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December 2005/January 2006
Certified Naturally Grown: A Different Kind of Organic

The Satya Interview with Ron Khosla


Ron Khosla, with his wife Kate, owns and operates the Huguenot Street Farm in New Paltz, New York. They have become locally and nationally renowned for growing produce to uncompromising organic standards and choosing heirloom varieties whenever possible. As veganic farming pioneers, they eschew animal products such as manure, bone meal, and blood as fertilizers since these are byproducts of factory farms (see their article, “Cruelty-free Agriculture,” in the June 2001 issue of Satya).

A graduate of the Cornell University School of Agriculture, Ron Khosla has just been named Sustainable Farmer of the Year by the Glynwood Center. He has become a sought-after speaker on the subject of organic farming, giving presentations at conferences worldwide. He is on the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) task force for small farm organic certification and in 2002 he founded Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), a nonprofit certification organization for small-scale farmers who grow to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards but who are not part of the USDA program.

Angela Starks, who feels very fortunate to live less than a mile from Huguenot Street Farm and thus able to enjoy its pure, flavorful produce, asked Ron Khosla about the CNG program and why he feels it is so important.

What do you mean by ‘Naturally Grown’ and how does it differ from the USDA organic standards?
We specify the same growing practice standards as the USDA national organic program. Although we aren’t affiliated with them at all, they were a well-researched place for us to start. But, we may well end up publishing a more strict alternative certification program of our own, as there are more and more agribusiness attacks on the integrity of USDA organic. Given that our rules are so similar at present, the primary difference is cost to farmers and paperwork requirements.

Why is there a need for an organic labeling system other than the already established USDA certification?
Simply because farmers that have proudly referred to themselves as “Organic” for decades were not permitted to do so after October 21, 2002, unless certified by a USDA-sanctioned agency. Today, most family farmers that continue to grow organic are not certified by the USDA. In fact, a 2002 Cornell Cooperative Extension survey of commercial organic farms in the Hudson Valley in New York came back with 80 percent of the commercial organic farms saying they were not planning on becoming USDA certified organic in the next year. It shouldn’t matter…except that the law states a farmer cannot declare or even describe their produce as “organic” (including “non-certified organic”) unless it is certified by a USDA accredited certifier.

In addition, most certified organic food sold in this country is shipped great distances and comes from agribusiness farms. Certified Naturally Grown is a label that is available only to small family farms that sell their produce locally and directly to consumers. We need this label that highlights small family farmers growing more sustainably than agribusiness organic—and of course to highlight local food systems.

We also need to keep agribusiness organic as true to the ideals as possible—Certified Naturally Grown is the only national alternative-labeling program to USDA organic. With over 400 farmers and growing fast, we are larger than most of the individual USDA organic certification agencies. If Congress guts the organic law more and more, our small commercial farmers will act more than ever as the ‘soul’ and reminder of what organic should be—it puts pressure on them to not stray too far.

And finally, the USDA system of organic certification is inherently flawed. There are over 100 USDA accredited certification agencies competing with each other to sell the exact same organic label to farmers and processors. They compete by selling the label more cheaply, or by making it easier to get certified (bending rules, looking the other way, even making suggestions of how farmers can describe a non-organic practice so that it won’t be caught by auditors!). I’m all in favor of capitalism, but a certification program is definitely not the place to apply free-market forces.

Some farmers practice organic methods, but can’t afford to get certified organic. How do the certification costs between CNG and USDA compare?
CNG runs on a free-will donation basis only. There are no required fees. The cost of the latest USDA program—both in terms of money and paperwork requirements—is too much for many small farmers to afford. In some states it’s extremely affordable, so it’s just the time commitment to the paperwork—say about two weeks of concerted paperwork for a diversified small family farm, plus extra time all during the season. That’s really hard for most time-stressed farmers to manage. In other states a small farm will cost close to $1,000 and in others it’s over $2,000. One magazine article estimated the total small farm cost for organic certification (including time, record-keeping, inspector fees and fees to the certification agency) at over $10,000.

This is even truer for farmers that grow a wide range of crops all at once. The paperwork trail of everything that happens from seed to sale takes more time for multi-crop farmers than large agribusiness mono-crop farms. This is a shame because growing many different crops at once is a safer and more ecologically sustainable practice. The soil is worked in different ways, and disease and pest problems are significantly reduced.

Can you give us some more examples of ‘cutting corners’—or even outright fraud—in the organic produce industry?
I don’t often like to get into this as it tends to make some people angry, but it does happen. A surprising number of USDA certified organic growers use prohibited substances on their own farms in an emergency. When you’ve tied up so much money in certification, you are less likely to be able to afford the loss of a crop. Also, because of the paperwork requirements, the USDA organic program actually encourages farmers to grow fewer crops rather than more crops. Fewer crops means less diversity, which means more eggs in one basket, and you can’t afford to drop that basket even if it means “stretching” the rules sometimes.

Other USDA organic growers do everything right on their own farms, but on the way to market stop by and “top off” the truck with produce from a conventional farm. People have this idea that because it’s “USDA Certified” that they must take the whole thing very seriously, and that’s just not true. It’s really just a lot of paperwork done by the farmer. It’s worse than taxes. That being said, I’ve met a few of the staffers at the USDA organic program office, and they are great people! No doubt, they do the best they can—which is nothing more than taking the word of farmers and certifiers that they are all “following the rules.”

Farming is a very solitary profession, and farmers who are determined to cheat (whether in the USDA organic program or our own Certified Naturally Grown program) are virtually impossible to catch. Even with random inspections, every organic farmer knows that if they want to spray a banned substance they aren’t going to be “surprise inspected” on a Sunday morning.

I have heard that even though some sprays are technically ‘natural’ they can still be very unhealthy. Is that true?
Yes! This is a big problem. Let’s look at copper sulfate as an example. It’s an organically approved fungicide treatment. It is also a heavy metal that builds up in the soil, and is now implicated in causing Alzheimer’s. On agribusiness organic farms that tend to be monocultures you need to use a lot of it—you can’t let your crop die or you are going to lose your entire profit for the year! So you have to spray it—on lettuce, spinach, chard, tomatoes…every week! One USDA certified organic farmer last year figured he sprayed enough to kill a sheep four times over eating just his sprayed produce.

It’s important to note that Certified Naturally Grown farmers are not prohibited from using copper sulfate either. However, CNG farmers tend to be more diversified and therefore less desperate to keep any single crop alive at the costs to the health of their soil and their customers.

How do you ensure that farmers are adhering to CNG standards?
CNG farms are inspected at least once per year. Unlike the USDA program, CNG posts each farm’s application, affidavit and inspector reports online for any member of the public to review. This maintains total transparency in the certification process.

The crux of the CNG program is that we use other CNG farmers as inspectors. Farmer inspectors are uniquely qualified to observe and note whether their neighbors are sticking to the standards. They fill out a check-sheet inspection form, have it notarized and mail it back to us where it is scanned in and posted. All farmers applying to use the CNG label must agree to do at least one inspection of another farm. And while the new USDA program forbids farm inspectors from making suggestions to improve a farmer’s situation, the CNG program encourages sharing and advice between farmers.

One of the most common misconceptions about the USDA organic program is how the farm inspections are carried out. There is a belief that USDA organic farmers submit their soil or vegetables for “spot chemical tests” and that’s part of the reason for the added expense. This is not true. The USDA program does not require chemical tests—spot or otherwise. USDA inspectors generally do not come from an agricultural background and have only gone through a short training program before they begin their on-farm inspections.

The whole discussion of whether or not farmers adhere to organic standards is not for the faint of heart. The bottom line is always going to be trust. Both USDA organic and CNG rely on paperwork and applications that are filled out by the farmer. Someone who wants to cheat can obviously lie on the application. As I said before, although both programs have an inspection component, the truth is that if farmers want to cheat, they can. We do use random pesticide residue testing at the point of sale as a final “check” (which USDA certified organic doesn’t do) but it’s expensive to carry out, and so we don’t do it nearly as often as we’d like.

How else is CNG distinctive from the USDA certification process?
I think there is more scope for accountability in the CNG process. It was created by small farmers, for small farmers, and is being run by small farmers. It is the same group of farmers that initially created, nurtured and grew the original organic label. But these farmers have become disillusioned—and in many cases hindered—by the USDA’s high fees. The organic label was not originally envisioned with government control and high licensing fees in mind, it was grown with sweat and high ideals of farmers helping farmers. I hope that CNG can help to reinstate those original values.

How important do you think it is that people try to also purchase food that is grown locally, and not just organically?
Locally grown is the key. Get to know the farmers you are buying from. I know this is going to sound strange coming from the administrator of an organic program, but I think it’s more important to buy from local farmers than it is to buy USDA certified organic shipped in from who-knows-where!

Any closing thoughts?
I’d just like to add that CNG was not established as an attack on the USDA organic program. The USDA program rules have been very well thought out and carefully crafted to maintain the ideals that the organic farming movement developed and continues to live by. Having a nationally overseen and controlled program should certainly help to encourage many larger farmers to try organic agriculture, knowing there is a stable and secure value-added marketing label for their products. However, even as we applaud the growth and maturation of the organic label, many farmers want to move on to a new label that is “more our size.” That new label, for some of us anyway, is Certified Naturally Grown.

For more information on Certified Naturally Grown visit www.naturallygrown.org. To learn about Kate and Ron Khosla’s Huguenot Street Farm, see www.flyingbeet.com.

 


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