When the Agriculture Department put long-awaited federal organic certification standards and a third-party inspection system into place in 2002, many who had been farming organically for years looked forward to being able to market their wares with a federal seal of approval.
At the same time, a group of small organic farmers in the mid-Hudson Valley area of New York who were mostly selling their produce at local farmer’s markets and to area chefs wanted to take a different approach, said Alice Varon, executive director of Certified Naturally Grown.
“They faced a decision as to whether they would call their farms organic or find another way to describe them,” she said. “If they wanted to use organic, they had to go through the federal certification process. They were selling locally, they knew their customers and they felt it wasn’t a good fit given the scale of their operations.”
So they formed Certified Naturally Grown, a non-profit program that has grown from a regional outfit to a national organization with 750 farms in 47 states. CNG- certified operations range from an up-and-coming urban farm that aims to help the people in an Atlanta food desert learn to feed themselves better, to a part-time farmer in Indiana whose setup includes two mushroom-growing rooms, to a New Jersey agricultural entrepreneur who earns his livelihood on the farm.
CNG growers eschew synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and GMO seeds, just as certified organic farmers are required to do, Varon said. The key difference comes with the certification process — CNG growers are certified by a farmer from their area who is already part of the program, instead of the third-party companies that certify producers in the federal program.
The peer-to-peer approach appealed to Eric Murphy, the owner of Shamrock Farm in Arlington, Ind., who last year signed on with CNG.
“I had been certified organic for a couple of years prior to that,” he said. “The certification is much more expensive and the USDA is very intrusive, they want to know a lot more than they really need to know to guarantee you are growing good food. I liked the thought process behind [CNG].”
Murphy grows veggies including spinach, kale, lettuce, zucchini and cabbage on four acres and a greenhouse, and he has two rooms that he has turned into mushroom caves for growing shiitakes and portobellos. Ending his organic certification cost him the fairly large wholesale client who had convinced him to get the certification several years earlier, he said. It was a financial hit, but he’s still glad he made the change.
He and other CNG growers say it’s good to be able to talk to farmers’ market shoppers and chefs about the organic aspects of what they produce, but more often than not the fact that its fresh and locally grown is selling point enough.
Nuri Icgoren, who holds a degree in biology, started Urban Sprout Farms in East Atlanta, on the 5-acre site of an abandoned motel. The biodynamic farm currently produces compost and grows tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and cut flowers on one acre. Urban Sprout operates as a nursery, selling plants as well as in-season veggies, and Icgoren is in the midst of a plan to gradually tear down the buildings and use the salvaged materials on the farm.
The farm aims to be a community resource. Locals can volunteer two days a week, and last year Icgoren hosted the first Phoenix Festival, an art and music event to raise awareness in the community. That sense of community is also part of what appealed to him about CNG certification — the peer-to-peer aspect offers an avenue for networking with and learning from other farmers, he said.
“The biggest benefit is getting on their website, that drives a lot of customers our way,” he said. “People look up local farms and they see we’re in Atlanta and that we’re Certified Naturally Grown.”
All growers that earn CNG certification have their inspection reports posted on the group’s website, along with contact information and links to the farm’s website, making it easy for chefs and consumers to find local growers, Varon said.
Additionally, CNG provides marketing materials including stickers and twist ties with the logo and posters explaining what the certification means and, in addition to listings on the site, CNG uses its blog to highlight members and media coverage about the program.
Beach View Farms owner Chris Adams learned about the program from his professors while earning his degree in agronomy and horticulture, he said. Later, it made sense when he began farming eight acres in Manahawkin, N.J.
“I farm by myself, I don’t have time to keep a record book of every minute detail,” he said. “And I like what CNG stands for.”
His certifier this year is a local grower who is in charge of a garden at one of the area schools, and Adams has become the liaison for the students and adults who tend the garden, he said.
Adams sells his produce through a 30-member CSA and an on-site farm stand. And, like a growing number of other small farms, he also sells to local chefs and restaurants. Most don’t worry about marketing the organic aspect of the produce to their customers, he said.
“The reason they buy from us is because it’s super fresh and high quality,” he said.
How to become CNG certified
Farms interested in becoming CNG certified should first read through the requirements on the group’s website, Varon said.
If they meet the qualifications, they can fill out the online application.
Then comes the inspection by a local farmer who is already in the program.
Farms that are approved pay annual dues of between $110 and $200, depending on their size and circumstances, and all the inspection documents are posted on the website.
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