Organic FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

1 - How is organic farming different from conventional farming?
Organic farming refers to agricultural production systems that do not use genetically modified (GM) seed, synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Some of the essential characteristics of organic systems include: design and implementation of an organic system plan that describes the practices used in producing crops and livestock products; a detailed recordkeeping system that tracks all products from the field to point of sale; and maintenance of buffer zones to prevent inadvertent contamination by synthetic farm chemicals from adjacent conventional fields.

2 - What does certified organic mean and how is certification regulated?
Certified organic refers to agricultural products that have been grown and processed according to uniform standards that have been verified by USDA. The National Organic Program (NOP) develops the rules and regulations for the production, handling, labeling, and enforcement of all USDA organic products. This process, referred to as rulemaking, involves input from the National Organic Standards Board (a Federal Advisory Committee made up of fifteen members of the public) and the public.

3 - Can GMOs be used in organic products?
The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is prohibited in organic products. This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients. To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMOs and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances from farm to table.

4 - How does organic farming help the environment?
A high percentage of organic farms use production practices with environmental benefits such as water management practices, no-till or minimum tillage, habitat maintenance for beneficial insects and vertebrates, and biological pest control. These ecologically protective practices contribute to enhanced ecosystem services and benefit water quality, soil health, and biodiversity.

Conventional GM farming often uses minimal crop rotations, growing the same single crop year after year on the same land. This practice, known as mono cropping causes the depletion of nutrients and minerals. In order to continue growing crops in this depleted soil, nutrients and minerals must be added back in the form of hydrocarbon based fertilizers and mined minerals such as phosphate. Conventional GM farming is dependent on earth-based non-renewable resources. Monocultures and the resulting poor health open the way for infestations of insects, diseases and weeds. Healthy bio-diverse soil keeps these infestations in check. The lack of biodiversity requires synthetic pesticides and herbicides to be used, further destroying the national soil biology.

5 - Has the demand for organic products grown?
The organic sector grew from $3.2 billion in 2008 to $5.5 billion in 2014, demonstrating that there is increased demand for organic products and opportunities for growth.

The five most valuable organic products identified in order of highest sales were milk, eggs, broiler chickens, lettuce, and apples. The vegetable and fruit sectors have increased in their importance to the organic sector as a whole, making up 42% of organic sales in 2014.

6 - How many USDA certified organic farmers are there in the US?
According to the 2014 Organic Production Survey released by USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS), in 2014 there were 14,093 organic farms producing on 3.7 million acres.

USDA– NASS, Census of Agriculture - 2014 Organic Survey


7 - Which states have the most organic farms?
In 2014, California led the way with 2,805 organic farms. There are also large numbers of farms in northwestern, north central, and northeastern states.

Top Ten States in Organic Sales

8 - Are organic yields lower?
In USDA organic surveys, producers report that achieving yields is one of the most difficult aspects of organic production. Farm data from USDA producer surveys show organic crop yields to be much lower than those of conventional production. The yield differences estimated from USDA farm data are similar to those estimated by comparing USDA’s 2011 Certified Organic Production Survey with USDA’s 2011 Crop Production Report. The yield differences revealed by survey data may be due to the unique problems encountered by organic systems outside of the experimental setting, such as effective weed control.

However, while organic agriculture may produce lower yields when compared to conventional agriculture, organic farming is often more profitable, delivers more environmental benefits, and is healthier in terms of increasead nutritional benefit and reduced dietary pesticide exposure.

9 - Why does organic cost more?

The cost of organic food is higher than that of conventional food because the organic price tag more closely reflects the true cost of growing the food: substituting labor and intensive management for chemicals. These costs may include cleanup of polluted water and remediation of pesticide contamination.

10 - Where can beginning organic farmers and farmers transitioning to organic get assistance?
USDA offers several programs and tools to support the success of organic farmers. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) from USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helps producers plan and implement conservation practices to support the environmental sustainability of their organic operations.

National Organic Farming Handbook

USDA Assistance for New Farmers

USDA Guidelines Provide Crop Insurance for Organic Farming Practices

Get Started with NRCS

EQiP Organic Initiative

Conservation for Organic Farmers and Ranchers

NRCS Organic Webinars