The Truth About Organic Certification

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Look for this logo at local farmers' markets.
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If you are a small farmer who embraces sustainable farming without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, chemicals, pesticides or GMO seeds, you may want to take the time to find out more about Certified Naturally Grown certification.
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Planting a seedling in the garden.

Rural Americans may not know it, but there’s now an alternative to Certified Organic that is designed specifically for small-scale agriculture producers.

In 2002, when the National Organic Program (NOP) was established, small-scale organic farmers quickly realized that they might be in a predicament. While the NOP may be well suited for a large-scale operation, the expenses and time requirement to fill out the paperwork is taxing on a small farm and oftentimes impossible. Thus, Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) was developed, first in New York, to preserve high farming standards and provide affordable organic-like certification to small farmers. Now, CNG is nationally endorsed, and there are more than 700 farms and apiaries throughout the United States that are Certified Naturally Grown.

On our small farm, Herb and Plow, located on the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Tennessee, we raise more than 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables. Our farming practices meet USDA organic certification standards, but we were not certified. We knew it would be overwhelming for us to comply with the paperwork required by the NOP. Detailed records of planting, cultivation, fertilization, harvest and storage of those varieties, not to mention the payment for both organization membership and periodic inspection would be staggering. On the other hand, it was a significant loss to be unable to verify our growing practices — we could not legally use the term “organic” without NOP certification. Naturally, we were overjoyed to learn about CNG, and we immediately signed on. It allowed us to establish our credibility as serious growers who farm sustainably without synthetic chemicals, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or GMO seeds.

For larger farms that sell to large retail outlets or wholesalers, the National Organic Program may work. At last count, eight percent of CNG members have both certifications because they embrace the local networks and grassroots nature of CNG, and they also need organic certification for access to wholesale organic markets.

CNG is based on the National Organic Program standards, though many synthetic substances allowed in certified organic foods aren’t in the CNG program. CNG doesn’t certify processed foods, and CNG livestock standards have historically included more rigorous requirements concerning pasture access. However, NOP also met these standards in 2010. In addition, CNG doesn’t allow rotenone, which is allowed with restrictions in the NOP.

By and large, however, there is not a significant difference in the set of standards between the two organizations. Still, there are many reasons a farmer would choose one certification over the other. Inspections, fees, and transparency of the CNG farmer’s documented growing methods are just a few differences between the programs.

Inspection modes differ greatly. The farmer pays for NOP’s inspections conducted by a USDA-accredited certifying agency. According to the USDA, actual certification costs or fees vary widely depending on the certifying agent and the size, type and complexity of the operation. Certification costs may range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Typically there is an application fee, annual renewal fee, assessment on annual production or sales, and of course, the inspection fee. I spoke to a very small, local blueberry producer, and her inspection fee was $1,000.

CNG is a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS): locally focused quality assurance program. Farms are required to be inspected, and members also agree to inspect a CNG farm in their area if there is one. Inspectors are not compensated, thus eliminating steep inspection fees. The PGS model promotes farmer-to-farmer knowledge-sharing about best practices and fosters local networks that strengthen the farming community.

An estimated 10,000 farmers worldwide participate in this peer review-based inspection system endorsed by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. The PGS relies on volunteer farmers to inspect other farmers, eliminating piles of paperwork and lofty fees.

To discourage fraudulent “trading” of inspections, you must inspect a farm other than the one that inspected you. It always takes three farmers to finish an inspection. Farmer A inspects Farmer B, Farmer B inspects Farmer C, and Farmer C inspects Farmer A.

The local nature of the peer review creates accountability among farmers as opposed to the third-party inspector who visits only once a year. Auditors and other farmers are allowed to offer advice, talk to the grower, and evaluate the farm. USDA certifiers, however, are not allowed to offer any suggestions during an audit. Peer support networks foster an exchange of knowledge and experience. This information assists farmers with the necessary information to address pests or disease challenges without compromise. As an extra precaution, CNG also periodically conducts unannounced pesticide residue testing at no extra cost to the farmer.

Secondly, the volunteer-based inspection ensures that CNG member fees are kept to a bare-bones minimum. The minimum contribution for livestock or produce certification is $110; the recommendation is $125 to $200 per year. The apiary certification program is newer, and while a contribution is required, there is no minimum amount, but $75 to $200 is recommended. Contributions may be made in multiple payments over time by using a credit card in the CNG store. The program has established a scholarship fund for beginning farmers and those facing hardships such as extreme weather, injury or job loss.

CNG offers unique peer-based inspections, low fees, and transparency of documented grower’s farming methods.

The CNG website, publishes a profile on each farmer. This includes the original application detailing the grower’s farming methods and the farmer’s signed declaration, which indicates that she or he meets and agrees to all the CNG standards and accepts the terms of participating in the CNG program. Farmers must complete the declaration annually to keep the certification in good standing. Finally, the farmer’s current completed inspection form is also posted for the public to review.

Where can you find CNG farmers? The website lists all CNG growers and their contact information by state. Farmers’ markets also are an excellent source to find CNG locally grown produce. Look for the colorful logo on their banners and produce signs. You may also find CNG growers through CSA websites in your areas. Natural food stores may also carry CNG produce.

If you are a small farmer who embraces sustainable farming without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, chemicals, pesticides or GMO seeds, you may want to take the time to find out more about Certified Naturally Grown certification. Your conscientious growing methods need to be validated. If you are a locally grown food lover and conscious of the importance of natural farming methods, not only will you find a CNG farmer in your area, but you will be privy to all their growing practices.

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