, depending upon the (certifying) agency, that they have to follow," said Jessica Walliser, co-author of "Grow Organic: Over 250 Tips and Ideas for Growing Flowers, Lawns and More."
"That can vary from taking the temperature of their compost for a couple of weeks to ensure it reaches 160 degrees (among other things, to kill weed seeds) to ensuring their baskets haven't been treated with any insecticides.
"Those (rules) would be real difficult for home gardeners to follow," she said. "If people get certified, it's because they want to sell something. If you make more than $5,000 a year, you have to be certified."
Certification costs vary according to the size of the growing operation and fees assessed by the organic certifying agencies. For small farms, however, fees range from $100 to $1,200; for large farms, from $200 to more than $12,000.
More information on organic certification standards and procedures is available on this Organic Trade Association site: www.ota.com/organic.faq.html.