What is Organic Farming? - Definition & Methods

Instructor: Nicholas Pieri

Nicholas holds a BS in Geology and a master's degree in education. He has taught secondary Earth space science.

In this article, we will define organic farming by taking a look at organic farming methods and the criteria needed for a product to become certified organic.

Organic Farming

You've likely seen more and more organic offerings at your local grocery store lately. Organic products are no longer just for the farmer's market or health food store. But, are organic products really here to stay, or just a passing fad? Here is some information you may find compelling. According to the Organic Trade Association, U.S. organic sales reached $43.3 billion in 2015, up from $28.6 billion in 2010. That number represents 5% of all food sales in the U.S. for 2015 and is projected to increase in the future.

Organic Produce
Organic Produce

Answering this question might be easier with a solid understanding of what organic farming entails. So, whether you're a newcomer to the organic game, a skeptic, or have been a life-long believer that organic is better, do you really know just what makes your organic food, organic?

What is Organic Farming?

According to the IFOAM

IFOAM or the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (you can see why they stick to IFOAM) has been the dominant voice in the world of organic farming since 1972. According to IFOAM:

''Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.''

IFOAM offers organic accreditation to a number of certification bodies throughout the world and maintains a list of affiliates on their website.

According to the USDA

The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program (NOP) has set its own parameters regarding what it takes for food to receive a USDA certified organic stamp. According to the USDA, organic food is any food which is produced and handled under their guidelines.

USDA Organic
USDA Organic

In the first step, producers or handlers must petition for a certifying agent to perform an inspection. An application must be submitted and include an organic system plan, which describes what practices and substances will be used.

For produce to be considered organic, it must come from organic soil and not come in contact with prohibited substances at any point in time. Prohibited substances include many synthetic substances including most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Land can be certified organic so long as no prohibited substances were used over the last three years. As a side note, both conventional and organic can take place on the same farm, though buffer zones may be necessary.

Meat can only be USDA certified organic if the animals are raised in conditions which support their natural behaviors such as grazing, are fed only organic feed, and do not receive hormones or antibiotics. Vaccines are permitted however since disease could spread rampantly otherwise.


Once a producer or handler has been certified USDA organic, an updated organic system plan and certification fee must be submitted annually. Small farms which produce less than $5,000 worth of products are exempt from annual inspection and certification fees.

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