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USDA Certified in Organic Beef on a Family Owned Ranch

Becoming a certified organic farmer is an expensive and time-intensive process, and, accordingly, a significant decision for any small farmer. The problem is to understand the process by which a family owned ranch could become USDA certified for organic beef. What are the necessary steps and important factors to consider from beginning the process to marketing to retailers?

Understanding USDA Organic

The government-managed organic food certification program is USDA Organic. Within this certification system, organic food production follows guidelines laid out in the Organic Foods Production-Act of 1990 and amended according to Public Law 109-97, Nov. 10, 2005. These regulations take into consideration site-specific conditions "integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity." (USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, 2011) Included in OFPA are rules for farm planning, livestock handling, use of pesticides and synthetic substances and processing. Beef has been included in the National Organic Program (NOP) since 2002. (U.S. Department of Agriculture) The certification program is only available to producers and handlers that sell more than $5,000 per year in organic products. Producers and handlers that deal in smaller quantities may use the USDA logo without certification so long as they adhere to USDA Organic guidelines. (USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, 2008)

NOP standards are intentionally defined somewhat loosely, leaving points of specificity to the state agencies and administrators that monitor certification. In the case of livestock, NOP indicates that products must be produced primarily without synthetic chemicals (there are some exceptions) and livestock must be handled in accordance with a plan agreed to by the livestock farmer, handler, and the state or local administrator or certifying agency, overseen by NOP and the National Organic Standards Board. Further, livestock must be fed organically produced feed, and not be fed plastic pellets, manure, formula containing urea, or growth hormones. Livestock may not be given antibiotics or other medication (excluding vaccinations) except in the case of sickness, nor may they be given synthetic internal parasiticides. Ongoing processes to maintain organic certification include the maintenance of a verifiable audit trail for each animal on the farm, annual inspections, toxic residue tests of land and feed, and provisions for public access to the results of these inspections and test. (U.S. Department of Agriculture) The USDA maintains a list of substances that are approved and prohibited within organic production guidelines. This database of 111 substances and the degree to which they are allowed in organic farming is available from the National Organic Program website. (U.S. National Organic Stanrdards Board, 2010)

Handling practices are similarly regulated by the OFPA. It is therefore key for a farmer of organically raised beef cattle to partner with handlers and processors (as is relevant) that also adhere to OFPA standards in order for their meat products to make it to retailers carrying the USDA Organic label. Handlers may not, during processing, add synthetic ingredients or ingredients containing nitrates, heavy metals, toxic residues, sulfites, or any other ingredients not organically produced, nor may they use packaging containing synthetic fungicides, preservatives, or any container whose organic quality may have been compromised by being in contact with such substances, or in contact with water that does not meet requirements set forth by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Similarly, organically raised meat may not come in contact during processing with meat that is not organically raised. Organic accreditation is valid for five years. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

The Application Process

The two most significant pieces of information necessary for a producer to provide for certification are a 3-year history of all substances applied to the farmland seeking certification and an Organic System Plan (OSP) describing in detail the organic practices that are to be undertaken and the means for avoiding contact with nonorganic products. (USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, 2008) Two national sources of funding are available to help defray the cost of the certification program, National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) and the Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) Program. Through these programs, producers and handlers may be reimbursed up to 75% of their annual cost of certification, up to $750 annually. (USDA Agricultural Marketing Service National Organic Program, 2010) Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education also offers comprehensive listings for state and local grants available to farmers and producers according to geographic region. (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, 2010)

Transition to Organic

The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) offers suggestions, guidelines and considerations for transitioning to organic beef production. Because there are several market options for selling organic beef, the first step of transitioning to organic beef production is to determine which market option is most appropriate. This decision may determine breeds, weights, slaughter distances and finishing requirements. Sales options include weaned calves, finished slaughter animals, direct marketing of packaged meat (demanding the use of a certified organic slaughterhouse), or raising and finishing entirely on grass. (MOSES, 2008)

MOSES also notes longer-range factors involved in the certification process. Organic beef must be managed from the last third of gestation, and brood cows, once transitioned to organic must remain that way. Purchased bred cows must be under organic management for at least three months before the birth of the calf; calves must be given organic milk, and breeding hormones are prohibited in bulls. Further, all ruminants must graze on certified organic pasture, so cropland must be certified in the year prior to certifying the first birth of calves intended to be certified organic. Also, producers must plan a buffer zone around pastureland to prevent contact with non-organic land, and provide certified food storage and bedding facilities. (MOSES, 2008)

Trends in Organic Sales

Despite the economic slowdown in 2009, organic consumer product sales reached $26.6 billion, an increase of 5.1% from 2008, and well ahead of total food sales, which grew only 1.6% in 2009. Organic meat, poultry and fish products accounted for 2% of this $26.6 billion, or roughly $500 million. Between 2000 and 2009, organic consumer product sales grew between 15% and 21% annually. As reported by the USDA, "69% of adults bought organic food at least occasionally in 2008…Nineteen percent of consumers bought organic food weekly in 2008, up from 3% in the late 1990s… 51% of shoppers purchased organic food in 2006; in comparison, in 2001, 44% of shoppers bought organic food over a 6-month period." (USDA Economic Research Service, 2009)

Because of this boom in demand, organic producers have at times not been able to keep pace with the growth. Those areas most unable to keep up with growth were organic grains and organic soybeans, however, given the use of these products as feed for organic livestock, shortages also lead to problems for livestock producers. Aside from the obvious problem of the 3-year certification process and the lag created by this, it is not entirely understood why farmers have not converted potential land to organic at a faster rate. (USDA Economic Research Service, 2009) Given that organic food producers are now competing directly with non-organic food producers for market shares in a variety of retailers and are not limited specifically to boutique natural food retailers and restaurants, the prospects for entering the organic meat industry are very good. (U.S. Organic Trade Association, 2010)

Marketing Organic Products

Growing alongside the organic food movement is the local food movement. MOSES estimates that most of the food consumed in the U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to plate. Given that chemical fertilizers and pesticides accounts for 40% of the total energy consumption in non-organic farming, however, the cost and energy involved in transporting organic goods over greater distances may still be a preferable option to the cost and energy of non-organic farming, especially when considering the long-term sustainability of organic practices. However, it is generally considered good practice to strive toward local marketing of organic products. (MOSES, 2008)

A marketing strategy for a would-be organic beef producer, then, must account for the quantity of organic meat local markets can realistically sustain, and, if producing in excess of that, a strategy for marketing to larger geographic areas. Depending on the distance of these markets, it may result in significantly different product prices. (MOSES, 2008) Over half (54%) of organic foods currently pass through mass-market retailers, including mainstream grocers, club stores, and other retailers. (U.S. Organic Trade Association, 2010)

Education is the number one indicator for organic product preference among consumers, above age, ethnic group or region. In addition to mass-market retailers, and locally owned supermarkets and restaurants, farmers can also take advantage of online commerce and market their products directly to retail consumers. (USDA Economic Research Service, 2009)

Alternative to USDA Certification, the "Grassroots Certification" of Certified Naturally Grown (CNG)

CNG began in 2002 as an alternative for organic certification geared toward small farmers overwhelmed by the cost and paperwork of USDA Organic. The standards for raising livestock are similar to the USDA standards but tend toward greater specificity, not leaving…[continue]

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