Naturally Grown: A Different Kind of Organic
The Satya Interview with Ron
Ron Khosla, with his wife Kate, owns and operates
the Huguenot Street Farm in New Paltz, New York. They have become locally
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.