Understanding the label

Departments - The Growing Edge

Biological production. USDA organic labels. OMRI Listing. Certification can get confusing. Here's how to sort it out.

November 24, 2015

Photo: Dreamstime.com

This year, the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) released its first national survey of organic farmers since 2008. The report, entitled the 2014 Organic Production Survey, revealed some fascinating statistics.

First, organic sales have increased 72 percent since 2008, a huge jump that shows the potential sticking power of field-to-table and local food movements. However, the number of certified organic, under glass, floriculture operations decreased from 289 in 2008 to 242 in 2014. Yet the total square footage of such operations increased dramatically from 1,388,908 in 2008 to 2,107,052 in 2014. With the increase in square footage comes a corresponding increase in sales, with organic floriculture operations, indoor and field, combining for a total sales value of $27,330,041 in 2014 versus $15,479,962 in 2008.

As organic sales and production continue to increase for both agriculture and floriculture, it is crucial that growers gain an understanding of the market and what various labels mean. A common misunderstanding is the difference between an OMRI listed product and an USDA Organic label.

Organic growth desired

Only farms and food handling facilities can be organic certified. If a grower decides they want to go organic, the process can be quite intensive. Miles McEvoy, the Agricultural Marketing Service’s Deputy Administrator responsible for the National Organic Program, says the process is meant to be comprehensive.

To gain organic accreditation, growers have to present a plan for organic production to a USDA-accredited certifying agency. If the agency accepts the plan, the grower can implement it. Then an annual inspection of the growing facility and audits of the sales and production records will be conducted. Each certifying agency is required to perform random site inspections for 5 percent of the operations it oversees. There are also residue tests to ensure organic methods are being followed.

Certifiers have a specific set of procedures and processes they look for, McEvoy says. Livestock farms will have far different requirements than, say, a floriculture greenhouse.

“In terms of crop production, you have to be using naturally based fertility products (rock minerals, manure) as the primary source of nutrients. Things like crop rotation and cover crops should be used to provide nutrients in the soil,” McEvoy says. “In regards to pest control, it’s relying on preventive methods first, such as mechanical weed control, resistant varieties and then naturally based pest-control materials. If that’s not effective, then some selective synthetics may be used. Insecticidal soap for aphids, for example, may be used.”

Despite the rigors, the market for organic products has never been stronger. McEvoy believes the decline of standard commodity prices may explain the ascent of organic.

“Conventional commodity prices were quite high so there wasn’t as much of an incentive to get into organic production. Those commodity prices have fallen off somewhat, so there’s renewed interest in the organic sector for the premiums that are there,” he says. “For instance, there is a shortage of organic feed in the U.S., so there’s a lot of organic feed that is being imported.”

Over the past decade and a half, the number of organic growers has more than doubled. In 2004, USDA recognized 8,021 organic certified growers, all located within the United States. In 2014, there were 19,474 recognized domestic organic growers and 8,340 international growers.

“The market for organic is very strong, both domestic and export sales continue to expand for the sector,” McEvoy says.

But organic certification focuses on farms and handling facilities. To aid those businesses in meeting organic requirements, USDA allows businesses to utilize certain approved products.

The market for organic is very strong, both domestic and export sales continue to expand for the sector. —Miles McEvoy
Get the right product

The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is a nonprofit organization that verifies crop and livestock inputs for organic use. Should a product pass OMRI’s review, it is added to the collection of OMRI Listed products, which are allowed for use in organic production facilities.

“For example, when an organic certifier is working with a farm, they’ll look at what fertilizer is being used. If that fertilizer is not OMRI Listed, then the certifier will have to ask a lot of questions because they have to know what’s in those fertilizers,” says Amy Bradsher, marketing director at OMRI. “If it is OMRI Listed, it means OMRI looked at it in advance. The certifier knows that it’s OK to use.”

Bradsher says an OMRI listing means farmers and growers will be able to determine if what they’re buying is acceptable for organic production. Certifiers will know that someone has examined the product. An OMRI listing should streamline the organic certification process.

OMRI does not certify farms or growing operations. It only certifies crop inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, etc., for organic production. The organization works with manufacturers and suppliers.

Achieving an organic label can be a rigorous process, but the increased revenue may be worth it.

“We’re looking for what’s acceptable under the organic standards. We look at all of the ingredients, the formulation, any possible synthetic ingredients,” Bradsher says. “Certifiers and growers want to keep out prohibited chemical fertilizers and pesticides, so they have very clear rules of what is allowed on an organic farm. All of the information that we review is confidential. That way, a manufacturer doesn’t have to share what’s in their fertilizer with several certifiers. They can share it once with OMRI instead.”

It is important to note that because a product has received OMRI listing does not automatically make its use acceptable. McEvoy says that an OMRI product may be used under the supervision of a certifier.

“For instance, just because it’s on the list, a product still has to be used in a certain context. A grower has to use preventative practices first before using, say, a Sulphur material,” he says. “OMRI approves the substance but the certifier approves the use of the particular substance at the farm or handling facility. It’s more nuanced than ‘It’s on the list, so go ahead and use it.’”