Monday, January 9, 2012

"Certified Naturally Grown" - what does it really mean?

Last month I wrote an entry on the USDA Organic certification program.  In writing that, I ran across another organization that also certifies farms, Certified Naturally Grown, or CNG for short.   

Here's the first paragraph from the wikipedia entry on CNG

"Certified Naturally Grown is a non-profit alternate farm assurance certification program created for small-scale organic farmers, and striving to strengthen the organic movement by preserving high organic standards and removing financial barriers that tend to exclude smaller farms that are selling locally and directly to their customers. "

That sounds pretty good; the basic idea is that it's too hard to keep up with the requirements of the USDA Organic certification program, so they get farmers to inspect other farmers, and is easier for the smaller farmer to deal with. 

What does it really mean? 

I'm not going to go into the nitty gritty details of what the certification process is, or what their requirements are.  You can see those on their website if your'e curious. 

As with the USA organic program, I think that  it's a reasonable expectation that anyone claiming to be certified actually follow the rules and practices, and, actually, that they be really certified.   I asked the following questions via email to, their contact address. 

What do you do in the following cases: 
1) A farm that claims to be Certified Naturally Grown that's never been certified by you
2) A farm that may have been CNG at some point, but is no longer, and still claims to be
3) Farms that are CNG certified, but no longer appear to be abiding by the certification agreement

I received the following response from Alice Varon, Executive Director of CNG

"...In situations 1 and 2, we ask them to discontinue using our name and logo.  In situation 3, it depends on the particulars, such as whether it's a willful violation or a misunderstanding, how serious the breach, and whether they will change their practices."  

I did a bit of searching, and found a farm that was claiming to be Certified Naturally grown.  I went to that farms website and found several references to being certified, along with a picture of their certification certificate.   To keep this on point, I'm not going to mention the name of the farm, but it's a pretty big name on the internet. 

I then went to CNGs website and looked up that farm.  No listing as certified by farm name, or even in the same state.  I was a bit confused by this, and wrote Ms. Varon asking for clarification: 

Me:  "I've looked at at length and cannot find a profile for , which apparently has been certified in the past.  Can you verify that is no longer CNG certified? 

Ms. Varon:  "That is correct, they are no longer certified"

I provided Ms. Varon a link to the certification certificate, the farms name, and other information on 12-23-2011.  As of today, about two weeks later, the claims remain on their website, and as far as the consumer can tell they're still Certified Naturally grown. 

Ok.  So they were certified at some point in the past.  Maybe their certification lapsed recently.  I asked Ms Varon about that directly.  Three times.  I finally got this answer: 

Ms. Varon: "...Regarding , we don't provide information about farms that are not currently certified with our program."

Here's the biggest problem I have with this: 

1) No apparent action taken when they are put on notice that a farm is violating their policy. 

2) No way for the consumer to know why a farms certification was removed.  Was it bad practices?  Bad husbandry?   I'd like to know why a farm is no longer certified.  Voluntary?  Who knows?

3) And finally, because of this organizations reliance on farmers inspecting other farmers, I'm a little skeptical that their standards are being uniformly applied across all of their certified farms. 


  Third party certification programs have standards are are, basically, random.  I think of them as little trade groups; special interest groups, not much different than the big agriculture farm lobby.  They're out to sell you a story, same as any other brand in advertising.    

There's basically no history behind CNG with respect to a farm.  If you want to see what a particular farms records are, you're out of luck.   Contrast that to government based certification -- open government laws mean that if you really want to, you can look at just about any document that they have on file about a particular farm.  Not so with these guys.  They won't even tell me the dates of certification, reason for it being pulled, or anything about a farms records.  Have they lost their certification many times?  No one knows.  Strike that.  CNG knows, but they won't tell. 

They take no apparent action when put on notice that a farm is violating their policies.  That is inexcusable. 

Farmer-to-farmer inspections are a little suspect, in my opinion.  Remember that CNG is about creating a brand.  The last thing that most brands want is any sort of controversy about their brand, or standards.  In my opinion, if I'm inspecting the guy down the road, and he is inspecting me, well, there's a lot of reasons that I can think of that I might overlook a practice or lapse.    I can't even tell who did the inspection of any particular farm.  Anonymity is the enemy of public trust. 

I'd give CNG a solid D rating as a certification organization, based on these issues.   Sounds good on paper, but the implementation sucks.  



Joanne said...

Caveat Emptor. If you're buying from a local farm, when in doubt, go visit the farm or at least talk to the farmer.

Unfortunately if the farm's out of your area it'd pretty difficult to do that unless you happen to be near them while on vacation. That's why I won't certify and I don't label. People want to join the CSA program, or buy produce/plants from me, if they have questions, they can give me a call, an/or come visit.

When I buy produce at the store or the produce stand down the way, I don't pay any attention to labels.

Caleb said...

Not related to the content, but as someone who randomly stumbled onto this blog, I find your posts to be really interesting and informative! Its a bit sad the amount of barriers small farmers are well as the amount of misinformation consumers must wade through. Thanks for the transparency! Its much needed!

Caleb said...

Not related to the content, but as someone who randomly stumbled onto this blog, I find your posts to be really interesting and informative! Its a bit sad the amount of barriers small farmers are well as the amount of misinformation consumers must wade through. Thanks for the transparency! Its much needed!

Bruce King said...

Joanne: That's the conclusion I'm coming to. As a consumer of vegetables and fruits, I can't really find a way to trust that the entire standard grow/distribution/retailing system works. About the only way to trust the food that I'm eating is to trust the person that grows it. The certification organizations are a good idea, and are there to meet a need, but so far every one has some problem that decreases its value to me, as a consumer.

CNG is a good idea, but it's not at all transparent with respect to a farms history; and that farm I mentioned is still claiming to be CNG certified as I write this.

Bruce King said...

Caleb: Thank you for the comment. I aim this blog mostly at farmers; a lot of the content is farmer-oriented, vs consumer oriented, but we all have to eat, and I'm glad you're finding it useful.

I'm always interested in why people like it, and I agree with you about misinformation -- there's a lot of people who have a vested interest in selling you their story.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add, Bruce, that as a farmer who is Certified Naturally Grown, all of a farm's records and history are available on the website. If they are not, it means that the farm never provided them or they are no longer certified. But, you would be able to look up my farm and see every inspection I have had. I find it to be very transparent and I try to make sure that my subscribers are aware that they can do this. I also invite people to my farm to see what I am doing. It is unfortunate that not all farms have the same integrity. If it were me, I would contact the farm in question and call them out on it. It's not fair to all of the other farmers who really take pride in this and I know when I have to go inspect another farm I go above and beyond to make sure they are what they say they are.

That's just my two cents as a CNG farmer.

ninfan99 said...

CNG does provide *some* history on a farm but it is all self reported or pencil whipped by someone else (local farmer, friend etc).

Due diligence by a consumer is all that's needed, a phone call, a visit, etc. I think CNG, NOP, etc are good guidelines to follow. But I do agree, if one lapses on certification, fails an interview/visit etc they should have some sort of reporting system in place to let others know that they failed at X, Y, Z.

ninfan99 said...

CNG does offer some self reporting history on farms. It's not that informative but there is *some* info.

I think you're right if a farm loses certification, or fails at X, Y, Z during a recert, interview etc that information should be available to consumers etc.

rsdcllc said...

I have a question, if the CNG farmers were inspected by the local county agent instead of a fellow CNG farmer would their certification be more legitimate? The county agent is member of the Cooperative Extension System which is government affiliated and supported financially by the Federal Government.