Obviously many factors will play into your decision when it comes to choosing an organic certification agency. The tips below can help you choose the best agency to fit your needs before, during and after the certification process.
1. Know Your Needs and Wants
As with any business relationship, your organic certification agency choice is not set in stone. Still, it's preferable to think about the long haul. Why not go into a relationship with a positive outlook and the goal of a long-term commitment. Getting to know one agency builds trust and allows for a better understanding of your agency's system and allows the same for your agency - i.e. they'll get to know your system as well.
That said, before you start looking make a general list of your needs and wants. This will help you start to choose the best agency for you. Consider some of the following:
- Do you want a local or national agency?
- What sort of fees you can afford.
- What services matter most to you? Timely service, educational resources, groups?
Also jot down a basic plan covering what you'll need. For example, what crops you'll be growing, which animals you're raising or if you need an agency that specializes in less common certification, for example food services. It's also important to make some notes about what you'll need for a successful certification. For example, are you well-versed in certification jargon or will you need extensive support.
You don't need a 100% perfect plan going in, but knowing some of what matters most to you can help you find an agency to meet your needs.
2. Don't Put it Off
Locating a good certification agent is not something you want to do last-minute. First of all, different certification agencies have varying criteria and rates. More importantly though, shopping for anything at the last second means you're more likely to shop sloppy and rushed, rather than carefully.
Also, the years before you become certified (the transition period) do matter just as much as the time period directly before you earn certification. You have to meet specific animal, inputs and land criteria and build an excellent organic system plan. These tasks will be much easier with the help of a good agency. Lastly, once you decide to go organic, it's important to obtain an agency's information packet on record keeping as soon as possible, so you start keeping good records right away.
A good rule of thumb is to start hunting for a certification agency once you decide that transitioning to organic is right for you.
3. Ask Organic Peers
Find out if there's an agency that more producers in your area use and why. Find out if other producers and businesses are happy with their agency or if they wished they'd gone elsewhere.
If one farmer or business is dissatisfied, it could be just one of those things. If you run into complaints about one agency over and over though, it's wise to consider going elsewhere.
4. Talk to Buyers
Did you know that some buyers of organic commodities like to work with specific certification agencies over others? It's true. If you already have a buyer lined up for a specific crop, it's smart to see who they prefer to work with.
This one simple step, of checking with your buyer, can save you some major money and time. There's no sense in having to be certified twice over, for twice the costs, if your buyer says they only buy from producers working with such and such agency.
5. Read the News
Do some background press checks on various agencies. Some say that no press is bad press, but when it comes to organics, that's not always true. Organics is still an astoundingly small sector and bad press travels fast and hard.
For example, there's one organic certification agency, that will remain nameless, that's been in the press over and over recently. This agency has been accused repeatedly of conducting shady business practices and certifying less than stellar organics. I personally know people who refuse to buy organics certified by this particular agency, due to all the bad press this agency has received over the last few years. In fact, to be honest, I don't even like to buy organics certified by this agency. I try to stick to reputable agencies and companies.
Bad press isn't everything, but honestly, why get your product certified by an agency who is always popping up in negative ways in the press. Your certifying agency does reflect on you to a point, whether you like it or not.
Before choosing an agency, I'd make sure to scour news feeds and other media sources using the agency's name, and see what pops up - both good and bad.
6. Consider Pros and Cons of Local vs. Not
You don't always have a choice of going local, because not all states have organic certifying agencies. However, if you have your choice of local vs. not, I'd consider local first, as long as they meet your other requirements.
Why go local?: A local agency knows more about your specific area, which can be a help when it comes to finding inputs, addressing soil issues and more. Plus, a local agency may be more invested and easier to reach at any time. Plus any travel costs accrued by you, if applicable, will be considerably less expensive if your agent is local.
The only time I'd suggest going with a non-local agency is if that agency offers something you need and can't get locally. For example, if you're breaking into a unique organic market and only one or two agencies specialize in that market or if you're considering foreign sales and none of your local agencies have experience in non-U.S. sales.
7. Conduct Research
If you don't have peers to talk to, it doesn't mean you're all alone and can't research agencies. The Rodale Institute, for example has an amazing resource, Guide to US Organic Certifiers that anyone can use. This guide is truly great and offers side-by-side agency comparisons, an easy to search data base that lets you search by agency attribute, a certifier forum where others talk about their experiences and so much more.
You can also conduct some easy and basic Google searches for information or visit other organic business and farm forums, but the Rodale guide makes it so simple that I'd start there.
8. Visit the Agency's Website
I've been to some organic certification agency websites where I can't, for the life of me, find any answers to even the most basic questions. That's all good and fine if the agency has a 24/7 hotline, but not surprisingly, that's not always the case.
It's in your best interest to choose an agency with an outstanding website. Not only is this a sign of a more professional agency, but it makes it easy for you when you need an answer to a question at 3am.
Oregon Tilth is one example of an agency with an outstanding website. Not only is their site clean and easy to navigate, but it's well written, and they offer resource after resource for new and established clients. They have FAQs, news reels, social media hook-ups and much more that's useful for folks going through the certification process. This is the type of website experience you want. You don't want the kind of site that drives you insane when you can't find a form you need to download.
9. Talk to Potential Agencies
Obviously, you'll want to actually discuss certification and your unique situation with an agency before signing on with them. Be sure to write down all your questions before meeting with them, so you remember everything. If you need a checklist of questions to ask a potential agency, see the link below.
- Questions to ask a potential organic certification agency
10. Watch Out for Danger Signs
There are some key danger signs to watch out for when you're hunting down the perfect organic certification agency, for example...
- Agencies who fail to call or email back within a timely manner.
- Agencies who can't answer simple questions.
- Agencies who dance around fee conversations.
- Agencies who aren't listed on the USDA certified agency page.
- Agencies who can't tell you offhand about important issues, such as where to get necessary inputs.
- Agencies who do not come to conduct an inspection.
- Agencies who cannot give you a ballpark figure about your certification timeline, even after they know your situation.
Of course, if you've got a gut feeling that something is amiss at an agency, trust yourself. You may be right.