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
- 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
- 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
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.
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
- 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, www.omri.org)
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.