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Money doesn't grow on trees: Small farmers turn to organic alternatives

Wednesday - 8/14/2013, 8:31am  ET

Radix Farm certifies its sustainable growing practices with Certified Naturally Grown, an alternative to organic certification. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)

WASHINGTON - Organic food products are traditionally more expensive for consumers than conventional varieties. This difference in price is also felt by the farmers who grow and produce certified organic food.

In order to sell any food product as "organic," growers must be certified by the USDA. This certification process takes approximately three years, requires "a lot of paperwork" and costs upwards of several thousand dollars, depending on the size of the operation.

For many small farmers who practice sustainable farming, completing the federal government's standards for certified organic is not a possibility. But a relatively new program is offering a similar, and more simplified, approach to growing natural foods.

Kristin Carbone is the owner of Radix Farm in Prince George's County, Md., just 10 miles east of D.C.

Carbone grows everything from tomatoes, to sweet potatoes on a 2 acre plot of land she has rented for the past five years. She sells her produce at local farmers markets and through her 50-person Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

Even though Carbone practices an organic model of growing, obtaining the official organic certification is not an option for her at this point in her business.

"Organic certification is just a lot of paper work to do and you have to show them three years of your records," says Carbone, 35.

The three year timeframe is set to the amount of time it takes a piece of land to rid itself of any pesticide or synthetics previously used.

"For a bigger farm that might make sense," Carbone says. "There is really the question of what kind of investment in time and infrastructure and money I should put into it. Why go through the whole process? What if I move in a few years?"

Last year, Carbone began researching a similar, but more accessible certification for her small farm. Through her research, she came across Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), a national grassroots program established in 2002 by a handful of farmers in the mid-Hudson Valley.

According to Alice Varon, executive director of CNG, the founding farmers were committed to organic practices, but thought that the -- then new -- organic certification was not a great fit for their farms.

"They were growing on a few acres and they were selling through their CSAs or farmers markets in their local communities. Like many farms around the country, it was important to them to grow without any synthetic inputs and without GMOs and they wanted to get credit for it, but they just felt like the paperwork requirements and the certification piece of the USDA program were a bit more than they could justify," Varon says.

So these farmers founded CNG as a way to highlight their sustainable practices to their customers. The program's paperwork consists of an online application and a signed declaration.

Now, the CNG program has more than 700 registered farms. In 2008, the USDA reported 12,941 certified organic producers.

"Our applications are increasing and the enthusiasm and knowledge about Certified Naturally Grown is definitely growing," Varon says.

For Carbone, the certification legitimizes all of the standards she was already practicing.

"Basically that means I don't use any synthetic chemicals at all. I don't use synthetic herbicides, pesticides or synthetic fertilizer. I focus on all aspects of sustainability that I can, such as planting cover crops to increase social fertility, using compost, having flowering plants around to attract pollinators, those sorts of things," Carbone says.

According to Varon, the cost of obtaining the certification is a minimum payment of $110 per year for each farm. For farmers who can afford more, CNG has a suggested donation amount that is put toward a scholarship fund for less fortunate growers.

The most attractive component of the CNG program for Carbone is the transparency of the program and the peer-review structure of the certification process.

In addition to completing an online application that details the farm's specific growing practices, farms certified by CNG are subject to a review from an already certified CNG grower.

"There's a lot of learning knowledge and exchange that can happen in a peer review inspection … It's a great opportunity to share and learn from someone who knows exactly the kinds of challenges you're dealing with," Varon says.

The entire certification process typically takes around two months, but can take as little as two weeks, depending on the availability of the farmer tapped for the peer review.

"In turn, part of my obligation is to inspect another farm … another person in the network, so that we're all reviewing someone else's farm. We all learn from each other," Carbone says.

Margaret Morgan-Hubbard, founder and chief executive officer of ECO City Farms in Edmonston, Md., was assigned to peer-review Carbone's farm this past June. Morgan- Hubbard obtained her CNG certification roughly two years ago.

Morgan-Hubbard says she feels the standards for CNG are higher in terms of sustainability than certified organic.

"(Certified organic) just doesn't necessarily have the same meaning to us as being certified by other local farmers who are struggling with many of the same issues as we are," Morgan-Hubbard says.

When it comes to selling her CNG certified food to customers, Carbone says she hasn't seen any hesitation from buyers. Carbone says this is partly because of the nature of her selling practices, which she describes as direct-market selling.

"I talk face-to-face with every one of my customers, so I can explain the process, Carbone says. "There are a lot of farmers markets now and people have their eye out for organic or at least sustainably grown. I think having something I can point to -- a certifying agency -- is nice."

Varon says she has heard from other farmers who have had more difficulty explaining the CNG certification.

"I think it's a challenge for the farmer at the market who would love to have CNG be as widely recognized as the word ‘organic.' But unfortunately we're not as well-known, partly because we're a newer program and we are a grassroots organization without a big marketing budget," Varon says.

Morgan-Hubbard says she invites anyone with questions about her food to visit her farm.

"When they see our farm, when they taste our food … We want people to know more about what they are putting in their bodies," Morgan-Hubbard says.

Despite some skepticism, Varon encourages the conversation of alternative certifications vs. certified organic.

"Maybe it's a good thing for customers to ask questions and to learn. Just as it's important for farmers to learn from each other, there's a lot of room for improved understanding among the customer base about what it means to get organic certified, what are the requirements and why it is important that there's an alternative, specifically for smaller farms," she says.

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