Not all organic farms are certified USDA organic. If you dig down deep, organic is much more than a simple certification. However, even if you're exempt from certification, you'll still need to follow basic organic principals set by National Organic Program (NOP), if you want to market your farm products as organic.
In order to be truly exempt from organic certification, NOP policy states that an organic farm cannot sell more than $5,000 worth of organic agricultural products annually. That $5,000 is total gross sales, not net sales.
Fast tip: In case you're shaky on the whole gross vs. net income deal, here's a fast recap. Gross income is what you make, in total, from all of your farm sales. Net income is what you make after you take out money for federal and sate taxes.
2. What Does Organic Certification Exemption Excuse You From?
The organic certification exemption policy excuses you from two things specifically.
3. If My Farm is Technically Exempt, Can I Still Get Certified Organic
Exempt farms and businesses don't have to be certified, but can be voluntarily certified. The best way to get started with organic certification is to speak with a local organic accredited certifying agent.
4. Should I Get Certified Organic or Stay Exempt?
Whether or not to get certified organic is a hugely personal question, so there's not one perfect answer. There's a lot to consider and pros and cons on both sides. Following are some links that may help you to get thinking about the issues involved...
Organic operations, including farms, that are operating as exempt, may not use the USDA Organic Seal.
Exempt farms may not place the USDA Organic Seal on farm products, business signage or in printed farm literature (for example, a farm brochure). The USDA only allows certified organic farms and other certified organic businesses to use the official USDA Organic Seal.
6. Can an Exempt Organic Farm Label Their Products as Organic?
The NOP exemption rule does allow farmers to market and sell their product as “organic.” However, these farmers must grow organically in accordance with national organic standards. Being exempt because you sell less than $5,000 worth of goods, does not exempt you from following NOP rules.
With this in mind, if you are following national organic standards, then you can indeed tell customers that your farm goods are, "organic" and even label them as such.
7. Do You Need to Keep Records for an Exempt Organic Farm?
All organic operations must have record-keeping systems in place.
Keeping records is not just a requirement, but an excellent way to stay on top of the rules you should be following as an organic farm. Keeping records also helps protects you. Good clear records show that you've been following organic standards and help prove that you actually qualify for the exemption rule.
8. What Happens if an Exempt Farm Fails to Follow National Organic Standards?
If you're exempt from organic certification and you mess around with the NOP rules, you can be fined quite a lot of money. NOP policy states, "A civil penalty of up to $11,000 can be levied on any person who knowingly sells or labels as organic a product that is not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program’s regulations."
If you're not running a truthful organic operation, or even if you're simply unclear about what NOP rules mean, it's wise to keep the term "organic" out of the mix, rather than risk a large fine.
9. Can an Exempt Organic Farm Sell Their Products to a Store or Restaurant?
An exempt farm may sell farm goods to a grocery store or restaurant or other organic operation. If the buyer resells an exempt farm's product whole and unadulterated they can sell it as "organic."
If the buyer wants to repackage the product or process it into something new, it can no longer be sold as organic. For example, a grocery store may sell a bunch of carrots from an exempt, but organic farm, as "organic." However, if that same store has a deli, and makes carrot juice smoothies with the same carrots, that smoothie cannot be sold as an "organic smoothie."
10. Can a New Small Farm Operate Under the NOP Exemption Rule?
While a new farm probably meets the requirement of making less than $5,000 annually, a new farm may not meet time requirements. A farm claiming organic, certified or not, must follow certain organic rules for three years before being officially labeled as organic [see §205.101(c)(2)].
11. What Does an Exempt, Organic Farmer Need to Know?
As noted above, exemption from organic certification doesn't excuse you from operating under NOP policies. Thus, if you're running an exempt farm and operating and marketing as organic, you should know everything that a non-exempt, certified organic farmer knows.
Clearly, this may seem overwhelming, so I suggest you start with the following easy to digest education resources, and then branch out from there: