How to Pick a Certifier
by Tony Kleese
Choosing a certifier is just like choosing any other service provider. You will be the most satisfied if you do a little research up front to ensure that you are getting the most for your hard earned money. We recommend using the following criteria to evaluate which certifier is right for you.
First recognize that it is not necessary for the certifier to be located in your state. Any certifier accredited by the USDA can certify anywhere in the country. They may self-limit their range but they do not need to have an office in your state. The location of the inspectors they use is an issue. Some certifiers may require that you use inspectors that are not located near you. You will have to pay their travel expense, so this can have a major impact on your cost. Ask the certifier about who their inspectors are and how far away they are from your farm.
The USDA does not regulate fees for certification. Some certifiers charge a flat rate based on acreage, some charge a base fee and then charge an assessment based on sales. Both fee structures are intended to make it scale-specific so a small operation is not charged the same as a large operation. Shop around and see what works for you. Remember to factor in inspector costs.
We suggest that you budget a minimum of 3 to 4 months for the first time through the system. It can take as much as 6 months if your operation is complicated or there are other delays in the process. Ask the certifier what their average turnaround time is and be very thorough in your application/farm plan as this will reduce the need to collect additional information. It may also be helpful to ask the certifier if they have recommendations on the times of year when their load is lighter and they can move faster.
Certifiers are accredited to perform certification services for the USDA for crops, livestock, and handling. Some certifiers may not offer services in all of these areas. Some may be more oriented to the manufacturer market instead of the small farmer market. Make sure you are very clear about what products you want to have certified so you can ensure that the certifier can meet your needs. Some certifiers are just getting into organic certification and some have been at it for years. You may find that this impacts the service you receive. Some certifiers, especially the older ones, are very active at the federal and state level by participating on committees and advisory boards. If this activism is important to you, you may want to support a certifier who participates in these activities.
End Product Issues
If the crop you are certifying will end up in a manufactured product, you may want to consider being certified by the same certifier as the final product. Technically, this should have no impact because in the eyes of the USDA, all certifiers and certifications are equal, but it may make the sale and distribution of your product go smoother if they are the same.