Starting an organic farm: obtaining certification

Starting an organic farm: obtaining certification

There are many people who, out of passion or necessity, think of dedicating themselves toagriculture as a profession, growing for the market and not just for self-consumption. The choice to open the farm according to the organic method is particularly interesting, both for ethical and commercial reasons.

The fact of cultivating according to natural methods means respecting the environment, at the same timeo being able to sell your agricultural products as organic can be a real advantage, as it allows you to better enhance your production.

In order to sell organic vegetables and fruit, cultivation practice is not enough, it is necessary that one's cultivation be certified as organic and this involves a bureaucratic process and also expenses. In particular, it will be necessary to contact a certification body and prepare documents.

Whether small or large, a sales-oriented farm must comply with various types of generic and specific requirements for organic certification. Before becoming organic farmers in all respects, it is therefore important to know what needs to be done and what commitments to face.

We decided to dedicate a series of articles to learn more about how to open and manage an organic farm, with the aim of providing correct information on the subject and giving a smattering to those interested in farming for income. In this article we will briefly see the first steps to take to start an organic farm. Many of the topics and regulatory aspects related to organic farming will then be developed in more detail in the near future. Here we focus on the start-up phase of the activity.

Note: the regulatory references you find in this post, such as the description of the process, are updated in March 2020, it is then necessary to check for any changes in the legislation and keep up to date.

Starting a farm

If you have land and want to start a professional agricultural business, you have to rely on a CAA (Agricultural Assistance Center) for the opening of the company file and for other practices necessary for any farm.

This applies to anyone thinking of farming for income, regardless of organic certification.

There are offices of the CAA spread throughout the territories, we find different realities such as CIA (Italian Farmers Confederation) or Coldiretti. On the choice, we could ask some farmers in our area for advice or get all the information in person by contacting the institution.

Obtain organic certification

If you intend to certify your production as organic right away, the first step is choose one of the Control Bodies for the organic to which to entrust the certification for your company.

The certification bodies

In Italy, the certification of organic agriculture is entrusted to private entities, which I am though accredited by Accredia, the single Italian accreditation body designated by the government.

The control bodies for organic farming have the task of monitoring the activity of all certified operators (not only agricultural producers, but also organic processors and traders) to verify that they comply with sector regulations. Organic farming is regulated at a European level by EC Regulations 834/07 and 889/08, but from 1 January 2020 the EC Reg 848/2018 will come into force and there will be some changes.

It must be remembered that in the agri-food sector there is a vast mandatory legislation, that is mandatory for everyone, and alongside this there is another type of legislation for the voluntary field, including organic certification. This means that no one forces companies to switch to organic, but when they join, they are required to comply with all relevant legislation. Consequently, if a farmer obtains organic certification and then, for example, secretly uses products that are prohibited by law, he is committing fraud.

The control bodies aim to protect the consumer, and in turn are under the supervision of Accredia and the Ministry (Mipaaf), which verify the competence, impartiality and seriousness of their work.

Cost of certification

Being subject to a control body means starting to pay an annual fee for certification, which may vary between the different control bodies and which also depends on the size and complexity of the company. If you are not sure, it is advisable to request at least 3 quotes from 3 different organizations and choose the one that seems to us best suited to our situation.

Certification process

The process for certifying the organic company to organic begins with the start-up notification and requires some necessary bureaucratic procedures, such as PAP and management plan. Let's find out what it is.

Activity start notification

Once you have chosen the control body, you have to fill in and send the notification of the start of activity. The same CAA that opened the company file can take care of this, or an organic consultancy company, which can support us more specifically in this phase and also in the future, as well as a qualified freelancer.

The notification is computerized and for many Italian regions it is carried out on the Sian portal, while other regions have their own portal. The notification incorporates the data of the cadastral parcels of the company file, on which the macro use is indicated (eg: orchard, arable land, tare, ditches, olive grove, etc.).

From the moment the notification is made, the soil particles begin the phase of conversion to organic.

The notification is sent electronically to the Control Body.

Annual Production Program (PAP)

In addition to the notification, within the following 30 days it must be realized the PAP (Annual Production Program) which indicates which crops will be created each year and a forecast of their yields per hectare. For example, if a parcel is indicated as "arable land" we can specify that in that particular year we intend to put wheat or another cereal and indicate an estimate of the yield and hectare, which we can make based on the territory and the particular variety chosen.

It is not worth staying too low on the yield estimate because then, during future checks by the control body, it would be more problematic to justify a higher yield than expected than the opposite. If in a year we intend to make two crops for certain plots, we can indicate the successions on those plots. In the case of vegetables, sOften it is also possible to just indicate "mixed vegetables".

The PAP must then be submitted every year, officially by January 31st, even if time extensions are often granted.

Management plan

In addition to the notification and PAP, you also need to draft a management plan pursuant to art. 63 of Reg 889/08, usually on a guide format that the control body provides directly to the operator.

Practically you have to describe the company, the machinery, the crops, the way to achieve soil fertility and the prevention of adversity, but also the choice of suppliers, the presence or absence of contractors, transport, sales and various other procedures subject to control. The management plan must then attach other forms such as the rotation plan, the crop form and any other specific attachments.

In particular, the precautionary measures sheet in cases where only part of the company is converted to organic, holding some land to conventional. In a situation like this of a mixed company, specific measures are necessary to ensure the scrupulous separation of the activities carried out with the two different methods.

If, in addition to vegetable production, you also intend to transform (example: preparation of jams or preserves from the fruit and vegetables that are grown) you must also present the PAP of the preparations and draw up the preparatory Management Plan.

The start-up visit of the certification body

Once the process has started, the certifying control body proceeds within a certain time from the notification with the start-up inspection visit, and if everything is compliant there, it issues the Justification Document for the company, to which an Operator Code is also associated.

This supporting document is not yet sufficient to be able to sell the products of your company as organic: you have to wait for the end of the conversion to organic and obtain the Certificate of conformity, another document issued by the control body and containing the list of all products that can be sold by the company as organic.

Subsequent visits

After the certifier's start-up visit there will be others, in minimum number of one per year or even more, usually announced in advance.

Each inspection body provides even surprise visits, which in practice translate into visits at short notice, of about 48 hours. In fact, we keep in mind that an inspector must still know that he is in the company that particular day, otherwise he would have an empty trip.

The conversion to organic: timing

The conversion to organic lasts 2 years, and 3 years for tree crops, and is described in Article 36 of the aforementioned EC Reg. 889/08.

During this period it is necessary to operate faithfully respecting the organic legislation, without however being able to sell the product with this term. Conversion is a somewhat difficult phase, because you have to commit and invest, but without yet benefiting from the advantages of certification.

If the company is small and intends to tie itself mainly to local markets, it may be worth using this time also to work as much as possible on communication, in order to to let potential buyers know the products but also the company policy, the approach, the technical and ethical choices, in order to start earning their trust and create a first round of customers.

Last but not least, it is good to start networking with other companies in the area and try to immediately establish a collaborative and non-competitive approach, an attitude that pays off in the long run. Today the technological means are there and it is better to make the most of them to be visible, to communicate what you are doing and to reach the interested parties in this way.

How to shorten the conversion period

In some cases it is possible request retroactive recognition of the eco-compatible management of the land, aimed at shortening the conversion period.

It is necessary to be able to demonstrate that that land was uncultivated or managed in any case without the use of products prohibited in organic production even before the notification, and this may involve a bureaucratic process and an expense for the support of professionals, but if it were feasible, it would anticipate obtaining organic certification.

What to do operationally in the company

In the next articles on organic certification we will describe in more detail the regulatory aspects related to plant production, breeding, processing, labeling.

Reg 834/07 sets out all the basic principles of organic production, while the Reg 889/08 goes more into the merits of the applications, then there are also national regulations, such as Ministerial Decree 6793 of 2018, to provide further specifications.

Anyone who starts an organic production already has a basic idea of ​​what this entails in practice, but sometimes this idea is a bit reductive, and then it is good to clarify and eliminate some commonplaces that are still present.

It must be specified that organic certification is a process certification, and which does not offer total guarantees of the absence of product pollution from causes not dependent on the farmer. It is clear that if you have the opportunity to grow in a pleasant and uncontaminated place your production will be very clean, but it is possible, except in special cases, to obtain certification even in less idyllic places. The important thing is to respect the legislation and enforce it also by neighboring farmers, who must maintain compliance bands for treatments, as required by the NAP legislation, on the sustainable use of plant protection products, valid for all farmers.

It is certainly important to learn the salient aspects of the legislation and always keep up to date, or if you think you don't have the time or desire, at least use a consultant which can support you in this specific aspect, and avoid errors even of form or "paper" which, however, could lead to warnings from the control body.

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