The Truth About Organic Certification

Small farmers are finding more than one road to organic certification.

  • Certified Naturally Grown Logo
    Look for this logo at local farmers' markets.
    Photo Courtesy Certified Naturally Grown
  • planting lettuce
    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.
    Photo By Shutterstock/MarcusVDT
  • planting
    Planting a seedling in the garden.
    Photo By Shutterstock/Yuris

  • Certified Naturally Grown Logo
  • planting lettuce
  • planting

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.

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