How to Become a Certified Organic Operator in Ontario

If you are planning to transition to organic, there are a few things you need to know before you get started with the process! Here are some basic steps to get you started: 

  1. Get familiar with the Canadian Organic Standards.

    There are two main components to the Canadian Organic Standards. These are the General Principles and Management Standards, and their accompanying Permitted Substances Lists. Even if you have been farming in a way that meets generally accepted concepts of “organic” for a long time, it is wise to review the standards thoroughly before certifying, in order to avoid unexpected non-compliances down the road.

    The Canadian Organic Standards require that land be managed according to the organic standards for 36 months prior to harvest of the first organic crop (Section 5.1.1).. This is often referred to as the “three-year waiting period.” If you have been in full compliance with the organic standards for some time, and have only been using permitted substances, you may have already fulfilled the obligations of your waiting period, allowing you to get certified faster. If you are unsure about whether or not you’ll have to wait the full 36 months, you can ask your certifying body or contact an organic consultant.

    If you intend to continue producing some crops or products conventionally as you transition others to organic, you should be aware that the production of visually identical non-perennial crops as organic and non-organic even during the transition process is not allowed within the current standards. A separate legal entity (company) can be created for the organic production, but all records and transactions must be maintained completely and separately by that legal entity.

  2. Assess which certifying body is right for your business.

    This will largely depend on the scale, diversity, and type of production or processing. We’ve done a detailed comparison of the certifying bodies operating in Ontario to help farms with this process. Canadian Organic Growers also offers a list of questions to ask yourself, and your potential certifying body, to help you assess whether they are a good fit.

    If in doubt, we recommend narrowing it down to a few certifying bodies that seem like a good fit, and then asking for a quote and more information to find out how your costs & the certification process might differ with each certifying body.

  3. Assess your current and past level of compliance with the organic standards.

    Determine how much time remains until your first crop can be fully certified. This depends on whether or not non-permitted substances have been used within the past 36 months. You will either need to provide an affidavit confirming that no prohibited inputs have been applied in the last 36 months or you will need to complete that 36 month period.

  4. Register with a certifying body.

    A list of certifying bodies operating in Ontario is available on our website. Generally, certifying bodies first require you to complete an application package, to be reviewed prior to your first inspection, along with a plan to demonstrate how your operation complies with the organic standards.

    When you register with a certifying body, the time frame for your transition period, initial inspection, and certification inspection will be made clear. You may register with a certifying body immediately once you enter your waiting period, but for most operations, the initial application will need to be received by your certifier no less than 15 months before you want to market a product as organic. After reviewing your application and organic system plan, the certifying body will notify you of any missing information or potential concerns that they find during their review and request that you provide a resolution of the issue.. The amendments might require things like changing suppliers for certain inputs. If these changes are related to the use of non-permitted substances, you may be required to begin your 36 month waiting period again, after ceasing to use those substances. This is why it is a good idea to review the General Principles and Management Standards and Permitted Substances List thoroughly, and take a thorough inventory of substances used, in advance of beginning the 36 month waiting period.

  5. Develop a production plan (organic system plan).

    detailing production practices and describing record-keeping systems (can include input documentation, seed sources, a five year field history, harvest records, storage or inventory records, sales invoices, bills of lading (BOLs), lot numbers, and records of transportation). This will be a requirement of your application with a certifying body and is also a great way to help you get organized and clear on how your business will operate.

  6. Undergo the initial and certification inspections.

    Once an inspector has completed their report, it is reviewed by the certification body’s head office. You may have to take some additional steps as a result of the initial inspection and review, such as changing suppliers to ensure that inputs comply with the permitted substances list, in order to become fully compliant with the standards.

Farmers and processors who wish to ensure that their certification process is as timely as possible, who are developing complex organic systems, who are unclear on how to interpret the standards, or who would like to verify whether their current practices are compliant with the standards may wish to hire an organic consultant to help them navigate the certification process. Consultants are usually former (or current) organic inspectors who are experts on the standards and can guide you through the certification process. If consultants have inspected your operation in the past year, they cannot act as your consultant. You can find a list of organic consultants in Ontario on our website.

Additional Resources

Canadian Organic Growers- Transitioning to Certified Organic Farming

OMAFRA- Transition to Organic Crop Farming

SaskOrganics – Steps to Organic Certification