Organic farming, done well, needs the right label
Two farmers ponder their choices to become USDA Certified Organic or use an alternative label.

Posted April 13, 2006

I’ve chosen to be Certified Natural Grown because USDA organic has lost its way.

By Wendy Baroli

I have a small organic 5-acre farmer here in the desert outside of Palm Springs. What I have learned is this: the USDA organic program as it was intended served as a tool for small farms to become educated and re-learn how to create a healthy system to produce food. The “certified organic” stamp of approval was, in its purest form, a dynamic way to market our small farm products.

That’s not the way it’s turned out. The largest producers want the marketing value of organics without really taking up a different way of farming. They’ve gotten involved politically, and USDA’s certified organic program has been eroded to suit the big processors.

I believe organic should mean a couple of things.

It means being locally produced. All things considered, true organics is not just a marketing tool but a way to reduce costs of energy, i.e. trucking costs, cold-storage energy, wasteful packaging, etc., etc., by providing food direct to the consumer or -- at minimum -- to a market that is a small part of the cost of providing healthy food to the consumer.

It creates responsibility to soil and water conservation as well as open spaces for agriculture.

It gives back the power to the real producers: small family farms. It lets them drive the process, not “co-op” store chains that were the heart of beginning organic retail or the big USDA organic machine.

Here is why I am now Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) as my best way to be really “organic.”

  • Farmers -- real farmers, not politicians -- run the program. It has not yet created its own monstrous self-promulgated bureaucracy, so what you pay for is still what you actually get.
  • The rules are still the former (tougher) organic standards. There is no fudging because it is expensive to use IPM or alternative ways to provide nutrients for production. However, like the USDA rules, if you can make a valid case for, say, basic sulfur or an iron product for soils without available iron, it will not prevent you from using things not on the list.
  • I find CNG paperwork is minimal. You must keep good records, as with any business, but the crap and expense and fees are nominal. The labels and logos are consumer friendly, and distinguish produce at market.

Business is business and those with the greatest market value win. Family farms should be no different. We have to educate ourselves, and understand that healthy soil and clean water tell us when we are farming well. Create an overall farm plan not for the bank, but for the health of your business. Make it clearly available so that you and your workers can follow day in and day out. Everybody working with you has to be on board in the drive towards a healthy goal.

Small farms are small business. Small farms create community, invigorate labor markets of all kinds, skilled and unskilled. Farming has a critical opportunity to change the playing field. Consumers are demanding their food not be chock full of chemicals -- they want flavor not shelf- or trucking life. They are suspicious of genetic altering.

We are on the cusp of something dynamic as farmers. The thing is, we have to agree to disagree about politics and come together concerning process. We must be responsible, educated, discerning questioners of practices we have been taught and have taken for granted. Organics began as a grass roots movement that has proven its market value, which is why the big guns are now stacking the deck in their favor.

As small farmers we can also adapt and do an end-run around their watered-down rules. Certified Naturally Grown is a method in response to this issue. Join it. Participate. Check out Slow Food. Join it. Participate.

What I have learned from belonging to a third-generation farming family is this: information is the key to innovation, and innovation is the key to success. Bigger is not always better. Intensive farming is manageable. You can get off the farm-welfare train, and you can provide a future for the inhabitants of this planet while providing a living for your own family.

The “organic” farming I want to succeed cannot be reproduced on enormous corporate farms. Food is not a widget, except at McDonald's. Food is the one thing all of us have in common. Producing great food gives us enormous power. The consumers have told us what they want -- we have an opportunity to respond.

Big corporations get this. They have used their powerful lobbyists to re-work the USDA organic rules to fit their needs. As farmers we need to realize organics done the way people really want it done is the new reality in farming.

It’s our moment to actually make a profit and a living.

Wendy Baroli operates Sky Valley Botanicals and Organic Farm in Sky Valley, California. She draws wisdom from her early years on the family’s farm in an eastern Nevada canyon as she recovers from a career in politics through commercial agriculture that connects land and people in healthy ways.



I’m opting for USDA certified organic; without firm standards, CNG allows too much for too many.

By Beth Spaugh

I was Certified Naturally Grown for two years. I have great admiration for the founders of CNG and what they have done. It has a beautiful logo and can serve the purpose for those who want to say “I know how I do things and I think I do things organically or better” -- or whatever -- without really knowing what the standards are.

That said, I am getting certified organic this year. Yes, I know that “organic” is no longer the buzz word. “Sustainable, local, and fresh” are the good marketing tools now. At least they are among those in the know. Among the common public just becoming interested in health issues, the “organic” label may be all they know -- or want to know.

Why am I becoming certified organic now? Several reasons.

  • The clincher is that I am really anal about my integrity. We are building a farm stand, and want to differentiate ourselves from all the non-organic growers. I can’t really say “No spray” because I do spray bT, and may spray milk, etc. And I may spray on a compost tea. What do folks think if they see me out there with my backpack sprayer and there is my big sign saying “No Spray”? Being more specific and saying “No synthetic pesticides or fertilizers” is just too complex a message.
  • The second reason: There was only one other CNG farm within 40 miles. They used RoundUp but thought they were organic. Almost anytime I am around organic market gardeners and CNG comes up, someone has a story of someone they knew, or a vendor next to them, who would say they grew organically but admittedly were doing things that were either never acceptable (RoundUp, etc) or are no longer allowed (rotenone).

    I think where there is a good core of really committed farmers who have been organic for a while, have kept up with things and will police themselves, CNG may work well.

    However, most folks are not willing to report fellow vendors. Where CNG participation is sparse (and where there are few certified organic growers who really know the philosophy and rules), there is no education or enforcement. Although ideally organic is much more than “can’t use this or that”, that is the interpretation for many who are now jumping on the bandwagon. Even if you are really committed to organic agriculture, it is very hard to keep current with what is allowed and what isn’t without the assistance of a certifying agency. Lots of things that used to be OK are no longer approved – rotenone, many formulations of bT, etc. I would say it is close to impossible.

  • Third reason: I find marketing really time-consuming, and I want to sell to stores. To get the organic premium, I need to be certified. I am selling to a co-op and a health food store, with potential for a third. Two of these want the “certified organic” label. One was adamant about it but is now shifting to thinking “local” is as good as “organic”, so it may no longer be necessary. Once I am certified, these stores may be my highest-paying customers.
  • Fourth and major: I am friends with a certified organic farmer whose booth is next to mine at a farmers’ market. It really does offend him to have folks who are not certified organic saying they grow organically, using the CNG logo to present an image that they do just as much as well as he does, etc. And it has bothered me for years that we don’t have any certified organic farmers in our county. It is time we did and if it has to be me, then it will be me.
  • Fifth, I never got around to being inspected by anyone for CNG in two years. I would plan to have someone come, but the few folks I knew who were knowledgeable enough to do a meaningful inspection were farmers at least 20 miles away and were busy. I also never got around to keeping records of what was planted when, etc, that I really need in order to do a better job in my business. Being certified organic will force me to make a way to keep those records.

I respect the long-term organic growers who have opted out of certification, for those truly upset with the USDA organic process and government intrusion and for those who think the current standards are too weak. Yet the deeper I get into the certification process (and it’s not really that hard), the less I think of CNG as an alternative to certified organic. It may have merit as a way to promote “sustainable” agriculture – a great, undefined buzzword. But undefined, un-enforced terms can be pretty meaningless.

I really don’t think a person can follow all the rules unless they are certified. Who is going to subscribe on their own to OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute, to get the latest updates, or network with certifying agencies to find out what they are allowing and why? Yes, different certifying agencies allow different things. Yes, I agree that not all organic practices are sustainable. I really wish we were back in the old system where the certifying agencies could also advise and educate. But if we think USDA organic is meaningless, why do we think that loosely defined terms such as “sustainable”, “authentic”, “beyond organic”, or programs like CNG are better? Even “local” has widely divergent definitions.

I want the discipline that certified organic requires, and I want to be part of a community of farmers who are also choosing this level of accountability. For all its shortcomings, certified organic still has meaning for farmers and consumers.

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