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Home > Food from Farm to Table > Organic Agriculture > What do you mean "Organic"?

What do you mean, "Organic"?


“Organic” is a guarantee about how an agricultural food or fiber product was grown and handled before it reached the consumer. It’s also a set of standards for farmers who grow plants and animals, and for processors and handlers who turn it into food or clothing products.

Farmers and food processors that make organic claims must meet national organic standards, maintain careful records, and be certified by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-accredited organization, a process that includes on-site inspection.* Certification assures consumers that the product was grown and processed organically. There are stiff penalties for fraud, which means representing a non-organic product as organic.

The MDA estimates that Minnesota has more than 650 certified organic farms and more than 200 certified organic food processors and businesses.

Organic agriculture … promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.
-- USDA National Organic Standards Board, 1995

*Farms that gross less than $5,000 in organic sales may be exempt from certification.

CROPS

Organic crops must be grown on land managed to reduce erosion and improve soil quality. The transition takes three years: no synthetic inputs may be used for 36 months prior to harvest of the first organic crop. Weeds, insects, and other pests are controlled using practices like crop rotation, mulching, tillage, variety selection, and biological control. Most synthetic herbicides and pesticides are prohibited, although a very few synthetic nutrients and soil additives appear on a special National List and are allowed. There are strict manure and compost guidelines. Sewage sludge is prohibited, and organic farmers may not use genetically modified seed.

LIVESTOCK

Organic livestock must eat organic feed and pasture. They must not be given growth hormones, treated with antibiotics, fed urea, manure, or animal by-products. They must be raised in conditions (appropriate to the species) that allow them to go outside and that allow for exercise. Ruminants like cows and goats must get a significant amount (at least 30%) of their dietary intake from grazing pasture. Physical alterations (like dehorning, and castration) must be done only to promote the animal’s welfare, and then in ways that minimize pain and stress. Some medications (e.g., antibiotics) result in decertification of the animal, but it is forbidden to withhold medical treatment from a sick animal in order to keep it organic.

Slaughter stock must be raised organically from the last third of gestation.

PROCESSING AND LABELINGUSDA Organic logo

Strict regulations govern how organic crops and animals must be processed and handled in order to preserve their organic status. Ingredients, processing aids, pest management in the processing facility, and labeling must all follow the organic rule. There must be no opportunity for organic products to mix (“commingle”) with non-organic products. Irradiation is prohibited.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture encourages you to learn more by reading the National Organic Standards and by contacting the groups listed below.


The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) recognizes organic as a choice that interests many farmers and consumers. Organic continues to be one of the most rapidly growing sectors in the food industry.

We offer organic information, educational events, speakers, and other assistance and resources for many areas of organic agriculture including: production methods, transition, certification, and marketing. We also enforce state misbranding laws.

On our organic web page, also find fact sheets, directories, economic summaries, grant/loan information, sample record forms, how to report pesticide drift, and more:


For More Information

MDA Contact

Meg Moynihan, Principal Administrator
Meg.Moynihan@state.mn.us, 651-201-6616
Organic Production & Certification Program

Ag Marketing & Development Division