Certified Naturally Grown Sets A New Standard

Certified Naturally Grown offers a grassroots option for responsible agricultural production and guidance, without the many hurdles of organic certification.

by Annie Maxwell
PHOTO: Courtesy Certified Naturally Grown

Across the world, trillions of honeybees are hard at work, pollinating vital crops and turning nectar into honey. In various locations near Wilmington, Delaware, more than a million of those bees return home to “microapiaries” under the care of Stephanie Grant.

“I am selective in my locations, as the properties cannot be treated with synthetic herbicides or pesticides,” she says. “There needs to be an abundance of natural resources, including a variety of pollen and nectar sources, as well as a water source. And I need to ensure that the safety of the bees and people are always at the forefront. I believe we need to use nature and work with it, not against it.”

This belief system is what led Grant to pursue Certified Naturally Grown certification for her Sassy Bee Honey two years ago. Largely described as a grassroots alternative to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Certified Organic label, Certified Naturally Grown producers see it as that and more.

“I read the acronym somewhere online, and I did not know what it was. So I researched it,” Grant says. “As I read, I thought it was completely in line with my current philosophy and many of the practices I already followed. I did have to make a few modifications to become certified, but they were changes that are for the betterment of the bees. So I was completely on board.”

For beekeepers, USDA Certified Organic approval is difficult. To start, the National Organic Program doesn’t have an apiculture standard. Rather it relies on the livestock standards, a few items on the allowed synthetic-materials list, plus some “draft guidance”—standards that have been issued but not made official by the National Organic Standards Board.

Because bees can travel miles to forage, a USDA Certified Organic operation must prove their bees forage from plants not treated with prohibited materials in a 1.8-mile radius, which is difficult to come by. 

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The Certified Naturally Grown label, on the other hand, has an apiary certification, making it easy for beekeepers to understand what is expected of them and best practices for beekeeping in line with nature. 

Livestock farmers, mushroom growers, aquaponics producers and vegetable farmers, too, look to Certified Naturally Grown as another way to show their customers they’re serious about responsibly managing their resources. 

“In 2002, when the law establishing the [USDA] National Organic Program took effect, farmers were required to complete the organic certification process to continue using the ‘o-word’ or else they’d risk steep fines for breaking the new law,” says Alice Varon, executive director of Certified Naturally Grown. That’s when Certified Naturally Grown was founded by a group of farmers who didn’t want to undergo this government certification.

More than 700 farmers hold this certification as of mid-2022, including several farms that Hobby Farms readers may be familiar with, such as Soul Fire Farm in New York, Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts, Broadfork Farm in Virginia, and River Queen Greens in Louisiana.

Certified Naturally Grown
Courtesy Stephanie Grant

Getting Educated

Most of Demetra Markis and Dan Ginsburg’s 33-acre Milleflora Farm is in grassland in Sonoma County, California. On the 2 acres under cultivation, they have an orchard and about 12 acre of no-till, intensively planted vegetables and medicinal herbs. While their flock of two dozen Katahdin and Navajo-Churro sheep isn’t Certified Naturally Grown, the vegetables and herbs are.

Markis produces the herbs for her holistic healthcare clients, and she wanted a label that would demonstrate to them that she uses responsible growing practices.

“I feel like the certified Naturally Grown model is educational, and it tells people in our community that we’re invested in increasing our education around the best sustainable practices,” Markis says.

She takes advantage of Certified Naturally Grown’s educational opportunities as much as possible. As conferences have moved online and become even more accessible, Markis says the farmer-to-farmer panel discussions and hearing from others farming on a similar scope and scale have been invaluable. 

Following Standards

Rhinebeck, New York, farmer Suzanne Kelly focuses on long-season crops—such as garlic, ginger, turmeric and saffron—with a variety of more-usual vegetables for farmers market sales and value-added products so nothing goes to waste. Like Markis, she markets her Green Owl Farm products locally as opposed to with larger wholesalers.

Kelly says the Certified Naturally Grown label is nice to show the consumer, but it’s even more helpful to the farmer: “We may all think that we know what we need to be doing, in terms of growing organic food—real organic food—but having the standards there, and to reinforce them every time, benefits the farmer,” Kelly says. 

The standards are easy to access on the Certified Naturally Grown website.

“Our standards for produce and livestock certification are based on the [USDA] organic standards but have been modified in particular instances based on feedback from members,” Varon says. “We developed from scratch our standards for apiary, mushroom and aquaponic certification, based on [USDA] organic principles, and with guidance from advisory councils made up of experts in those types of production.”

The largest deviation from the organic rules comes in the livestock production standards. Certified Naturally Grown livestock rules clearly outline the minimum amount of space each animal must be allowed indoors and outdoors. “This was a standard we clarified when first establishing the CNG livestock standards in 2006. It was a point of contention within the organic community where many felt larger organic dairy operations were allowed to skirt the spirit of organic standards by not granting cows adequate access to pasture in the interests of boosting milk production,” Varon says.

Certified Naturally Grown’s feed requirements are less stringent than USDA’s, allowing a more community-based approach to sourcing feeds grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides or genetically modified seeds. But it’s still a sticking point for livestock farmers, according to Varon.

“The cost of feed that meets this standard puts it out of reach for many producers who are otherwise doing everything according to the highest standards.”

Milleflora Farm’s sheep are an illustration of this challenge. Markis uses the sheep primarily for “community grazing”—a means of maintaining the defensible space to reduce the likelihood of wildfire spread into the populated areas in her rural community. 

“CNG quite reasonably has pasture-management and feed requirements for livestock,” Markis says. “And since we graze for much of the year on other people’s land, on roadsides and on community-owned parcels in order to reduce grass as a potential [wildfire] fuel, we just can’t guarantee that all of the land our sheep are put on is managed in a certified manner. Additionally, some grazing circumstances require us to spread flakes of alfalfa among thick stands of invasive grasses in order to guide the sheep toward trampling them down effectively. And there is no local source for organic or CNG-compliant alfalfa in flake form.”

Certified Naturally Grown is considering updating the livestock-feed standard this year, with input from members and the public.

Read more: There’s a new regenerative farm certification in the works. Click to read more. 

Getting Certified

When a producer applies for certification, three requirements must be met:

  • a declaration certifying they understand and follow Certified Naturally Grown standards
  • membership dues
  • a peer inspection

“The entire process can take just a couple of weeks or less,” Varon says. “CNG is very quick to respond to questions and applications. The biggest factor is arranging the on-site inspection by another producer.”

The Paperwork

The application paperwork and records you’re asked to keep are outlined on the Certified Naturally Grown website. These include:

  • verification of seed sources and amendment purchases
  • water tests for mushroom producers
  • a log of water testing and inputs for aquaponics operations
  • various other forms

First-time applicants print and mail their paperwork. Those getting recertified can do everything online.

The Fees

The cost to become Certified Naturally Grown is flexible, determined by the farmer, starting at $150. Producers can make monthly payments and can look to the organization’s Grassroots Fund and Equity Fund for payment assistance.

The Inspection

Certified Naturally Grown’s third-party inspection is peer-to-peer, rather than by an agency contracted with the government. While in-person inspections are the norm, farms meeting certain standards can request a remote inspection with a senior inspector.

It’s not just Certified Naturally Grown farmers who can inspect an operation, either. Other farmers using “natural” production methods, Certified Organic farmers and extension agents can also step in. 

“You trust that they’re going to tell you what they think about your practices,” Markis says. “It’s very intimate. Invite another farmer to come and walk through your beds? It’s very vulnerable. And in that sense, it really builds trust.”

Farmers aren’t allowed to trade inspections of each other’s operations within 24 months, and the farm must have a different inspector each year or have a community observer join the inspection. Part of being Certified Naturally Grown is a requirement that you inspect another farm each year if you have a farm within an hour’s drive.

Kelly has appreciated the process so much that she became a senior inspector and reaches out to farms in her area to offer inspections.

Certified Naturally Grown
Courtesy Certified Naturally Grown

Getting the Word Out

While Certified Naturally Grown has been in existence for 20 years, it doesn’t have the name recognition of other farming labels.

“I do not believe I have come across a customer who had any idea of what [Certified Naturally Grown] was before hearing it from me,” Grant says. “They know Certified Organic, as that is seen and advertised all over. Education is a big piece of it. As people begin to see the CNG label more, they will know that the grower/beekeeper is one they can trust and share their values.”

The Certified Naturally Grown organization understands that customer education is a part of what their farmers do. “We have produced educational cards and signs that explain what it means for a farm to be Certified Naturally Grown,” Varon says. “We also produce social media content that helps members easily explain what it means that their farm is Certified Naturally Grown.”

The producers who contributed to this article take advantage of these resources. “They sent me a big stack of postcards that I was able to hand out at our local farmers market and community meetings,” Markis says.

“I can make a sign with their logo. They’ve created a really easy-to-use marketing-material resource on their website that you can use for your farm, which is a huge help. So I’m not writing the language or having to design the marketing to explain what CNG is. It allows me to chat with people about exactly what that means and what we’re doing.”

Kelly, too, posts a Certified Naturally Grown sign at her farmers market and festival booths, uses Certified Naturally Grown twist ties for her bunched produce, and puts its stickers on her winter squash. “It is a lot of education, because people don’t know the difference, but people love the idea, when you explain it to them,” she says.

In looking for more of a lifestyle than a label, Certified Naturally Grown’s grassroots sensibility has appealed to now hundreds of farmers. 

“CNG is also about so much more than natural or organic practices. It is about sustainability, creativity in methods, integration of our food systems and nature with the ‘human world.’ It is important to know where your food comes from, how it was produced, who produced it,” Grant says. 

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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