Organic production is an ecologically oriented process of growing crops or raising animals that encompasses a variety of social, environmental and ethical principles, including soil fertility, biological diversity, and minimization of risks to human and animal health and natural resources.

In the early 1970s, farmers started using the term “organic” to attract consumers interested in agriculture that was more environmentally and socially responsible than “conventional” agriculture.  As the term caught on, allegations quickly emerged that some producers were selling non-organically produced food under an “organic” claim.  As a result, several states (e.g, Oregon, California, Montana, North Dakota, and Virginia) passed organic certification laws.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) (7 U.S.C. § 6501 to 6522 (1990)) to reconcile inconsistent state standards and prohibit fraudulent labeling.  The statute seeks to provide "national standards for organic production so that farmers know the rules, so that consumers are sure to get what they pay for, and so that national and international trade in organic foods may prosper.”

The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) created the National Organic Program (NOP) to implement the statute (i.e., set the specific requirements for using the "organic" label).  The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) advises the USDA on the development and implementation of the NOP (7 U.S.C. § 6518).  The NOSB is a 15 member board comprised of four farmers/growers, two handlers/processors, one retailer, one scientist, three consumer/public interest advocates, three environmentalists, and one USDA accredited certifying agent (Id.).

The NOP has three components important to the direct farm businesses considering marketing their products as organic.  First, the rules regulate the use of the term “organic” in labeling and marketing. Generally, producers using the term must obtain certification.  Second, the NOP incorporates a comprehensive certification process that involves transitioning the farm away from traditional farming practices and undergoing inspections.  Finally, the rules require particular production practices for various types of operations and the processing/handling of goods. 

Section 1: Organic Labeling and Marketing

The most important thing to know about labeling and marketing organic products is that goods cannot be marketed goods as “organic” unless they have been produced in compliance with USDA’s organic production standards (7 C.F.R. §§ 205.100 and 205.101).  Moreover, producers who sell more than $5,000 in goods must have an accredited certifying agent certify their production practices (Id.).  The certification process is covered in Section 2.

Organic labeling and marketing is relatively straightforward. A producer can label or advertise goods as "100 % organic” if the product consists entirely of organic ingredients (7 C.F.R. § 205.301).  Raw fruits and vegetables and meat grown or raised according to USDA’s organic standards satisfy this labeling requirement.  The ingredients in processed items, such as jams, jellies and sausages, must be entirely certified organic.  Another option is to label food simply as “organic,” in which case at least 95% of the ingredients must be organic, and the remaining 5% of ingredients must be on the list of approved organic processing substances, or, if they are agricultural products, be commercially unavailable in organic form  (Id. and 7 C.F.R. §§ 205.605 and 205.606). Products at both the 100% and 95% level may use the USDA organic seal (7 C.F.R. § 205.311).  If a product is made from 70 to 95% organic ingredients, it may be labeled as “made with organic [specified ingredient]” but it may not use the official USDA organic seal (7 C.F.R. §§ 205.301 and 205.311).  If a product is less than 70% organic, the ingredient list may identify individual organic ingredients (7 C.F.R. § 205.305).

Section 2: Organic Certification Process

Before seeking organic certification, a producer should become as knowledgeable as possible about the benefits and costs of organic production.  University of Illinois Extension maintains a website that contains useful information and links to other resources.  Another excellent resource is the Organic Trade Associations website, which has an extensive database of materials dedicated to informing producers of how (and why) to transition to organic.

The first step in the certification process is selecting and contacting a certifying agent.  University of Illinois Extension's Small Farms Website provides a list of certifying agents who operate in Illinois.  In selecting an agent, farmers should consider the entity’s experience certifying the type of operation, willingness to answer questions about the certification program, and stability as a business.

The certification process can take several months.  Certifying agencies typically require an application and development and implementation of a farm management plan that complies with NOP, using only approved substances and practices (7 C.F.R. § 205.401).  The agency will also inspect records or other documentation proving organic management of the land and animals for the requisite transition time.

After selecting a certifying agent, the second step in the certification process is to begin transitioning land (i.e. production practices) from conventional to organic methods.  This process may take at least three years.  Producers may not apply prohibited substances[1] for 36 months prior to certification. Eliminating certain conventional inputs often requires implementing new, unfamiliar practices, which is why education before starting transition is critical.  Michigan State University’s New Agriculture Network provide online fact sheets that cover various aspects of the organic farming process, including pest management, weed control, and soil fertility.

The last step to certification is an on-site inspection to verify compliance with the Organic System Plan (OSP) (7 C.F.R. § 205.403). Only after a successful inspection will the agency grant certification (7 C.F.R. § 205.404).

According to estimates by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, certification will likely cost between $400 and $1000 per year for non-livestock operations.  Livestock operations may cost more. The Illinois Department of Agriculture administers a cost share program to assist in the costs of the certification process.  The program currently is reimbursing producers and handlers that obtained certification between October 1, 2009 and September 30, 2010.  Whether assistance will be available in the future depends upon renewed federal farm bill funding.  The relatively simple cost-share application form is available here.

Section 3: Production Requirements

Organic systems plans vary by production activity.  This section will provide a brief overview of the major requirements for organic production.  For detailed explanations of each component of the program, see Harrison Pittman’s Legal Guide to the National Organic Program, which is available here.

Regardless of the end product, organic farmers must have an organic system plan (OSP) to submit to their certifying entity (7 C.F.R. § 205.201).  The OSP should include written plans concerning all aspects of production, including practices and procedures to be performed, monitoring practices and procedures, record keeping systems, management practices and physical barriers established to prevent commingling of organic and nonorganic products on a split operation and any other additional information the certifying agent deems necessary (7 C.F.R. § 205.201).


Organic crop production has several components.  The first pertains to how land is managed.  The farmer may not apply prohibited substances to the land, and must stop applying these substances three years prior to certification (7 C.F.R. § 205.202).  The land must have buffer zones and boundaries to prevent runoff and contamination from neighboring, non-organically managed fields (Id.).  The land must also be managed according to soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standards, which require producers to “select and implement tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of the soil and minimize soil erosion” (7 C.F.R. § 205.203).  Management methods include crop rotations, use of cover crops, and application of plant and animal materials. Requirements for the use of plant and animal materials include, but are not limited to, composting of raw animal manure (unless it meets exceptions), use of materials that have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 25:1 to 40:1, and a prohibition on compost from plants that had prohibited substances applied to them or ash that was produced using burning as a method of disposal for crop residues (Id.).  Many of these practices contribute to another requirement, which is maintaining management practices that control crop pests, weeds, and disease (7 C.F.R. § 205.206).  These practices are generally natural, such as mulching to control weeds or developing habitat to support natural enemies of pests.  Producers may also use non-synthetic substances, but must ensure they are not on the list of prohibited non-synthetic substances (7 C.F.R. § 205.602).  If these do not work, producers may use synthetic substances on the list of allowed synthetic substances.  The OSP must detail when and how synthetic substances may be used (7 C.F.R. § 205.206).

The regulations generally require all seeds and planting stock to be organically grown. However, there are five exceptions to this rule (7 C.F.R. § 205.204):

  1. When an equivalent organically-produced variety is commercially unavailable, a producer may use non-organically produced, untreated seeds and planting stocks
  2. When organically-produced equivalents and untreated, non-organically produced equivalents are not commercially available, a producer may use a non-organically produced crop that has been treated with a synthetic substance included in the list of permitted substances.
  3. A producer may use non-organic annual seedlings if USDA grants a temporary variance.
  4. A producer can use non-organic planting stock to produce an organic crop  after maintaining the planting stock under a system of organic management for at least one year.
  5. When federal or state phytosanitary regulations require  application of a prohibited substance, a producer may use treated seeds, annual seedlings, and planting stock.

The NOP defines “commercially available” as “the ability to obtain a production input in an appropriate form, quality, or quantity to fulfill an essential function in a system of organic production or handling as determined by the certifying agent in the course of reviewing the organic plan” (7 C.F.R. § 205.2).  Producers who believe a seed or planting stock is commercially unavailable should consult their certifying agent to determine what documentation the agent will require for the producer to prove they diligently sought an organic source and it is truly commercially unavailable. 

Livestock and Poultry

The NOP rule defines “livestock” as

[a]ny cattle, sheep, goat, swine, poultry, or equine animals used for food or in the  production of food, fiber, feed, or other agricultural-based consumer products; wild or domesticated game; or other nonplant life, except such term shall not include aquatic animals or bees for the production of food, fiber, feed, or other agricultural-based consumer products (7 C.F.R. 205.2).

To market livestock products as organic, they must be under “continuous organic management from the last third of gestation or hatching” through slaughter (7 C.F.R. § 205.236).  Farmer may raise poultry as organic from the second day of life.  Farmers must organically manage dairy cattle for at least a year prior to marketing milk as organic. They can market the meat from the cows’ calves as organic if they managed the cows organically for the last third of gestation.  For future calves to be organic, the cow must remain under continuous organic management.  This prevents producers from gaming the system by managing cows as organic only during the last third of gestation, and otherwise caring for them conventionally.

“Organically managed” means feeding animals 100% organic feed for their entire lives (and the last third of their gestation); avoiding prohibited substances such as growth promoters, plastic feed pellets, formulas containing urea or manure, and mammalian or poultry slaughter by-products; and providing living conditions that accommodate health and natural behaviors, such as allowing access to fresh air, outdoors, exercise, clean and dry bedding and access to pasture for ruminants (7 C.F.R. § 205.239).  Revisions to this rule, to go into effect June 17, 2011 for currently certified organic farms and June 17, 2010 for operations that obtain certification by June 17, 2010, will require producers to provide year-round access for all animals to the outdoors, recognize pasture as a crop, establish a functioning management plant for pasture, incorporate the pasture management plan into their organic system plan (OSP), provide ruminants with pasture throughout the grazing season for their geographical location and ensure ruminants derive not less than an average of 30 percent of their dry matter intake requirement from pasture grazed over the course of the grazing season (75 Fed. Reg. 7154 (Feb. 17, 2010) to be codified at 7 C.F.R. §§ 205.102, 205.237, 205.239 and 205.240).  If need be, synthetic and non-synthetic substances that are listed on the national list of permitted substances may be used as supplements or additives (7 C.F.R. § 205.237; the list of permitted substances is in 7 C.F.R. § 205.603).  It is important to note that the USDA does not issue variances or exemptions when there is an organic feed shortage.

Preventing illness and caring for a sick animal is a point of concern for organic producers (and consumers). Many modern medicines are synthetic, which is contrary to the principles of organics, but allowing animals to suffer in the name of avoiding synthetic chemicals is also contrary to ethical concerns.  As much as possible, producers must care for animals in a manner that prevents disease, by doing things such as selecting animals appropriate for the environment and the site, providing feed that satisfies nutritional needs, and establishing housing, pasture conditions, and sanitation practices that minimize the spread of disease and reduce stress.  However, livestock can be given vaccines to prevent disease and other “veterinary biologics” (products of biological origin) when needed. When these are insufficient, farmers may use synthetic medications that are listed on the national list of allowed substances (7 C.F.R. § 205.238).  The NOP prohibits all antibiotics, but it also prohibits denying an animal medical treatment with the intention of preserving the animal’s organic status.  This is a careful balancing act, as farmers cannot market meat as organic if the animal received any antibiotics.  Dairy products, however, can be organic if the farmer manages the cow organically for a year after she received antibiotics.      

Handling and Processing

In addition to certification of the production process, the NOP requires processing and handling facilities to obtain organic certification (7 C.F.R. § 205.100).  Handling means to “sell, process, or package agricultural products” (7 C.F.R. § 205.2).  If a facility handles organic and non-organic agricultural products, only the portion that handles the organic product needs organic certification (7 C.F.R. § 205.100).  However, the facility must implement practices to prevent the comingling of organic and non-organic agricultural products (7 C.F.R. § 205.272), including not using storage containers that have been treated with prohibited substances or have held products that were treated with prohibited substances.  For a handling facility to receive certification, it must have an organic handling plan (7 C.F.R 205.201), only use allowed substances and avoid prohibited substances as listed in sections 205.602 through 205.606 (7 C.F.R. §§ 205.105 and 205.270) and maintain appropriate records (7 C.F.R. § 205.103).  As far as actual process methods are concerned, the NOP generally allows any mechanical or biological process, including cooking, curing or fermenting, packaging, canning and jarring (7 C.F.R. § 205.270).

For direct farm businesses seeking to both grow and process organic products, it is critical to work carefully with the certifying agent to design a compliant processing method to maintain the “organic” status of the final product.

Retail food establishments who receive and sell products labeled as organic are usually exempt from certification, but they must nonetheless maintain proper records and comply with the requirements for the prevention of comingling (7 C.F.R. 205.101).

Further Resources

The NOP program website is  The National Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE, which is a branch of the USDA) has published a guide, Transitioning to Organic Production, which addresses some of the difficulties a farmer can encounter and lists resources for assistance. It is available at  For more information on the USDA’s organics program, including a list of banned and allowed substances, see their webpage.  There are various organizations and agencies around the state that provide technical assistance and training for transitioning a farm to organic and sustainable practices.  For instance, the Central Illinois Farm Beginnings program, which is sponsored by the Land Connection and the University of Illinois Extension, has a year long training course as well as field days and business planning seminars.

If want to go organic, you will need to:

-   Research, study, and learn as much as you can about organic practices. Switching to organic takes time and requires considerable labor investments – you do not want to make a mistake that costs you money, or worse yet, prevents certification.

  • Talk to other producers in your area to learn about your local market and what grows well in your area.
  • Attend conferences, workshops, and training sessions on growing and marketing organic

-   Develop an Organic System Plan, a record keeping system, and a business and marketing plan. Make sure your plans are consistent with each other.

-   Research and choose an organic certifying entity. Make sure the certifier has experience certifying your type of production, then obtain their information on what you need to do.

-   Start transitioning crops and animals to organic production practices. Keep good records!!!

-   Contact your chosen certifying agent, obtain certification, and start marketing.


[1] The lists of permitted and prohibited synthetic/non-synthetic substances are codified in 7 C.F.R. §§ 601 & 602.

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