What’s in that USDA seal? The ebbs and flows of organic certification in New Mexico.

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By Samantha Hilborn-Naluai, Rodale Institute’s New Mexico Organic Consultant

Photo by Samantha Hilborn-Naluai

By the Numbers: Organics In New Mexico

As many in the agricultural community know, on March 31, 2021, New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA) surrendered its USDA accreditation as an organic certifier. Farms who were certified under NMDA were faced with two options: finding another certifier or giving up on the organic label. 

According to the latest 2021 USDA Organic Survey, New Mexico had 93 certified organic farms, covering just over 33,000 acres and with an approximate value of over $1 million. The same 2021 survey identified 12 farms with a total of 1,424 acres in transition to organic production. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of organic farms has varied from 67 to 124 farms, but the value of organic goods sold has been on a relatively consistent uptick: from $22.2 million in 2011 to $101.6 million in 2021.

Who is certifying these New Mexico farms now that certification through NMDA is no longer an option? Here is the breakdown:

  • 38 California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) Certification Services 
  • 11 Where Food Comes From
  • 11 OneCert, Inc.
  • 10 Quality Assurance International (QAI)
  • 9 Oregon Tilth
  • 9 Organic Certifiers, Inc. 
  • 4 Natures International Certification Services (NICS)
  • 3 Primus Auditing Operations
  • 2 SCS Global Services 
  • 1 Pro-Cert

Aside from the dissolution of New Mexico’s state-based certifying agency, the trajectory of organic adoption may be held back in part by some commonly-held misconceptions about organic agriculture.

Misconceptions Around Certified Organic

3 Year Transition Period

Some root nodulation on a cover crop clover plant. Photo by Samantha Hilborn-Naluai

While many farmers are familiar with the 3-year transition required to certify organic acres, what many don’t know is that their farm may be certifiable this year. Many New Mexico farmers already do not use prohibited substances on their farms- examples of prohibited substances/excluded methods are RoundUp (glyphosate), synthetic fertilizers, GMO seeds, or biosolids. Farms that can verify they have not had any prohibited substances applied to their fields for the preceding 3 years can be certified this year. This includes fallow years and fields that have been out of production granted farmers can verify the above.

Exceptions for operations

Farmers whose gross agricultural income from organic products is $5,000 or less per year are exempt from certification. Like all other certified organic farms, they need to comply with the organic production and handling requirements. These exempt operations can market their produce as organic but are not allowed to use the USDA organic seal or represent their products as ‘certified organic’. 


Simply put, it depends. Ask five different stakeholders about the cost of organic certification, and you will get five different answers. California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), who certifies around 40% of organic farms in New Mexico, they have good insight into what the average amount is in reality. Let’s take a vegetable farm making between $20 and $50k in organic sales as an example. Their first year’s certification will range from $1,245 to $1,645 and the year after that, it will cost them $920 to $1,320. Most certifiers charge a one-time “first year application fee” which explains the higher cost in year one. The cost breakdown is as follows: an inspection fee of $500-$900, which varies depending on the time it takes to do the inspection, how far an inspector has to travel to your farm, etc.; and an annual fee of $420, which is on a sliding scale according to the value of your organic sales.

The good news is, there are USDA funds dedicated to organic certification costs. The Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP) reimbursement will cover 75% or up to $750 of your total certification fees per scope and the Organic and Transitional Education and Certification Program (OTECP) reimbursement will cover 25% or up to $250 of certification costs. You can apply for both of these programs in one year and potentially receive both. Visit your local FSA office to apply for these reimbursements once you are certified.

Garlic growing in an organic certified field. Photo by Samantha Hilborn-Naluai

The Nuances of Organic Certification

Many certified organic farmers are committed to the organic regulations and see them as a baseline for an organic system. Their consumer base may be asking for the USDA Organic seal, or they might need it to access a specific market. However, there is a large share of farmers in New Mexico who are not certified organic but believe in and practice organic production methods. Sometimes the farmer’s priority is to feed their local community or to have a relationship with their customer base, in which case, they would likely not benefit from using the USDA Organic seal. In my view, both approaches are valid and right: each farmer knows and is entitled to do what makes sense for their farm and their community. 

Rodale Organic Consulting in New Mexico

I was hired in 2022 by Rodale Institute to help farmers navigate the world of organic certification in the Southwest. After talking to numerous farmers and ranchers, my role is not only a consultant, but also an educator of organic. I found that most resources for organic certification, soil health and organic farming practices are not tailored for New Mexico’s diverse landscape and microclimates, and do not make the connection to our rich Indigenous and Hispanic agricultural history. With that in mind, I will be tailoring more organic educational materials to reflect this diversity. In addition, all farmers in NM who are interested in transitioning to organic or want to have a conversation about it, our consulting services are free and of no cost to the farmer. Contact me below for more information.


Rodale Institute Organic Farming Practices – This is a general overview of the components of what makes a farm organic. Many of these practices mirror the 5 Principles of Soil Health. 

Organic Certification Course | Rodale Institute Virtual Campus – This is an online course designed as a guide to help farmers, ag professionals, and educators familiarize themselves with the USDA Certified Organic application process: the corresponding rules and regulations, and meeting the standards. 

OMRI listing database –Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) provides independent review of products that are intended for use in certified organic production and processing. In this database, you can search a specific product or more generally. This is not an exhaustive list of approved products.

Nathanael, Samantha, and Nic (CA, NM, and Great Plains consultants, respectively)
tabling and meeting farmers at a conference. Photo by Samantha Hilborn-Naluai.

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