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Certified Naturally Grown
by Alice Varon
Organic Producer

The National Grassroots Alternative to USDA Organic Certification

When the National Organic Program (NOP) was implemented in 2002, small-scale organic farmers were faced with a difficult decision: refrain from calling their produce “organic” – even if they had maintained impeccable organic growing practices for years – or become Certified Organic by a USDA-accredited certifying agency. For many farmers, neither choice was attractive.

Certification through the National Organic Program requires an enormous amount of record keeping – a paper trail of everything that happens from seed to sale. This is appropriate for large farms that grow only a few types of vegetables and sell in bulk to chain stores or big processing plants. But for diversified small farms that may grow upwards of 200 varieties of vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruits, the mounds of paperwork have been prohibitive. Even setting aside the paperwork, the high cost of certification fees alone puts the USDA Organic label beyond reach for many small-scale organic growers.
Many organic growers opted not to participate in the NOP, so they didn’t have “permission” to describe their produce as organic. They had lost a very valuable marketing tool at a time when more and more people were becoming aware of the environmental and health benefits of organic growing methods. Farmers needed a simple way to describe their growing practices to customers

Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) was created specifically for the small-scale direct market organic farmers, by organic farmers who anticipated that the National Organic Program would be better suited to large-scale agribusiness than to the small farmers who had first started the organic movement. CNG began as a regional marketing program in New York State, but as national media stories broadened our reach, we quickly expanded to include farms all around the country. Today nearly 500 farmers from 47 states have enrolled to use the Certified Naturally Grown label. As one farmer talks to another about the program, our numbers continue to grow.

How is Certified Naturally Grown different from Certified Organic? For starters, farmers are exempt from the high fees and paperwork requirements associated with the National Organic Program. CNG runs on a free-will donation basis. Farmers are encouraged – but not required – to contribute $50 or more to cover the basic costs of running the program. As a farmer-driven organization, our goal is to provide a credible certification alternative that that is tailored to the needs of small direct-market farmers.

Rather than employing “third party” inspectors, like the National Organic Program, CNG relies on volunteer farmers to inspect other farms. To discourage fraudulent “trading” of inspections, you are only allowed to inspect a farm other than the one that inspected you. So it always takes three farmers to finish an inspection round: Farmer A inspects Farmer B, Farmer B inspects Farmer C, and Farmer C inspects farmer A. Neighboring farmer-inspectors who are more likely to regularly and randomly visit their neighbors, and are intimately familiar with pest pressures in their region, can be more aware of cheating – and thus serve as better deterrents – than professional inspectors. These inspectors may be from far away and typically see a given farm only a few hours a summer – at pre-scheduled times no less!

Although we use the publicly available USDA Organic standards, CNG is an independent program not in any way affiliated with the USDA National Organic Program. This gives us much greater flexibility with how we implement the certification process.

Certified Naturally Grown also stands apart from USDA organic when it comes to transparency. All the certification documents required for every farm are available to the public. To participate in the program farmers must fill out an online application. Farmers accepted into the program have publicly-available profiles, organized by state, on our website at www.naturallygrown.org. Each farm’s profile includes a Grower Declaration signed by the farmer stating she or he will abide by CNG growing standards, the farmer’s inspection report (once completed), and the farmer’s online application which includes details about his or her growing practices.

Over time, more and more customers have come to recognize the colorful Certified Naturally Grown label. Some of this recognition comes from news stories, but most of it comes by word of mouth or its presence at farmers markets and use by CSAs. Like any true grassroots movement, we have grown because of the many people who are committed to the ideals of organic agriculture and the health of our communities. If you’re a farmer, we encourage you to become Certified Naturally Grown (apply online at www.naturallygrown.org). If you’re someone looking for organically grown produce and wanting to support small farms in your community, just look for the CNG label. You can trust it’s grown right, and right nearby!

If you would like more information, please visit www.naturallygrown.org


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