Organic Hemp Certification in Five (Not So Simple) Steps

By William Sumner, Hemp Content Manager, New Frontier Data

It pays to be green. According to market analysis by the Organic Trade Association, organic food and non-food products exceeded $50 billion in United States sales in 2018. Given the popularity of such products in the U.S., a growing number of hemp farmers are seeking competitive advantage by having their crops certified as organic by the federal Department of Agriculture (USDA).

According to the USDA, there are five steps in the organic certification process:

Step 1: Develop an Organic System Plan

An Organic System Plan (OSP) is an applicant’s roadmap to becoming certified organic. A well-crafted OSP will address all the farming or handling systems that the hemp farmer or manufacturer incorporates throughout the production process, including land-use history, storage, and soil-management activities. An OSP will include detailed records of the type of substances used in the production process (e.g., pesticides), and essentially detail the entire production process from seed to sale, with detailed documentation to prove each claim. An OSP template is available on the USDA website.

Step 2: Implement and Submit a Plan for a Certifying Agent’s Review

Once an OSP has been developed, the next step in the process is to implement it for review by a certifying agent. Certifying agents are accredited by the USDA to review and approve applications for organic certification. Currently, there are 80 such agents worldwide, with 48 based in the U.S. and 32 located in foreign countries.

When contacting a certifying agent, hemp farmers and manufacturers should consider the agent’s fee structure and proximity to their facilities. Click here for a current list of USDA-accredited certification agencies.

Each certifying agent will determine fees based on each farm or facility’s size and scope. The cost of having a certifying agent come to inspect, review, and approve an organic certification application can range from several hundred dollars to several thousands.

Fortunately, the USDA offers two programs which can help defray some of the costs. Available in all 50 states, the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program (NOCCSP) will reimburse successful applicants for up to 75% of final certification costs (not exceeding $750).

Alternately, the Agricultural Management Assistance program (AMA) is only available in 16 U.S. states: Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Step 3: Receive an On-Site Inspection

To prepare for inspection, applicants should gather all their documentation for convenient review of every step in the production process, from seed to sale. Such includes receipts, invoices, and other types of paper trails that might exist. Applicants should be prepared to lead the inspector on a tour of one’s farm or facilities, and to provide requested product samples for testing.

Step 4: Await the Inspection Report’s Review

The report will also assess a facility’s risk of contamination, so it is important for cultivators to minimize risks and ascertain that procedures are in place to prevent contamination before the final report is submitted.

Step 5: Receive and Maintain Approval

If an operation is fully compliant with the USDA regulations, the agent will approve the application. Once approved, annual renewal of organic certification is required, so applicants should update their OSPs regarding any changes in daily operations.

As organic certification entails a long, rigorous, and expensive process, individual hemp and CBD operators will need to consider whether organic certification makes advantageous sense for investing the time, effort, and expense toward the process.