Certified Naturally Grown vs. Certified Organic vs. Who Cares
By Guy K. Ames, CNG grower and NCAT Horticulture Specialist
When you work hard to produce food in an ecologically sound way that customers can purchase without fear of pesticide residues, you may wonder if you should take the next step and make it “official” through a certification program. The “who cares” part of the subtitle might sound flippant, but that really is the central question to certification of your farm as “Certified Organic” (CO) or “Certified Naturally Grown” (CNG). Oh, it’s possible that you first wanted to get certified as a matter of pride—after all, to grow without the help of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is difficult! But the cost and effort involved in being certified should quickly convince you that certification is not worth it unless your clientele strongly desires or requires it enough to compensate you for your costs and efforts. That extra compensation is often referred to as “the organic premium.”
Your production could be small enough that your clientele knows you more-or-less personally and trusts your practices. In that case, you probably don’t need to go through the hassle and expense of any kind of certification. But with rare exception, that small of an operation is probably not going to contribute significantly to your livelihood. Eventually, if you aspire to live off your farm income, you’re going to find yourself marketing to people or institutions that you don’t personally know. They might want more than a hearty handshake to assure them that your food and farming methods are safe. Enter certification.
USDA Organic Certification
Currently, USDA Certified Organic is the standard of the U.S. food industry. With the USDA Certified Organic seal on your product, you can expect a premium for most of your product(s) in most marketplaces in the U.S. Brokers and wholesalers will almost certainly provide a premium. Most supermarkets will, too. In addition, farmers market customers will likely support you with a monetary token of their appreciation. Still, the question must be asked, “Am I getting enough extra to compensate for the extra expense and hassle?”
What does USDA organic certification cost and otherwise entail? Accountability is the issue, so you will have an annual inspection by a licensed agency, and will have to keep good records. These are the two main things that will require your time and money. Here in Northwest Arkansas there are no nearby certification agencies or licensed inspectors. So in addition to regular inspection fees, you will have to spring for travel and possibly lodging expenses.
Talking to my office mates, we settled on a rough estimate probably in the $800-$1200 range in the Northwest Arkansas area. It won’t take a quadratic equation to calculate how much you’d have to sell in order to afford this extra expense on top of your ordinary production costs. It might seem daunting, especially if you’re a beginning farmer. But the “Certified Organic” seal is a skeleton key for almost any U.S. market. If you’re having growing pains or if you want to expand your marketing outside of your home area, then USDA Certified Organic might be what it takes. The ATTRA publication Guide for Organic Crop Producers provides all the necessary details.
You might find recordkeeping requirements under the national organic rules daunting. For the sake of this blog, I will not detail them, but you can find them in the publication linked to above. It’s simply important to note that they will take some time to complete—extra work that you should consider when deciding on certification.
Certified Naturally Grown
If your farming aspirations and resources land you in the general class of mid-scale (or smaller) and for the reasons mentioned above, you want or need to get certified, there is at least one alternative: Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). CNG adheres to the same guidelines and restrictions as CO. But the licensing costs are less—generally around $200—as are the recordkeeping requirements. You can find details here: https://www.cngfarming.org/
The biggest difference between CNG and CO is the inspection process. Under CNG rules, another CNG farmer, your peer, conducts the inspection. In general, there are no costs for the inspection itself. It’s a give-and-take inspection process, with all CNG farmers required to conduct an inspection of another farm. If you’re some prohibitive distance from another CNG farmer it is acceptable to arrange for an alternative inspector. That could be an Extension Agent, a Certified Organic Grower, or even three customers. The guidelines governing this alternative are here: https://www.cngfarming.org/guidelines.
The rules also prohibit reciprocal inspections (Farmer A can’t inspect Farmer B and then have Farmer B turn around and inspect Farmer A). Other guidelines maintain the integrity of the inspection process as well. One recent addition to CNG inspection guidelines is to voluntarily open up the inspection itself for the public to witness. An open inspection increases transparency and trust in the process.
This might immediately sound like a better deal to many farmers. However, CNG is not universally recognized as a viable alternative to CO. Certified Organic is understood and accepted nationwide. CNG, not so much! And there are probably very few if any wholesalers and brokers who would accept equivalency between the two systems. So if you’re big—or want to be—and expect to market outside of your home area, CNG might not be your best choice.
CNG: A Good Fit for Me
Full disclosure: I’m a CNG farmer. It’s been quite good for me so far. We have an independent natural foods grocer in our town of Fayetteville, AR that requires either CNG or CO certification for any farmer who wants to sell produce there. And the Fayetteville Farmers Market managers understand what CNG is, so they help steer consumers who want to buy that kind of food to CNG farmers. There is a growing community of CNG farmers in Northwest Arkansas to inspect and otherwise support one another. CNG is a good fit for me at my production levels and current production targets. It also works because of a community of CNG farmers and a local community that understands and accepts the CNG certification label as the assurance they want for their food.
ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture has many publications covering different aspects of the USDA organic certification process. Find them on our website at https://attra.ncat.org/organic/. Have questions about the USDA organic certification process or Certified Naturally Grown? Contact Guy or ATTRA’s other technical specialists. Call 800-346-9140 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn More about CNG
Guy and fellow NCAT Horticulture Specialist Luke Freeman will lead a three-hour Certified Naturally Grown Workshop on Thursday, October 24 from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. The event will take place at Cobblestone Farm, 1210 N. 54th Ave., in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It’s free, but registration is required. Sign up today at https://www.ncat.org/events/.