Transitioning to Organic Production

History of Organic Farming in the United States

SARE Outreach
2003 | 32 pages
At Purple Haze Farm in Washington 's Dungeness Valley, visitors can pick their own lavender bouquets from 50 varieties raised organically. Lavender thrives here because of low rainfall and mild winters.
At Purple Haze Farm in Washington 's Dungeness Valley, visitors can pick their own lavender bouquets from 50 varieties raised organically. Lavender thrives here because of low rainfall and mild winters. Photo by Rosemary Gray

History of Organic Farming in the U.S.

J.I Rodale, founder of the Rodale Research Institute and Organic Farming and Gardening magazine, is commonly regarded as the father of the modern organic farming movement. Beginning in the 1940s, Rodale provided the main source of information about "non-chemical" farming methods and was heavily influential in the development of organic production methods. Rodale drew many of his ideas from Sir Albert Howard, a British scientist who spent years observing traditional systems in India. Howard advocated agricultural systems reliant upon returning crop residues, green manures and wastes to soil, and promoted the idea of working with nature by using deep-rooted crops to draw nutrients from the soil.

By the 1970s, increased environmental awareness and consumer demand fueled the growth of the organic industry. However, the new organic industry suffered growing pains. Although there was general agreement on philosophical approaches, no standards or regulations existed defining organic agriculture. The first certification programs were decentralized, meaning that each state or certifying agent could determine standards based on production practices and constraints in their region. An apple farmer in New York has very different challenges than an apple farmer in California, for example.

The downside of this decentralized approach was a lack of clarity about what "organic" meant from state to state. A movement grew to develop a national organic standard to help facilitate interstate marketing. In response, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990 to develop a national standard for organic food and fiber production. OFPA mandated that USDA develop and write regulations to explain the law to producers, handlers and certifiers. OFPA also called for an advisory National Organic Standards Board to make recommendations regarding the substances that could be used in organic production and handling, and to help USDA write the regulations. After years of work, final rules were written and implemented in fall 2002.

Although the actual production techniques of organic food have not changed dramatically since the implementation of the national standards, "organic" now is a labeling term that indicates that food has been grown following the federal guidelines of the Organic Foods Production Act. The national standards also specify that any producers who sell over $5,000 annually in agricultural products and want to label their product "organic" must be certified by a USDA-accredited agency. Companies that process organic food must be certified, too.

Any farms or handling operations with less than $5,000 a year in organic agricultural products are exempt from certification. Those producers may label their products organic if they follow the standards, but they are prohibited from displaying the USDA Organic Seal.

The National Organic Standards

The national organic standards address the methods, practices and substances used in producing and handling crops, livestock and processed agricultural products. The standards specify that, in general, all natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic production and all synthetic substances are prohibited. The National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances contains specific exceptions to the rule. This summary is from the USDA National Organic Program (NOP).

Organic crop production standards specify:

  • Land will have no prohibited substances applied to it for at least 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop. Use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited. Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.
  • Preference will be given to the use of organic seeds and other planting stock.
  • Crop pests, weeds, and diseases will be controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.

The organic livestock standards, which apply to animals used for meat, milk, eggs, and other animal products, specify:

  • Animals for slaughter must be raised under organic management from the last third of gestation, or no later than the second day of life for poultry.
  • Producers are required to give livestock agricultural feed products that are 100 percent organic, but may also provide allowed vitamin and mineral supplements.
  • Organically raised animals may not be given hormones to promote growth, or antibiotics for any reason. Preventive management practices, including the use of vaccines, will be used to keep animals healthy.
  • Producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from a sick or injured animal; however, animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic.
  • All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, including access to pasture for ruminants.

A civil penalty of up to $10,000 can be levied on any person who knowingly sells or labels as organic a product that is not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program regulations.

For more information go to or call the USDA NOP, (202) 720-3252. Organic Farm Certification and the National Organic Program is available for free from ATTRA, (800) 346-9140 or