Organic is a labeling term for food or other agricultural products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity in accordance with the USDA organic regulations. This means that organic operations must maintain or enhance soil and water quality, while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. Only products that have been certified as meeting the USDA’s requirements for organic production and handling may carry the USDA Organic Seal (USDA National Organic Program, November 2016).

Organic Certification

The National Organic Program (NOP) is a regulatory program housed within the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service that is responsible for developing national standards for organically-produced agricultural products.  In order to use the USDA organic seal or the term ‘organic’ to market agricultural products in the US, operations must be certified to the National Organic Program (NOP) standards.  The NOP standards are defined in 7 CFR 205 in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Interested in certifying your farm or agricultural business?  Learn about the process to become a certified operation.


One of the main barriers to organic certification is the transition period.  In order for land to be eligible for certification, it must not have prohibited substances applied for a period of 3 years.  Therefore, once a farmer makes the decision to transition land to organic production, they must manage the land without the use of prohibited substances for 36 months before any crops or other agricultural products produced from that land can be marketed as organic.  This presents a challenging financial risk where production costs may increase under organic management, but organic market premiums cannot be attained for three years.

What is a prohibited substance?  The NOP standards include the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, or the National List for short.  It includes the criteria for what materials, or inputs, are permitted in organic production.  Prohibited substances include most synthetic substances, with some exceptions.  Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), sewage sludge, and irradiation are all prohibited from organic production.  The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) reviews and maintains lists of materials for use in organic production and processing.    However, as you transition into organic production, your certifier will have the ultimate authority on what materials are permitted.

Once the last application of a prohibited substance is made on a given piece of land to be transitioned, the 36 month transition “clock” begins ticking.  Consider the example of a grain farm that has been under conventional corn-soybean management:  A corn field receives a fungicide application at tassel on July 10, 2017 as the final application of a prohibited substance.  In May 2020, the field is planted to corn.  Ahead of the July 11, 2020 eligibility date, the operation submits an application to a certifier since no prohibited substances will have been applied for 36 months.  By the time the corn crop is ready to harvest in the fall of 2020, the operation could receive its organic certificate and market the corn crop as organic.  Therefore, this farm will only have to market conventional crops during two growing seasons (2018, 2019) while in transition.  Their certificate will be in place before the third crop (corn) is harvested.  So, be sure to plan your transition to take advantage of this timing.  Learn more about the transition process.

Certified Organic Operations in Indiana

The number of certified organic operations (certified to the USDA National Organic Program, 7 CFR 205) in Indiana has grown substantially in recent years.  According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the number of certified organic farms increased from 271 in 2012 to 602 in 2017.  The USDA Organic Integrity Database (as of May 2019) lists over 800 certified organic operations.  This encompasses a diversity of crop (grain, forage, vegetables) and livestock (dairy, eggs, poultry, beef) farms, and handling (food processing, packaging, milling, etc) operations.  Learn more about organic operations in Indiana by exploring the following interactive map of certified operations.  The map was created in Google Maps with data downloaded from the USDA Organic Integrity Database (accessed April 29, 2019).

Organic Grain Market Trends and Budgets

Purdue Extension publication HO-304-W, “Is organic right for my grain operation?” provides an overview of recent organic grain market trends.  As described in the publication, price discovery is a challenge often cited by farmers entering the organic grain marketplace. Two sources of information for price reports are the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and Mercaris.  Mercaris is a Certified B Corporation that provides market data and information on organic and non-GMO commodities, and manages a trading platform for buyers and sellers to meet online to trade these commodities.  To access USDA AMS organic price reports, including National and Midwest Regional Organic Grain and Feedstuffs reports, visit  To learn more about Mercaris, visit Farmers can sign up to receive free price reports at

Purdue Extension-Organic Agriculture, in collaboration with the Purdue University Center for Commercial Agriculture, is working to develop a series of enterprise budgets and financial tools to assist farmers considering a transition of acreage to certified organic grain production, and to help those already managing certified organic grain production to assess their net returns with changes in crop rotation and practices.  An initial spreadsheet is now available that compares conventional and organic rotations over a ten-year horizon. Specifically, net returns are compared for a conventional corn/soybean rotation, a conventional corn/soybean/wheat rotation, and an organic corn/soybean/wheat rotation (with a phased transition of acreage).


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