A Grassroots Solution for the Food Labeling Issue – Certified Naturally Grown

boy-at-farmers-marketWhen we first started thinking about farming and selling produce to other people, we knew that we really wanted to be like other “back-to-the-land’ers” and grow things in an organic and sustainable way. After all, one of the points of being self-sufficient is to avoid the need to buy external resources, and that includes fertilizers. We also knew that growing organically would take some serious work and would not be an easy way to make a living, but we decided to do it anyway. This led us to investigate the various methods of gardening and to learn about the rules and techniques that would entitle us to call ourselves organic. We wanted a way to identify our farm and our produce as being free from chemicals and pesticides, but the regular organic certification seemed like an endless stream of paperwork, tests, and emails with a faceless entity at the other end. Then we found out about Certified Naturally Grown.

Certified Naturally Grown, or CNG, is a grassroots movement whose goal is to empower organic growers through networking and support them with a strong community of fellow farmers. While CNG maintains the highest principles and standards of the other certifying organizations, the fees and paperwork are more reasonable because the inspections are done by other farmers. This means that the inspectors know and understand farming, and can offer their knowledge and experience to benefit others. It is this sharing of wisdom that first attracted us to the program. The cheaper fees, and the support of the CNG community is what has kept us there.

CNG certification is tailored for small-scale, direct-market farmers and beekeepers who use natural methods. All farmers who participate have a commitment to healthy food and healthy soils and believe that we can create a strong network of support among family farms and the communities we feed. The annual fees are based on a per farm basis and not per crop – this is much better for diversified farms. The fees go to a not-for-profit organization that doesn’t have to support a huge marketing budget. I realize that this sounds like an advertisement for Certified Naturally Grown, but this is really my personal story. I want to show you that individual farmers and consumers can make a difference, and that there are alternatives to the other certifying organizations, if you look for them.

CNG started in New York in 2002 when the National Organic Program (NOP) took effect in the United States. From humble beginnings, the organization has grown through word of mouth advertising. Over 13 years it has grown to include over 750 farms and apiaries in the US and Canada, and it is poised to continue its growth well into the future.

Anyone can say that their produce or honey is ‘natural’ can’t they? Aren’t most small growers essentially organic already? Why go to all the trouble of actually doing inspections and paying fees? Well, in a nutshell, accountability. We want to assure our customers that we’re growing food and plants to the best standards we can, and that they can rely on us to maintain those standards at all times. We feel that by putting our money where our mouth is and doing the required paperwork and inspections, that we’re really showing how much we care and how important it is to us that our customers can trust us. We aren’t a large farm that slaps on a label and then sends it’s produce thousands of miles away with some anonymous middle man. We sell to our customers face to face, within our local communities. We’re essentially accountable to our neighbors.

As an organic farm, we do things much differently from our conventional farmer friends. We don’t use any synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. Just like all other organic farmers, we don’t use any GMO seeds. We use practices like mulching and plant diversity to discourage pests and disease, and to increase the fertility of our soil. We can’t just throw on a big bag of chemical fertilizer once a year to make up for the nutrients that our crops are depleting, or spray a chemical fog behind a large tractor to wipe out all of the pests. I confess that when I’m out picking bugs by hand on a hot day, I do sometimes fantasize about how nice and easy that would be. But organic farmers have a slightly different perspective of our place in the natural world. We want to manage our land is such a way that soil health will increase over the long term, so that we can grow great food for our communities and leave a healthy and productive farm for our grandchildren. We recognize the benefits of crop diversity, biodiversity, and providing habitat for wild insects.

Part of the inspection process for Certified Naturally Grown surrounds long term planning and goal setting. All CNG farmers set sustainability goals each year as part of our certification paperwork. We discuss these goals regularly with other farmers, and we are encouraged to work on them regularly and to incorporate them into our farming plan for each year. Setting goals for the future does indeed change the decisions that we make each day. We realize that today’s decisions will ultimately affect us and our families for years to come. Even back yard growers make a plan of what crops they will grow and where each crop will be grown. Hopefully they make notes so that they can learn from their observations and make their space increasingly productive each season as they progress towards the space’s fullest potential.

We grow food because we love it and we need to feed our own children, but we’re also a small business and we obviously have to make some decisions based on what’s good for our bottom line. At the end of the day I need to make enough money to feed and clothe my family. Being recognized as organic has has certainly been good for business for us, and it more than makes up for the fees that we have to pay. If you factor in the gas we use to drive and complete the annual inspection we do for another farm, and the fees we pay to CNG, we’re spending less than $200 each year and we’re supporting something that we truly believe in. $200 seems like a great investment to us. We think this amount is affordable for most small growers and for those who only sell occasionally. Under the regular organic programs, a diversified farm such as ours that grows all sorts of vegetables would be required to pay approximately $3000 in fees for certification each year – we’ve been quoted fees even higher than that. $3000 is a drop in the bucket for a large scale farm or a farm that only grows a few select crops. But for small beginning farm such as ours the regular organic certification fees would be more than we will earn this year. That doesn’t make good business sense.

Just because we’ve chosen to go a different route does not mean we don’t support the organic movement, and being certified as Naturally Grown isn’t meant to be a slight against certified Organic growers in any way. In fact, many farmers who helped to build the organic movement over the last several decades have chosen to become part of the CNG network just because it serves them better as small farmers, and it gives them a better connection with their peers and customers. Being recognized by our customers as Certified Naturally Grown means that they understand and appreciate how much more work goes into the growing of their food. From weeding to bug control to harvest, we’ve done it all by hand at our little farm just up the road. They can have a leisurely Sunday drive past our farm to see what our fields look like and what we’re up to. It is this connection between the farmer and the customer that makes all of our work worthwhile. Educating people kindly and having respect for their different world views is very motivating, and I love to see the faces of children as they learn about where food comes. I love watching them when they realize for the first time that a carrot has these awesome frilly green leaves. Who knew that fresh baby beets and turnips roasted in the over could be so sweet and delicious? Teaching people to try new ideas, new recipes, and new foods is a great joy of mine. I think it connects us to the Earth in a very intimate way.

Our small family farm in Nova Scotia is only one of a handful that are Certified Naturally Grown in Canada, but the movement is growing all the time and it seems to be reaching a tipping point. More and more small growers and farmers, just like you and I, are realizing the benefits of being recognized as organic and the support that comes from being associated with a peer to peer network of other like minded people. Getting to know other farmers and the exchange of ideas that invariably takes place when farmers get talking has been a great benefit, not only in connecting us as people, but also to help with the practical problem solving skills we need to have as growers. I know that USDA Organic inspectors are not allowed to give any advice regarding farming, yet CNG relies on such advice and exchanges of ideas. It truly is meant to support small-scale farming and those who are willing to invest their time and energy to learn new ways of doing things. We’re hoping to build a network of CNG farmers close to where we live over the next few years, so that we can increase the education for our customers at the markets we attend and to make the inspection process even easier.

As part of our planning for 2015, and before we committed to anything, we spoke with Alice Varon from CNG. She was very helpful in giving us more information about the aims and requirements of the program, and how the whole certification process works. Here’s a list of the questions we asked ourselves when we were deciding if the program was right for us – along with the answers that we found out for ourselves from personal experience and from guidance we received through CNG.

Question: What does the Certified Naturally Grown label mean?
Answer: To complete the CNG certification each year, farmers have to sign a declaration confirming that they don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. That means that even our seeds have to come from companies that are selling organic non-GMO seeds – and that’s becoming increasingly difficult. We can’t just pop down to the local big box store if we run out of carrot seeds. CNG livestock are raised on pasture and with space to move around. Ours have a house in the middle of their field for sleeping and protection from predators and they roam free on pasture all day. They also have access to the trees for shade and to chase bugs. It’s a pretty nice life. Livestock feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds. The use of medication for the animals is on an ‘as needed’ basis and there is a long list of approved and not approved medications. It’s a good idea to keep these lists in a binder for quick reference. I imagine as we go along we will remember more and more of them but because we rarely use them without the advice of a vet, we’re not too worried. There are also good rules governing the health of bees in an apiary to ensure that as much as possible they’re kept safe from unnecessary pesticides and still meet a reasonable organic standard.

Question: Who Is CNG for?
Answer: Anyone can be a supporter of organics in general by purchasing organic food and by buying non-GMO organic seeds for your own garden. Even something as simple as shopping at your local farmers markets will introduce you to some really interesting people. Ask them about their growing methods, engage them in conversation, and see if you agree with their ideas of farming. Looking for the logo that tells you the produce is grown to a certain standard is a good way of supporting farmers who are trying to go that extra mile. But actually becoming registered with CNG is really for anyone who wants to support the idea of a peer network of farmers and growers where we all help and are accountable to each other. From the smallest backyard gardener to modest sized farms and greenhouses, CNG has a lot to offer. If you’re thinking it sounds like a great idea, then I encourage you to look into it further. Do research on the various options you have and seriously think about how that works with your own goals for your farm or garden. I’m sure CNG is not for everyone. It’s harder being an organic farmer when you can’t just grab a bottle of Miracle Grow off the shelf. It requires crop rotation, thorough planning, and plenty of experimentation. At the end of the day it’s still worth it for us though.

Question: Is CNG for farmers who are ‘almost organic’ but not quite?
Answer: Not at all. The standards are based on the standards of the US National Organic Program. CNG participation requires a total commitment to some very vigorous organic practices and goes beyond the standard organic requirements by asking us to pay attention to invertebrates and insects, care of the soil, and protection of waterways. If you’re switching from conventional growing to organic, you can be recognized as having transitional status.

Question: Do you define standards that are “better than organic?”
Answer: No. The CNG standards are based on the standards of the National Organic Program. There are some synthetic substances allowed in organic foods that aren’t allowed in the CNG program. The livestock standards have always included the more rigorous access to pasture requirement that the NOP finally adopted in February 2010. Also, CNG farms don’t use rotenone, which is allowed with restrictions in the NOP. Generally speaking, we all stick to the same standards whether we’re certified Organic or CNG.

Question: If you’re so close to the regular organic programs, then why start CNG?
Answer: Certified Naturally Grown is a program that’s aimed at small producers, whereas the other organic certifying organizations are geared much more to medium and large scale agricultural operations, both in terms of the inspection process and the fees. CNG can also be a stepping stone for farms who will be successful, grow their business, and go on to obtain other organic certifications.

Question: So how is CNG different than Certified Organic?
Answer: CNG is based on the participatory guarantee system (PGS) model in which inspections are usually completed by other farmers. In fact doing an inspection for a fellow farmer is one of the requirements of the program. The PGS model is great for networking and learning insights and best practices from other farmers. Another difference is that Certified Naturally Grown has it’s certification process open to the public – you can find the listings for each farm online and all our certification paperwork is right there for you to look at. If you wanted to see the inspection worksheets that the inspector made all her notes on as she toured the farm, I’d gladly pull out the binder and show them to you – although a few pages are a little dirty and dusty from being out in the garden as we dug around checking out the soil.

Question: How should I decide whether to have my farm certified organic or Certified Naturally Grown?
Answer: The CNG label is great for producers who sell directly to their customers. This would include people who run a CSA, sell at the local farmers markets, or have a small farm stand. If you’re selling to restaurants and grocery stores then it’s likely better if you’re part of a larger organic program. Of course you could be certified through both programs.

Question: How much does it cost to be a Certified Naturally Grown farmer or beekeeper? Isn’t it really expensive?
Answer: The minimum contribution for livestock or produce certification is $110. But it’s recommended that you pay a little more if you can. To certify your apiary is cheaper with no required minimum, but it’s suggested you contribute $75 or more. And I believe certification is pending for Aquaponics and Mushrooms. When you’re approved and certified, you can make your payments easily online and even break them down into smaller portions over time. There is also a scholarship program for beginning farmers and those in financial need that can help cover some of the cost of registration.

Question: Does it take a long time to get certified?
Answer: That depends on you. If you can complete the paperwork, arrange for an inspection during the growing season, and pay your annual dues then the process is fairly straightforward and fast. I’d estimate that the average farm could get it all done and processed within 3 months and with very little hassle. I’d recommend starting in your slow season so that all you have to do is the inspection in the spring.

Question: How do the programs differ between the US and Canada? Answer: We’re obviously north of the border and so while the actual organic rules that apply to growing food are pretty much the same as the USDA, we don’t have just one body that governs all the programs like the NOP does. We can choose which organic certification we want to join and each offers different marketing opportunities to its growers. You can go with a regional organization and be certified Atlantic Organic for example, or go nationwide with a Canadian Organic logo on your produce. But at the end of the day we found that the ‘organic’ certifications still take months to complete and cost a small fortune that makes it unaffordable and impractical for a small grower like us. I’m not saying we won’t ever go that route, but for now we’re very happy with our relationship with Certified Naturally Grown.

Question: How do you make sure farms adhere to CNG standards?
Answer: Every farm that’s certified has their information posted online for the public to see, and the annual reviews help to ensure that we’re abiding by the rules and guidelines. All of those are available to look at online too. It definitely makes us feel more accountable to know that our peers and customers can drive past at any time and see what we’re doing, rather than the other certification method of having an inspector come once a year for a pre-planned visit. And I think that a CNG farmer having a problem would be much more likely to ask a fellow grower for help, instead of cheating. With the support of fellow farmers through our networks on platforms such as Facebook, it’s now so quick and easy to get advice on a problem without having to resort to chemicals. An added measure of security and integrity for the program is that CNG does occasional random pesticide residue testing and it’s unannounced.

So there you have it. We did lots of research and found a way to show our customers that the veggies, plants and flowers they buy from us are grown to the best organic standards. And yet we don’t have to battle the bureaucratic paperwork nightmare that is the current ‘organic’ industry. And you can do this too if you want to. What do you think? As a grower and customer, do you have a preference of one method over another? Does it make any difference to you if your food is organic or not? Let us hear from you in the comment section below, and as always, have fun in the garden!

certified-naturally-grown-color-logoYou can visit the official homepage for Certified Naturally Grown here: www.naturallygrown.org


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This post was written by Elizabeth Faires


  • d. henry Lee says:

    I am trying to use natural methods as much as possible in my own garden. Would like to learn more about CNG.

    1. That’s terrific! Keep up the good work and when you get a second just check out their website. Best of luck with your garden.

  • geraldc says:

    Maybe Nova Scotia, Canada does not have industrial air and water around it but here in USA, most places do. What is really needed is a definition of current ‘organic’ industry – What is in the air? What is in the water? If a garden is outside, not in a green house, then we do not know what is drifting in air or water to our plants. What did road crew spray in that ditch? What did the air craft spray overhead? What did the industry plant up the river dump in water last night? A recent dump in a river close to here killed all the fish in the river all the way to the ocean – 22 miles of dead fish. And our gov allows this to happen with no punishment. A RoundUp drift test was done for 3 years on 3 farms, 500 miles apart. RoundUp Ready weeds were found an average of 15 miles away. Were there any “organic” gardens in the drift path?

    To use mulch as an example; I cover 22 100-ft rows 8 inches deep with with wood chips brought to me by a tree surgeon. If nothing is done to speed decomposition, how long would it take all that to break down and be available for plant use? 3 years if lucky. What was sprayed on or around those trees and bushes before they were put through the chipper? I do not know at all. If the pile had a steam pipe with lots of holes for steam to be released at the bottom of the pile, the wood chips would break down faster. After steaming about 24 hours, 5 times over 2 weeks, the chips may be ready to apply to rows. But this does not make it “organic” because we do not know if anything was sprayed on the trees and bushes. Until chip fiber starts to break down it is not usable by the garden plants. And yes it may help to hold water and stop weeds from growing. Oh I almost forgot I actually need more than one load of chips to cover my 22 100-ft rows 8″ deep.

    1. Michael Ford says:

      Hi geraldc – I understand your concern about industrial chemicals in the air and water, and I understand your concern about pesticide drift. But I definitely don’t agree that this is a valid reason to toss out any attempts to grow vegetables organically. A few unwanted chemicals sneaking in doesn’t justify opening up the flood gates to any/all synthetic chemicals. I think knowledge of these unwanted chemicals is all the more reason to be careful and watchful about what chemicals you choose to introduce in the garden. I think a better approach is to learn more about the biology and chemistry of the soil, and look for ways to correct these problems with organic methods.

      Believe it or not there is a lot we can do, organically, to address these unwanted chemicals in our environment. Read about bioremediation. Organic biology has several ways to deal with toxins. Fungal mycelium are being used successfully for this purpose – mycoremidiation. And archeobacteria are also used for this – these have even been used to clean up crude oil spills. There are several products already available from organic garden centers and online that make use of these “technologies.” With a little curiosity, a little ingenuity, and a lot of determination – there is a lot we can do about this.

    2. Yes we were very lucky in choosing our location. We looked for industrial contamination, run-off upstream, prevailing winds etc. We’re on a hillside overlooking a valley and nestled against the coastline of the Bay of Fundy. Not a lot of pollution. We’re out of the way as many organic farms are. But I see your point. Drift and soil contamination can last a very long time. I think that consumers are most interested in knowing what farmers add to their soil and crops themselves. Organic isn’t a guarantee of zero pesticides, but they definitely have far fewer. CNG guidelines for inspection include checking for drift and other contamination and ask us to measure and report on things like buffers and other aspects of a farm that farmers are using to try and lessen the impacts of outside contamination on their farms.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I applaud you and all of the others in organizations such as CNG. I especially like that it is based on the farmers helping and inspecting each other’s farms for ideas and accountability purposes. Here in the U.S. it is such a challenge to find unadulterated food. Up until recently, my job did not allow me the time or space to grow my own food. I don’t require much food as a 60 year old single person. But I do want to support those who go the extra mile to ensure their produce and animals are raised in a clean and sustainable manner. God bless you for your efforts.

    1. Thanks. I think that everyone can make small changes to improve their growing, not just farmers. Everything from better planning to water conservation. If you can grow your own herbs that’s a great start. And thanks for your support.

  • Jo says:

    Thank you for this great information! I definitely am actively looking for foods that are non-GMO and grown without pesticides, as well as growing some that way on our urban lot. I also routinely thank our local grocery store for any new organic products that appear on the shelves – I just mention it to the cashier if the manager isn’t around… Great idea to talk to folks at the farmer’s markets and ask how they are growing stuff – the more people indicate they are interested in healthier practices, the more I believe we will see them occurring…

    1. Yes, a lot of people making small changes can have a big impact. ?

  • John says:

    Growing organic is all about personal responsibility and commitment. If one needs supervision to keep the standards, something is wrong. Self-sufficiency and independence is simply not possible if you are still looking for someone’s approval of what you are doing and what you are producing. Are there standards higher than CNG? Yes there are: 100% no artificial treatments of any kind, be it for soil, plants or animals. Apiaries, for example, that follow the philosophy and practices exemplified by Dee Lusby (and her late husband) are 100% treatment free. Even “natural” (essential oils, etc.) treatments are not used. Yes, there will be times when a colony may die but that is natural selection at work and acceptable. It’s a choice. But that’s the highest available standard, and neither CNG nor the USDA can match it. The CNG advantage is the networking with like minded farmers who can and will provide guidance and advice to new farmers, etc.

    1. Yes you’re right. CNG doesn’t guarantee zero spray. But for a farmer it’s a balancing act between losing your crop and therefore your income, and choosing to treat a crop with something more natural like DE or garlic oil. Many of my crops are as you suggest, not treated in any way. But if disaster strikes I have a fall back plan that meets the standards listed in CNG. It’s merely a start and guideline, I personally aim higher.

  • Leslie's Farm says:

    Thank you for giving us this intelligent overview of the Certification. This is a program that many of us would love to be part of, but I never knew the details well enough to understand that. Use by serious gardeners and semi-professional growers has the potential to build the type of community that all of us want for our future. Beautiful!

  • cat says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share your information. Living in Canada myself, I have been to several farmer’s markets, only to be disappointed time and again that the produce being sold is not organic. Usually, there is a little stall with some organic produce that is from other parts, such as California and Mexico!

    I would really like to see more organic farms both in Canada and USA, and I hope that more people will take up the initiative and grow food the good “old fashioned,” that is, the way food should be grown, without chemicals and toxins polluting our bodies, bellies, soil, children and the environment at large.

    1. Having just started a farmers market, I see what you mean. We have a ‘local produce only’ rule. There are many great backyard growers who are essentially organic without the label.

  • John says:

    You say there is occasional unannounced random testing. How often is that and what happens when someone is in violation?

    Do you plan to water down organic standards like the big-ag-controlled USDA?


    1. When I first read your comment I had to take a second and think of what you were upset with but I did some research and you’re right. The USDA organic guidelines definitely seem to have bowed to pressure from somewhere. I’ll refrain from commenting on where. I can only speak for my farm when I say that the CNG rules we use are the basic guidelines. We aim to use no treatments at all unless absolutely necessary. The CNG rules are actually stricter than the USDA ones which is something you might not expect. But like many organic farmers we use many approaches to minimize our impacts. We’re trying to do our very best.

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