COLUMBIA — With the demand for certified organic foods rising steadily among health-conscious consumers, more farmers are taking the time and making the effort to seek organic certification.

Once officially certified, farmers can use the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal with their products, which include crops, livestock and even processed items, such as packaged soups.

The certification process has a reputation as being daunting and expensive, but Clemson University, a USDA-accredited certifying agent, is working to make it more accessible and affordable for South Carolina farmers, food processors, greenhouse operators, coffee roasters, restaurants owners and a variety of other clients. Here are several reasons Clemson wants these clients to have access to the organic marketplace:

  • Organic products generally sell at prices 20 to 50 percent higher than their non-organic counterparts;
  • Consumers respect organic products and those who produce them; and
  • The practices used by organic farmers tend to build healthy soils, recycle farm nutrients and reduce pollutants, all of which is good for the environment.
City Roots Farm in Columbia offers a variety of organically produced products.

City Roots Farm in Columbia offers a variety of organically produced products.
Image Credit: Clemson University

As far as the cost of certification is concerned, operations that gross less than $5,000 annually can become certified for $200 and, with the help of USDA Cost Share, have this amount reduced to just $50. More lucrative operations have to pay $750 for initial certification, but 75 percent can be reimbursed by the Cost Share. Furthermore, the fee schedule for renewing clients is just one half of one percent of annual organic sales.

Clemson plant industry program coordinator Ryan Merck set out to demystify the certification process at a recent workshop in Columbia.

“We evaluate your farm for compliance – from the products you produce to how you market them,” Merck told the audience at City Roots Farm on Feb. 23. “We need to know how your operation actually works and we always need to have a current picture of your operation.”

Sarah Morrison, a Clemson inspector, then conducted a mock tour of City Roots with co-owner Eric McClam.

“The inspector serves as the eyes of the certification agent,” Morrison said. “The inspector’s job is to make sure that everything you’ve put in your file is actually taking place.”

Organic farmers must comply with strict regulations and are not allowed to use synthetic chemicals in fertilization and pest control.

“Organic farmers have to view their farms as balanced ecosystems,” said Geoff Zehnder, coordinator for Clemson University’s sustainable agriculture programs. “You want your pests and their natural enemies to be in balance. We talk about this in terms of taking advantage of nature’s services. If we can let nature do our work for us, then we’re a lot better off.”

Zehnder provided many examples of natural pest control, one of which was planting strips of flowers that attract wasps that prey on caterpillars.

Farmer Carey Howell attended the workshop to learn more about the organic process.

Farmer Carey Howell attended the workshop to learn more about the organic process.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“Rather than using chemicals to kill the caterpillars, the wasps kill them,” Zehnder said. “In conventional pest management, synthetic pesticides can disrupt natural systems. In organic farming, we have to integrate multiple practices in a sustainable way to manage pests.”

Carey Howell, who is starting a small truffles farm in Fort Mill, attended the workshop to learn about sustainability and to get insights into organic farming.

“I might not go totally certified,” Howell said, “but I’d like to follow the protocols of organics to produce a better crop for optimal health.”