An Alternative to Organic Certification

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For many small farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic certification process is costly and pervasive. It also prohibits anyone who isn’t USDA certified from using the term “organic” on a label.

As an alternative to the USDA, Certified Naturally Grown is an independent, non-profit organization that was started in 2002 to certify local producers who do not use any herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). CNG holds to the same standards as the USDA National Organic Program, but is not affiliated with the federal program.

Unlike the USDA program, which accepts farms of all sizes, the CNG certification is geared towards small-scale, direct-market farmers who produce food for the community through farmers markets, Community-Supported Agriculture programs, local restaurants and small local grocery stores.

CNG’s Executive Director Alice Varon said the program supports niche markets and is very community-based. Varon said CNG’s certification model differs from the USDA because they rely purely on farmer-to-farmer inspections.

Varon said CNG takes an entirely different approach from the USDA program because other nearby farmers carry out the inspections. She said this helps build networks and accountability.

“There’s a lot of learning and sharing of information that we feel is a very good way to strengthen the farming community,” Varon said.

Members of the program are required to do at least one inspection of another farm.

To keep to its community-oriented approach, Varon said CNG would not certify a large-scale, 200-acre farm that distributes their products to large wholesalers and retailers.

“We (CNG) are especially for farmers producing food for their (own) community,” she said. “There are a lot of community-based farmers who feel like the USDA process is not for them.”

The CNG certification process is also more affordable and less extensive than the USDA’s. The yearly cost for a certification varies, but CNG recommends contributing $125 to $200 per year. The minimum is $110.

“We keep our program affordable … without putting financial strain on the farmer,” Varon said.

CNG also has a scholarship fund for beginner farmers or those who have faced unusual hardships due to inclement weather, physical injury or job loss.

The USDA’s minimum yearly fee is $400, but can go up to the thousands. According to the USDA’s website, the cost depends on the size and complexity of the farm. However, the USDA does have a cost share program to reimburse certified organic operations up to 75 percent of their certification costs, which adds up to $11.5 million in assistance each year through 2018,  according to the website.

The USDA’s National Organic Program was started in 2000. Those who are certified organic must follow all of the regulations under NOP, which thoroughly cover food production, processing, delivery and retail sale.

A farmer who sells or labels a product as “organic” who is not certified organic can be fined up to $11,000 for each violation.

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There are about 25,000 farms and businesses that are USDA certified organic. This includes farms in the U.S. as well as in 100 other countries. According to the USDA’s website, the organic industry raked in nearly $35 billion in 2012, making it one of the fastest growing agricultural segments in the U.S.

There are currently 750 CNG-certified farms in 47 states. But as the local food movement flourishes, Varon said CNG continues to see a growing interest. She said CNG gets about 300 applications each year, although not all of them are accepted.

CNG’s certification process takes about four to eight weeks and Varon said it does not require an extensive amount of paper work.

“One of the reasons why a lot of farmers chose not to participate in the USDA program is because of the extensive paper work that is required,” Varon said.

To become CNG certified, farmers have to go through an application process as they would with the USDA, but Varon said their process is streamlined for efficiency and convenience. During the certification process, Varon said they ask farmers about their production process, how they deal with pests and weeds, their soil fertility and if they have an adequate buffer from sources of pollution.

She included that farmers are often very busy and are not able to talk to every single customer at a farmers market, so a certification is very valuable in reaching out to new customers.

Varon believes farmers can use certification as an educational tool to inform the public about their beliefs and practices.

“I think it’s important as a way for a farmer to highlight their values and their growing practices so that people can become more aware of how their food is produced, which has a direct impact on the environment and their health,” she said.

CNG acts as a catalyst in the local food movement and for those who want to know where their food comes from.

“It’s part of a bigger movement to change the way we produce food,” Varon said. “CNG is not just a marketing label; it’s about representing a set of values and showing what you believe in.”

Shelby Mertens

About Shelby Mertens

Shelby Mertens is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in Mass Communications - Journalism. She was the arts and culture editor of The Commonwealth Times, VCU's independent student press. Shelby was a blogging and social media intern for Gandzee, an online retail startup in Richmond. She covered the General Assembly session last spring for Capital News Service on behalf of over 70 news publications across the state. She has also published work on WTVR-CBS 6's website, a part of the iPadJournos project at VCU.