The people who started the Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) label had to contend with that when they started the program, on a regional basis, in the Hudson River Valley of New York. Since then, the non-profit has expanded its reach to include more than 800 farms, including a dozen or so in Texas. But CNG still can't use the word 'organic' on its label.
Ten years ago, almost anyone who wanted to grow food and label it as organic could do so, but the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) changed that. After the program was implemented in 2002, food had to be "certified" as organic through the NOP process. A lot of new signs had to be built and labels printed. If the food wasn't certified, it couldn't be labeled as organic.
Alice Varon, executive director of Certified Naturally Grown, said the program started with a group of farmers who operated organically, but who felt their operation was not a good fit for the paperwork and fees associated with NOP.
"It's a way for farmers to distinguish their food at the farmers markets or in a CSA program," Varon said. "It's generally a better fit for the small-scale producer who sells at the farmers markets or a farm stand or to local stores and restaurants."
Ty Wolosin at Windy Hill Farms in Comanche County has been a member of CNG for several years and said he recommends the program for new farmers who want to distinguish their products as being organically grown.
"The requirements are the same (for CNG) as they are for the government certification, but it costs a lot less and they have reduced the paperwork down to about five pages," he said. "When I went to a new market, it was a great way to catch people's eye. People would come by and ask about it and I had some handouts, and they got an idea of how I grew produce and raised my animals. Certified Natural is really the same thing as the USDA organic certification, but a lot simpler."
Varon said the biggest difference between the USDA program and CNG is in the inspection process. The USDA doesn't allow farm inspectors to make suggestions on how the farmer can improve his or her situation, but CNG encourages that. Annual inspections are conducted by other farmers, some of whom are fellow CNG growers and others who are not.
"It's a different philosophy," Varon said. "The inspections are based on peer inspection, self-reliance and mutual support. For us, the inspections aren't only meant to ensure that the standards are met but to strengthen the community of farmers. It's a way for farmers to benefit from others farmers' knowledge and experience."
Farmers who participate in the program agree to conduct at least one inspection of another CNG farm annually, unless the nearest one is more than an hour's drive away, but farmers can't "trade" inspections with the same farmer who inspects his or her own farm. Inspections are based on the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) of certification, which is still fairly new in the United States but is used extensively in other countries.
Farmers who want to apply for a CNG certification can fill out the application online at naturallygrown.org. Applicants usually hear back from CNG fairly quickly, within a couple of weeks, Varon said. If the farm is accepted on a provisional basis it must be inspected by CNG within two growing season months of acceptance.
A financial contribution is required. The minimum contribution for produce and livestock producers is $110. The producer also agrees to an on-site inspection each year. Membership can lapse, but producers can re-apply at any time. Varon said that CNG accepted 300 new farms in the past 12 months but membership is less than a thousand because some people lose their certification one year and some regain it later.
Wolosin is one of those who is letting his certification lapse this year. His operation has come to focus more heavily on goat meat than produce and he has been around long enough that customers know how he operates.
"I wouldn't discourage anybody who is interested in the program from joining," Wolosin said. "It worked out well for me, and it gives the farmer some credibility when he tells customers he's growing organically. It's a good alternative."