Bullnose bell peppersSome time ago, on some Facebook group somewhere, the subject of organic certification of food came up. And someone chimed in with something along the lines of, “Organic certification is all big corporate BS anyway, and is meaningless. Don’t even bother.” Sigh. Got to love the negative Nellies who wait with self righteous anticipation for our impending doom. I did my best to educate the naysayer from a farmers perspective, but I’ve have been meaning to write a post about what organic certification really means ever since. My apologies up front. This post is LONG.

While there IS some truth to how the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) has been undercut since its formation in 1990, especially with the current administration, you can’t throw out the baby with the bath water. We’ve come a long way baby.

To be clear, I’m nor certified organic. Our operation is small, and I’m basically a one women show. The amount of record keeping that goes into maintaining a certification is substantial, and I simply don’t have the time. (There ARE some great grant programs out there to help cover the cost of organic certification, so cost in and of itself isn’t really the determining factor for me). I also want to reserve the right to spray a patch of Canadian thistle in a sheep pasture with a non-organic herbicide once or twice a year if that seems the best tool in our integrated pest management toolbox at the time.

But while Miles Away Farm isn’t certified organic, and likely never will be, we DO practice organic growing principles about 99% of the time. We deeply believe in the underlying foundation of managing for soil health and the ecosystem as a whole.

There is a lot of misunderstanding by the public about organic certification. And in reality, its actually pretty interesting, and something consumers can put a lot of trust into. And it is surprisingly difficult to find this information all in one place. So here we go…

First, These Important Points


A note on terminology. Insecticide = kills bugs. Herbicide = kills plants/weeds. Pesticide = both.

One thing that organic is NOT is no-spray. That assumption always makes me a little crazy. Think about it for a second. Spraying costs money, both in time and in materials. If growing healthy bug free produce without any sprays was easy, don’t you think EVERY GROWER, large or small, organic or not, would choose to grow that way? Of course they would.

Yes, there are some crops, in some areas, that you can manage to grow without sprays. I don’t spray my plums or apricots, and they are beautiful and bug free. Not so with my apples, pears and cherries. No spray sweet corn? Not unless you want to be sharing every ear with a corn earworm, at least in our area.

Secondly, organic doesn’t mean you don’t need to wash it before you eat it. I know, I know, I eat the strawberries right out of the basket too. But the Washington Department of Agriculture, if they could, would make every vendor at a farmers market post a sign that said, “This produce is unwashed. Please wash before eating”. And honestly, it IS a good idea, because, you know, manure used as fertilizer (though with an appropriate wait time before planting), birds flying over and pooping, cleanliness of the pickers hands, pets and livestock manure on site, carried by the wind etc. etc. etc.

USDA OrganicAn Overview of the National Organic Program (NOP)

The USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) definition of Organic, as of April 1995, is “An ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

See how the above goes WAY beyond what we are or are not spraying? How its taking into consideration soil health and the ecosystem as a whole?

To be fully certified USDA Organic, growers must be in compliance with the National Organic Standard, (7 C.F.R. Part 205), which covers prohibited practices, requirements, and the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. This includes but is not limited to the following.

  • A complete prohibition on all synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and growth regulators, except for those approved by the National Organic Program through the NOSB and placed on the National List.
  • A complete prohibition on the use of arsenic- and lead-based pesticides, nicotine- and strychnine-based pesticides and baits, and sewage sludge fertilizer.
  • Use of seeds and planting stock that have not been genetically engineered or treated with prohibited pesticides. (Want to avoid eating GMO? Buy organic!)
  • Preventing crop contamination from prohibited spray drift (ie a buffer between you and your neighbors).
  • Preventing commingling of organic with conventional production (ever wonder why the organic section of the produce department is separate, unless the produce is wrapped? This is why.)
  • Strategies that build soil, prevent erosion, and promote biodiversity
  • Keeping adequate records to demonstrate compliance with the National Organic Standard.

Changes to the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances are initiated through a petition to the National Organic Standards Board (more on them below) to add or remove a substance, or through the sunset review process. Anyone can submit a petition to amend the National List. The NOSB also reviews every substance on the National List every five years during the “sunset review” to confirm that the substance continues to meet required criteria.

OregonTilthCertifiedOrganicIt should be noted that before the National Organic Program passed in 1990, (subsequent rules finalized in 2002!), there were state programs. And before there were state programs, there were individual associations. Notably the Organic Growers and Buyers Association, in Minnesota in the early 1970’s, which did a substantial amount of work to get this whole ball rolling (read Atina Diffley’s book, “Turn Here, Sweet Corn” for a great story of the early history of the organic movement). And many of those original state programs are now accredited certifying agents for the USDA. Most notably in our area, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana all have accredited certifying agents. So you might see an Oregon Tilth Certified Organic label on a product, rather than the USDA Organic logo or the Washington State Department of Agriculture label. They basically mean the same thing, because they are all based on the national program.

WSDA Certified OrganicAll of those accredited certifying agency states? Generally, they are the ones who started out with their own state standards, and then worked on the National Organic Standards Board committees once the national program was passed, to figure out how to get everyone on the same page using the same rule book (which, should be noted, took TWELVE YEARS). The only state that maintains their own separate certification is California. (No way?!)

How Does a Farm become Certified?

Well, its not a fast process. It takes a minimum of three years to transition to organic, unless you can find land that you can prove has basically been fallow for at least three years.

Organic crop production standards specify:

  • Land will have no prohibited substances applied to it for at least 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop, following all the organic practices, with documentation, during that time.
  • Preference will be given to the use of organic seeds and other planting stock.
  • Crop pests, weeds, and diseases will be controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.

Ever wonder why organic produce is more expensive? THIS is primarily why. When going organic, farms have to follow the practices for three years, while not being able to charge an organic premium for their product during that time. Physical and mechanical control of weeds takes a LOT more labor than spraying. Labor is the number one reason organic produce is more expensive.

The organic livestock standards, which apply to animals used for meat, milk, eggs, and other animal products, specify:

  • Animals for slaughter must be raised under organic management from the last third of gestation, or no later than the second day of life for poultry.
  • Producers are required to give livestock agricultural feed products that are 100 percent organic, but may also provide allowed vitamin and mineral supplements.
  • Organically raised animals may not be given hormones to promote growth, or antibiotics for any reason. Preventive management practices, including the use of vaccines, will be used to keep animals healthy.
  • Producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from a sick or injured animal; however, animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic.
  • All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture for ruminants. (A ruminant is a basically an animal that chews its cud – so cows, sheep, goats and the like).

There’s been a lot more “letter of the law” and not “intent of the law” shenanigans around the livestock standards than the crop standards. Things like chickens with “access” to the outdoors, who never actually go outside. Horizon Organic milk is not carried by a lot of natural food stores because they feel like Horizon continually skirts the intent of the law when it comes to their animal’s welfare. (Google “Horizon Organic controversy” for details. Psst, buy Organic Valley instead).

1981038The National Organic Standards Board

The NOSB considers and makes recommendations on a wide range of issues involving the production, handling, and processing for the United States Department of Agriculture organics program. The NOSB is also responsible for the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Unusual for a federal advisory board, the NOSB is endowed with specific statutory power. It is the undercutting of this power in recent years that has organic proponents up in arms, and likely prompted the “its meaningless” comment from our negative Nellie.

The NOS board made up of 15 public volunteers from across the organic community. Each NOSB member is appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for a five-year term. NOSB members include: four who own or operate an organic farming operation; two who own or operate an organic handling operation; one who owns or operates a retail establishment with significant trade in organic products; three with expertise in areas of environmental protection and resource conservation; three who represent public interest or consumer interest groups; one with expertise in the fields of toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry; and one who is a USDA accredited certifying agent. The USDA publishes a call for nominations each Spring, and newly appointed members begin service in January of the following year.

The NOSB generally meets twice per year at a free public meeting to discuss the items on its work agenda, vote on proposals, and make recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture. (Twitter #NOSB). They invite public input via advance written and in-person oral comments. If an NOSB proposal receives a decisive vote (2/3 majority) by Board members in favor of the proposed motion, it becomes a recommendation to the USDA, and is provided to the Secretary of Agriculture through the Agricultural Marketing Services branch.

If you’ve ever served on a board, you KNOW what kind of commitment it takes, and what a giant time suck it can turn into. Now imagine doing that for a national program with a LOT of different outside interests arguing over what should and should not be allowed. Now imagine adding in a layer of national government bureaucracy. Now imagine doing that for 5 years straight as a volunteer. Yeah. Not for the faint of heart. People who are willing to step up to this plate are seriously committed to the program and what it represents to farmers and the health of the planet.

There is no other organization like the NOSB in the federal government, and it grew out of a grass roots effort to create rules and standardize the organic system way back in the 70’s. I think that’s a LOT to be proud of.

How to Get Started in Organic Yourself

Maybe you have a home garden. Maybe you’d like to follow organic growing methods as closely as possible, for the health of your family, your own community, and ultimately, the planet. But you are just growing for you. You have no need or reason to be certified. Where do you start?

I got started with organic gardening by reading Rodale’s Organic Gardening Magazine for free at my public library. I haven’t picked it up in years. As media dollars shrank, OGM became much more focused on short attention span articles without a lot of in depth detail. By the time it did that, I had been gardening for a good while, and most of their short articles were things I already knew, so I stopped reading it. It’s since been sold to Hearst Communications and rebranded as Organic Life. Ugh. But if you can find back issues from the 80’s and 90’s they are great. Especially in the 90’s when Mike McGrath was editor.

But their updated Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening is worth a purchase if you are wanting to understand the basics of compost and natural fertilizers for building your backyard soil. The older editions are even better. I was surprised to find an edition on my father’s bookshelf after he passed away and we were cleaning out the house.

I’m also a big fan of Peaceful Valley Organics website. Besides online products for organic growing that you can rarely find locally, they have a wealth of videos and articles on growing just about anything organically. Their Weed and Pest Solution Chart is a great place to start if you know what your issue is, but aren’t sure how to fight it organically. Because lets face it, wading through the National List, in government language and formatting, can be rather intimidating.GrowOrganicPestFinder

Mother Earth News magazine also has a wealth of information, and pretty much everything they have ever published is also available online going back 40+ years, if you can stand the avalanche of ads.


Which brings us to one more important resource. The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). When a company wants to make an organic product, they submit it to this non-profit organization for approval. Because while the active ingredient in a product might be on the National List, that doesn’t mean that everything else in the product is compliant. You might notice the OMRI stamp on organic sprays or fertilizers in big box stores. That’s a good thing. Sometimes, a product will contain the approved ingredient, but not be OMRI approved. It is expensive to get a product through the approval process, so companies sometimes choose to skip the process.  In which case you have to decide, do I trust that ALL of the ingredients in this substance are organic approved? Do I care? I admit I’ve purchased pyrethrin sprays on Amazon. Pytrethrin is an approved organic pesticide (one that should be used carefully, as it works indiscriminately and will kill good insects as well), but the brand wasn’t OMRI certified.

If you are a market gardener looking to get certified, start with your state certifying agency. They normally have good resources and checklists to get you oriented. And be sure to ask about grants to help defray the costs.

What About Other Organic Products?

Organic certification for personal care products is a whole other animal that I’m not going to get into here. But this blog post has a good overview of how it works in soap, and that its COMPLICATED.

How Do I Shop?

Environmental Working Grou's Dirty Dozen list, 2018First choice, I grow my own. Second choice, I buy from other local farmers. I worry less about something being certified organic when I know the farmer, and can ask them questions. Third choice, when I’m at the store, I buy organic food when I can afford to, and make it a priority to buy organic produce when its a fruit or vegetable that shows up on the the Environmental Working group’s Dirty Dozen list. This list is based on the USDA’s own testing of pesticide residues. If you read Michael Pollan’s book Botany of Desire and his chapter on potatoes, you will NEVER by another non-organic potato again. Seriously.

I also make a point of buying organic when it comes to soy and corn products, because I’d rather not support the GMO industry (its contaminating our heirloom seed stocks, regardless of whether or not you think its a health hazard) and almost ALL soy and flour/feed corn grown in the United States is GMO. I look for certified non-GMO vegetable oils as well, for the same reason.

I buy in season and almost NEVER buy produce, organic or otherwise, from out of the country, though I will make an exception on occasion for Canada. I do NOT trust organic certification for produce coming in from overseas. Not enough inspections. Not enough bodies on the ground. Cultures where a pay off will get someone to check a box or look the other way. Not to mention the carbon footprint from the distance the food has traveled. No. Just no! Eat seasonally. Eat locally. You don’t need asparagus in November.

Infographic of Organic Industry Consolidation

Organic is big business. Support small and local when you can. Larger version of this chart found at https://msu.edu/~howardp/organicindustry.html

I worry about organic certification less in meat products, but then about 90% of all of our meat and eggs are either from the farm, or purchased from a local farmer, where I know the animals were handled in a humane manor and aren’t standing around in their own poop all day. I have made a priority of buying organic milk products for 20+ years. I figure pesticides that are fat soluble are more likely to stay in the animal and therefore in its milk. Weirdly though, I worry less about it in cheese and butter, which is directly related to the additional expense. How do you know if your local farmer is growing their products in a sustainable way, even if they aren’t certified organic? You ask them. They should be able to answer your questions, and more than that, they should welcome them. If they don’t, that’s probably not a good sign (though do try to ask when they aren’t trying to help 3 other customers). Here’s a nice guide from the Cornucopia Institute on how to ask the right questions of your farmer.

Is there a proven nutritional difference between organic and non organic when it comes to produce? Probably not. There is so much variability in produce nutrition depending on the the specific plant variety being grown, where its grown, and how its handled, that any subtle differences between organic and no organic probably gets lost in the background noise. You could grow the same variety in 5 different places across the US and have 5 very different nutrition profiles, even if they were all grown organically.

But there are a LOT of good reasons to buy organic that have nothing to do with nutrition and everything to do with supporting the principles that the movement was founded on. You remember, “An ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.” Sounds like a good idea to me, and our kids, and their kids.

Did I miss any important points? Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments.

© Miles Away Farm 2018, where we’re miles away from buying all of our food organic, but about 75% there on eating local, including the feed for our poultry and sheep. Local certified organic growers include Welcome Table Farm, Walla Walla Organics and Frog Hollow. Hayshakers, like me, also follows the organic growing principles.