For most of the 28 years since he started his organic Lil' Ponderosa farm in Lower Frankford Township, Cumberland County, Bob Boyce resisted any kind of certification.
Boyce's herd of Black Angus cattle are fed only grass and never any chemicals, growth hormones, antibiotics or artificial additives. The Lil' Ponderosa is part of a community of food providers, mostly rural farms, serving a growing customer base concerned about where their food comes from.
Many of those food producers have opted for certification via the National Organic Program, which was taken over by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2002. Boyce steadfastly resisted.
“My response is the best certification you can have is repeat business,” Boyce said.
But as the profiles of both Lil' Ponderosa and Boyce, past executive director of the Pennsylvania Cattlemen's Association, grew more prominent in the organic world, Boyce and his wife, Kate, began to see the merits of being certified.
It brings validation and assures customers that the food producer is adhering to a strict set of production standards. That's why more than 25,000 organic growers around the world carry the USDA Organic Seal.
But the Boyces opted to join the hundreds of organic food producers certified under an alternative label: Certified Naturally Grown. Started by a group of organic farmers in New York's mid-Hudson Valley as a backlash against federal takeover of the NOP program, Certified Naturally Grown has expanded over the past decade to include more than 700 farms in 47 states, Executive Director Alice Varon said.
Complaints about the federal program vary: extensive record-keeping requirements; fees that can amount to 6 percent of a small farm's gross sales; and the NOP standards.
“(CNG) standards were a lot more rigid,” Boyce said. “The government certification has a lot of loopholes in it.”
For example, Boyce said, the USDA requires cattle have “exposure to grass.” He said that isn't clear enough. Lil' Ponderosa cattle are fed only grass from birth to death.
Boyce went through the CNG application and inspection process, earning official certification in March, becoming the 11th CNG-recognized food producer in or near the Carlisle-Chambersburg-York triangle. There are 45 CNG-certified food producers in the state.
“We grow mostly through word of mouth, and we accept about 300 new farms into the program each year,” Varon said from the CNG offices in Brooklyn, N.Y.
She downplayed comparisons to the NOP program, pointing out the CNG program is “specifically tailored” to farmers providing food to their own communities.
“We're not trying to define something radically different,” Varon said. “We're believers in the organic movement.”
Farmers who participate in the CNG program rely on peer inspection by other farmers to ensure they follow organic practices, such as avoiding synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and using cover crops and rotation for healthy soil. While critics say peer review rather than USDA-certified inspectors could lead to cutting corners, Varon said it isn't likely.
“A farmer who does an inspection, their name and reputation is on the line,” she said. “There is an element of accountability that comes from being in the same community as your past inspector or your future inspector.”
Bill and Mary Ann Oyler own Oyler's Organic Farms & Market in Franklin Township, Adams County. Certified under the USDA program for the past seven years, the couple is a believer in the government-backed process, said Mary Ann Oyler.
Oyler's offers a variety of products, from grass-finished beef to organic brown eggs and organic apples. Mary Ann Oyler acknowledged there is a lot of paperwork to maintain NOP certification, but she said it is worth it.
“It really validates what we're doing and that we're following organic practices,” she said. “For the customer we never meet face to face, it gives them the assurance that this is an organically grown product.”
Being certified through the USDA means inspectors visit regularly, sometimes unannounced, for spot inspections.
“We keep specific records on every product we use,” Oyler said. “If they find you use something that was not approved, then they pull your certification for a period of time.”
Oyler calls CNG “a good program” but doesn't consider it organic. She maintains the NOP standards are tougher.
Jenn Halpin, director and farm manager of the Dickinson College Farm in South Middleton Township, is familiar with both programs.
She said NOP is favored by farms that sell food to customers sight unseen, whereas CNG is better suited to food producers at the community level.
“I think CNG offers this wonderful alternative to certification through the USDA for people who can't afford to take that step,” said Halpin, who is a CNG inspector. “It allows new and beginning farmers to get through the door and have something to attach to their product to ensure its integrity.”
Those involved in the organic movement say certification under any program is being driven by intense public interest in healthier foods. Boyce reports 15 to 20 percent annual revenue growth at Lil' Ponderosa.
“You've got an obesity epidemic,” he said. “They're realizing that what they're eating isn't good for them in some respects, so they're seeking out healthier foodstuffs.”
To be granted the CNG certification, farmers can’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.
CNG standards are based on the standards of the National Organic Program, although there are some differences. Many synthetic substances allowed in organic foods aren’t allowed in the CNG program. CNG will not certify processed foods.
Livestock standards have always included the more-rigorous access-to-pasture requirement that the NOP ultimately adopted in February 2010. Also, CNG farms don’t use rotenone, which is allowed with restrictions in the NOP.
Source: Certified Naturally Grown
CNG offers certification for the following types of operations: produce, livestock and apiaries. Here are the five steps to certification:
1. Complete online certification application: Each type of certification has its own application: Produce (fruits, veggies, and maple), Apiary (for beekeepers), and Livestock (includes poultry and eggs). Once accepted, applications become part of an online farm profile on the CNG website.
2. Membership dues: An annual financial contribution is required for certification. CNG recommends $125 to $200 per year, and the minimum dues for livestock or produce certification is $110. For beginning farmers and farmers facing unusual hardships, CNG has a scholarship fund.
3. Sign and return declaration: A signature indicates a food producer meets all the Certified Naturally Grown standards and understands and accepts the terms of participating in the CNG program. Signed declarations become part of the producer’s online profile and must be repeated annually.
4. Arrange on-farm inspection: All farms must arrange their own on-site inspections, which should take place within two growing-season months of being accepted into the program and then at least once every 16 months. Inspections are done by volunteers for free. Inspection forms and guidelines are available online.
5. Conduct an inspection: All participating farmers and beekeepers agree to conduct at least one inspection of another CNG farm or apiary annually. This requirement is waived if there is not another CNG farm or apiary within a one-hour drive.
Source: Certified Naturally Grown