Certified Naturally Grown: Clever Marketing or Legitimate Labeling?

Photo Courtesy of H. LutzPHOTO COURTESY OF H. LUTZ

Finding a way to blaze our own trail by creating a sustainable business has long been a part of the quintessential American success story. For generations, the agriculture business has been a major factor in the success of many American families. While our country took a turn to the industrial for the past several decades, there has been an upswing in the establishment of smaller, family-run farms that eschew what has become the conventional, pesticide-laden industrial way.

Even though these small farmers are devoting their land to producing what are, by definition, organic crops, they are not able to use the “organic” label. To be able to market their crops as organic, they must embark on what can be a lengthy, expensive certification process through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fortunately, the interest in organic farming and products is growing, creating a considerable market for organic farmers and processors who can afford the certification. This begs the question: what about those just starting out, who are adhering to the USDA standards, but unable to appeal to organic-conscious consumers because they haven’t been able to obtain the label?

Thankfully, there is a happy middle ground not only for these farmers, but also for us consumers. The potentially bureaucratic process of USDA-Organic certification can be disconcerting for those of us seeking reassurance that what we eat has been held to an Earth-friendly, sustainable, pesticide-free standard. This middle ground takes the form of the “Certified Naturally Grown” label – but what does it mean?


To be able to market their crops as Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), farmers adhere to guidelines maintained by their peers as part of a participatory guarantee system, or PGS. These are quality-assurance systems that focus upon farmers who market directly to their local communities, and peer-conducted inspections are performed at least once yearly. CNG standards are modeled after those set by the National Organic Program. In order to be certified, no synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms can be used by participating farmers. Livestock must spend the majority of their lives out to pasture.

Many of our favorite small farms that can be found at our local farmers’ markets are the ones for whom a CNG label works best. By contrast, a USDA-organic label works well for larger operations that sell their products in retail markets nationwide. The PGS helps to solidify a greater sense of personal accountability and community amongst participants, and encourages a more autonomous way of life while maintaining high standards of safety and quality.

To spark a conversation at the dining table or around the kitchen counter about what it means to be CNG vs. Certified Organic, try making it a game for the kiddos to see who can find the most CNG labeled-products at the local Green Market – the winner gets a tasty, healthy, Earth-friendly treat!

For more information about which farmers in the tri-state area who carry the CNG label, be sure to check out this list of producers.

Happy and healthy eating!

Hayley Lutz

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