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Organic farmers turn from federal program

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

Array

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.

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