Beyond the Food Label: What Does "Organic" Really Mean?

With the help of Atlanta-based, small-scale farmers, we learn what it takes to earn organic certification.

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The word "organic" is generally defined as relating to or derived from living matter. In terms of farming, it means that food is grown without the use of any synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or materials. While anyone can use organic farming practices without a certification (many small-scale farmers do), getting that USDA stamp-of-approval makes farm-fresh food even more attractive to the community and the consumer.

However, earning an organic certification can be complex. It's a process that requires patience, dedication and lots and lots of documentation before an inspector ever steps foot on the farmland. From overcoming a learning curve to purchasing special equipment and materials, the initial investment in starting or converting to an organic farm can take years and thousands of dollars, as well as the stubbornness, patience, determination and optimism that a farmer must bring to the table.

The farmer must establish a strict system for growing and handling processes, approved substances, monitoring and record-keeping before applying for an inspection, which involves a detailed investigation of fields, storage areas, water systems, cleaning stations, soil conditions, equipment and cleaning stations, and, for farms with livestock, animal living conditions. The findings are presented to a certified agent who reviews contamination risks, critical control points and potential hazards before making a decision to issue an official organic certificate. Once earned, this valuable certification remains valid indefinitely, given that yearly inspections come back clean. The farmer is free to claim and market their organic certification, making their food more appealing to neighborhood markets, groceries, restaurants and more.

We talked to Matthew Bagshaw of Hungry Heart Farm, which earned its Certified Organic seal just a few years ago, for a little more insight into the process:

hungry heart

How long have you been farming?

We've been farming together at Hungry Heart for about two years, but I've been at it since 2010.

Can you tell me a little bit about the process of becoming a USDA certified organic farm?

We've always farmed organic - even without certification. The USDA has a complex and stringent set of rules, and record-keeping and compliance can be a ton of work. We have to keep detailed records, especially for inputs, and log books. We have to document the lifecycle of every harvest, step by step. It's a lot of paperwork.

How much does the entire process cost?

The USDA does not charge a fee, but you will need to pay for a third party certifying agency, which has a certified agent come out to inspect the farm annually and charges $800 biannually. You can apply for the 100 Organic Farms Campaign: the Georgia Department of Ag reimburses up to 75% for first time inspection, and Georgia Organics will reimburses the difference. It's paperwork, but it saves a lot of money.

What is the benefit of USDA certification?

Your produce is "no questions asked" high-quality. Once people know that your farm is certified organic and that an inspector comes in to check in every so often, it's way easier to sell.


Hungry Heart Farm began as a blank slate of land located in Decimal Place Farm (lots of happy goats and delicious goat cheese there!) just a few years ago and now produces a generous amount of beautiful produce, like carrots, beets, kale and herbs. Along with delicious fruits and veggies, Christi Hanson, who co-owns the farm, is a registered dietitian and offers food-based dietary intervention and group workshops on the farm.

You can learn more about Hungry Heart and more by visiting our Farmers page!

For additional resources, visit USDA, IFOAM, CNG, Georgia Organics and the GA Dept. of Ag