Man filling out paperwork
Updated: March 23, 2021
By Neith Little

Certifications in agriculture and natural resources

I get a lot of questions about certifications. What certifications should a farmer or landscaper or food entrepreneur get? What professional development certifications can UMD Extension help you work towards?

If you ask me that question, I’ll likely ask you to take a moment to think about why you want certification. Do you want to make sure your business is complying with relevant regulations? Do you want to go above and beyond what is required to set your business apart from your competition? Is one of your customers asking for a specific certification? Are you looking for a job and hoping a certification on your resume will help you find one?

Being clear on what your goal is will help you figure out which certification you should work towards—and whether you even need one! If you don’t have a clear reason why you need a certification, maybe more informal educational opportunities would be a better place to start so you can learn and explore before taking the plunge.

Below are links to more information about the certifications I am familiar with that are relevant to farmers, landscapers, and food entrepreneurs. It is by no means a comprehensive list, so please let me know which ones I’ve missed that you think are important or valuable. I’ve gone through a couple of these certification processes myself, as evidenced by my wall of paperwork.

wall of certifications
Wall of certification paperwork

Legally required certifications:

Nutrient management: In Maryland, farms that sell more than $2,500 gross per year are required to have an approved nutrient management plan. UMD Extension has a state-wide training program to help farmers become certified to write their own plans. Alternatively, county Extension offices also have Nutrient Management Advisers on staff who can write nutrient management plans for farmers. But even if a farmer chooses to have an Adviser write their nutrient management plan, all farmers who apply nutrients to 10 or more acres of cropland are required to get a Nutrient Applicator Voucher. UMD Extension offers annual Continuing Education trainings for this voucher at the county or city level.

Landscapers or anyone who applies nutrients to turf grass for hire are required to be “licensed by the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) and must have at least one Certified Professional Fertilizer Applicator on staff.” Nurseries or greenhouses that sell over $2,500 per year also need nutrient management plans, but they use a different template and training from crop farmers.

Pesticide use: Anyone who purchases or uses Restricted Use Pesticides must be a Certified Pesticide Applicator. UMD Extension has a website with study materials for this certification. There are different categories of certification, in addition to the required “core” certification. Local County and City Extension offer regular trainings for people seeking these certifications, and who need continuing education credits.

Food safety: I’ll talk about voluntary food safety certifications below. But farms that sell more than $25,000 (gross) of food commonly eaten raw are required to comply with the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The Maryland Department of Agriculture and UMD’s food safety team are working together to build a training program to help farmers understand FSMA. I got to go to some of their pilot trainings last winter. Keep your eye out for more soon.

Value-added food businesses have their own set of food safety regulations to comply with. Some of them will need to comply with the Preventative Rule within FSMA. UMD's Produce Safety Team (within the Plant Science Department) conducts FSMA training in Maryland. At UMD Extension, Ginger Myers has gathered together a wealth of resources for value-added food producers on her Ag Marketing website. In particular, you may find helpful this list of relevant licenses published by the MDA and MD Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Voluntary certifications

There are several voluntary certifications that farmers can pursue to add value to what they produce and open the doors to specialized markets.

Maryland Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) is a voluntary food safety certification for Maryland fruit and vegetable growers. UMD and the MDA work together to offer trainings to help farmers achieve this certification, and are working hard to make it as easy as possible for small-scale farms to start with a GAPs certification and transition to FSMA compliance when they need to.

USDA Organic is a national certification for farmers who use organic practices. UMD Extension has an article on organic production and certification. MDA has a state-level organic certification program. There are also several other private sustainability certifications out there.

Resume enhancing certifications

Several of the certifications above are relevant to individuals, not just businesses. But again, it’s important to think about your goals. Before you work towards certification to list on your resume, you should at least have a field of work in mind that you are interested in, if not a specific type of job. Even if you’re not ready to apply, it’s worth reading job advertisements in that field to see what qualifications are valued. Then you can find certifications to pursue that will demonstrate your skill in those qualifications.

I work in the field of agricultural education, so I am certified as a Nutrient Management Adviser, a Pesticide Applicator, and a Certified Crop Adviser (CCA). Farms and landscaping companies might need their employees to become certified as Pesticide Applicators or Fertilizer Applicators. Food businesses might need their employees to gain food safety certifications. Having these certifications as an applicant for a job on a farm, landscaping business, or food business, would be a way to demonstrate your training and dedication to the field. But you will need job experience and/or classroom education to enable you to apply the skills and knowledge needed. Being able to pass a test is just a small part of being able to do the job.

Keep learning

A professional certification is about more than passing a test once. It is a commitment to lifelong learning and self-improvement. That’s what UMD Extension education is about too.