About Organic Certification

About Organic Certification

Pennsylvania Certified Organic’s mission is to ensure the organic integrity of organic products and serve our farming community. We are here to help people understand the organic certification requirements that have been put in place to establish that integrity. We’ve put together this information to help you get started on your way to organic certification.

To request information, fill out the PCO Info & Application Request Form.

Frequently Asked Questions About Organic Certification

Why should I produce organic products?
Organic food products are increasing in the marketplace, and consumers are becoming more aware of the benefits. Environmental concerns have caused consumers to appreciate sustainable and organic agriculture. Consumers and growers are considering their health and the health of their families and workers. Soil is every farmer’s most important asset, and there is no doubt that crops grow better in well-cared-for organic soil so the health of the environment is improved.

What does “Organic Certification” mean and how does the process work?
The United States Department of Agriculture requires anyone who produces, processes or handles organic agricultural products must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifier in order to sell, label or represent their products as “organic: and use the USDA organic seal. To become certified, an organic producer, processor or handler must develop, implement, and maintain an organic system plan.

Once an organic system plan is approved, PCO sends a qualified organic inspector to perform an on-site evaluation of the organic operation. Then, based on review of the organic system plan, inspection report and related documents, PCO will determine whether the operation meets the requirements of organic certification. A certified operation must update its organic system plan, pay fees and be inspected annually.

PCO’s certification program is accredited by the USDA for compliance with the National Organic Program. Organic certification is not a guarantee of quality or purity of the product. Rather, it is evidence of the operation’s adherence to a prescribed system of agriculture and food production that involves the building and enhancing of the soil naturally, protection of the environment, humane treatment of animals and avoidance of toxic synthetic substances.

Do I need to be certified?
The USDA regulates the use of such terms as “organic” or “organically produced.” In order to market your product as organic, USDA regulations require certification by an accredited certification agency (ACA). Pennsylvania Certified Organic is a nonprofit ACA and has been established since 1997.

Is there a lot of paperwork?
USDA requires that producers submit an “Organic System Plan”. PCO will provide an application to help you meet those requirements, and our staff can assist you with completing the application. Record-keeping is required and varies according to the type of operation. If the paperwork feels overwhelming, we highly recommend our Transition Member Program, which offers new applicants more assistance with the organic certification process.

What if I need help?
If you are farming conventionally now, you may want to become a member of PCO and /or obtain a PCO information/application packet so you’ll know what you need to do to qualify as an organic producer well in advance of your first organic harvest. This packet of information contains all documents needed for applying for certification, including organic system plan forms and guidance sheets. When you first apply for certification, if minor noncompliances are found, you will be given a reasonable time-frame to correct them without having to reapply. Certified producers and members are invited to attend PCO’s meetings, and forums on organic production topics.

How much does it cost?
Click Here for a Complete List of Certification Fees. The cost of annual certification is based on the type of operation and gross income from organic sales. In addition to the certification fee, applicants must pay the cost of the annual inspection and any additional assessments, such as livestock or processing. Cost-Share Funds may be available to help pay for certification fees through your state’s Department of Agriculture or your local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office. Visit the Cost Share & Funding Resources page for more information on this and other funding programs.

How long does it take?
New applicants should apply at least six months prior to the first planned organic production to allow for ample time. The application and certification process usually takes 3 – 6 months, but depends on the time of year, complexity of the operation, potential non-compliances and other factors. PCO makes every effort to process your application quickly. To ensure the fastest turn-around, please complete the application paperwork by submitting all the necessary forms, along with your New Applicant Fee and Basic Fee. New applicants can apply at any time, though we ask that you apply as early as you can to avoid delays in processing.

How do I qualify for certification?
All farmland must be free of prohibited materials for at least three years prior to harvest of an organic crop. Prohibited materials include, but are not limited to: chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, sewage sludge and genetically modified organisms. Growers develop a specific organic system plan for approval by the certification agency. Adequate buffer areas must separate organic land from land being farmed conventionally. Animals must have outdoor access and be raised on organic feed under humane, sanitary conditions without the routine use of antibiotics or other harmful drugs. Each certified operation is inspected annually by an organic inspector. The inspector visits the farm or handling facility and reviews the operation’s records, such as field histories, inputs into the system, livestock care and sales records.

The full standards and requirements can be found on the USDA – National Organic Program website at www.ams.usda.gov/nop. The full standards can also be found in PCO’s National Organic Program Manual and information on pursuing and maintaining certification with PCO can be found in the PCO Certification Manual. PCO also publishes its own Materials List that can be used to help you decide whether something you are using— fertilizer, biological treatment, feed supplement, etc.— is permitted for use in organic production. These documents are available to our paid Transition Memberships or after the New Applicant Fee has been paid. You may pay the New Applicant Fee at the time of submitting your application paperwork or prior to completing the paperwork if you would like these resources to assist you while filling out your Organic System Plan.

What if my whole operation doesn’t qualify yet?
You can place a portion of your farm or handling operation under organic management (with an approved organic system plan) and certify other areas as they become eligible. If you intend to manage part of your operation non-organically, proper separation and record-keeping must be maintained between organic and non-organic production.

I just started farming this land. Must I wait 3 years?
You might qualify sooner if you are able to obtain evidence from the prior owner or farmer that no prohibited materials were applied.