In today’s world, figuring out what a food label actually means is no easy task. Marketers are savvy to our desire to be as healthy and environmentally conscious as possible, and their packaging has a way to skirting around the truth in order to sell that message.

Shopping at a Farmers Markets can reduce the mental aerobics that happen at the supermarket. Growers from the farm are right there to answer your questions, and their labeling isn’t crowded with hyperbole and a grab-bag of health claims. Two common labels that you will see at a farmers market are the USDA’s “Certified Naturally Grown” and “Certified Organic”. What exactly do these labels mean?


Let’s begin with what came first: Certified Organic. The National Organic Program is the federal agency that administers the USDA organic certification, and was created in 2000.  To become Certified Organic, a farmer cannot grow using anything from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (mandated by the Secretary of Agriculture). Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and when a synthetic substance is used for a specific purpose, it must be approved on criteria that examines its effect on human health and the environment. Getting a Certified Organic seal can take several years of advance preparation – standards state that organic crops must be grown on land that has been free from prohibited pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers for three years proceeding growth. After a farm has completed the requirements and a National Organic Program agent has made a site visit and filed a favorable report, maintaining the certification is an ongoing process that requires daily record keeping and data collection. The cost to becoming certified organic varies substantially by which certifying agent you choose (dependent on location), and can be as much as $1,500 per farm.


For many small farmers, the cost and paperwork required to received a certified organic label is prohibitive and cost-ineffective. That’s why a group of farmers created the the Certified Naturally Grown certification organization, the “grassroots alternative to certified organic”. The CNG label is no less strict in it’s requirements than Certified organic – all produce must still be grown without synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. Certified Naturally Grown farmers are required to submit to an annual inspection and pay an annual fee. In contrast with the NOP, where inspections are conducted by a USDA-accredited certifying agency and third-party inspectors, CNG farms may be inspected by other CNG farmers, non-CNG farmers, extension agents, master gardeners and customers, with CNG farmers being ideal.

So next time you’re shopping for produce online or at the farmers market and see a lack of “certified organic” growers, don’t be discouraged! Ask instead if a vendor is certified naturally grown. These practices still produce food that is safe and delicious to eat. Stay tuned for the launch of our new website – you will be able to sort vendors by their certification!


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