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Published August 26, 2013, 10:47 AM

Naturally grown

Justine and Brian Denison say they adhere to all the growing practices required for organic certification, yet if they label their beans and tomatoes “organic” at the farmers market, they could face federal charges and $20,000 or more in fines.

By: Mary Esch, Associated Press

SCHAGHTICOKE, N.Y. — Justine and Brian Denison say they adhere to all the growing practices required for organic certification, yet if they label their beans and tomatoes “organic” at the farmers market, they could face federal charges and $20,000 or more in fines.

Because the Denisons chose not to seek organic certification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Denison Farm, which has been under organic management for more than 20 years, is banned from using that term. So they and hundreds of other small direct-marketing farms across the country have adopted an alternative label: Certified Naturally Grown.

Started by a group of organic farmers in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley as a backlash against federal takeover of the organic program in 2002, Certified Naturally Grown has expanded in the past decade to include more than 700 farms in 47 states, executive director Alice Varon says.

“Certified Naturally Grown is tailored for direct-market farmers producing food without any synthetic chemicals specifically for their local communities,” Varon says. “It’s a particular niche of the agricultural world. It’s not in direct competition with the national organic program.”

Red tape deters growers

Many small farmers previously certified organic by an independent organization have declined to participate in the federal program. They voice a variety of objections: extensive record-keeping requirements; fees that can amount to 6 percent of a small farm’s gross sales; and philosophical objections to joining a monolithic government-run program that also certifies huge operations that ship produce across the country.

“We have noticed over time that more and more farmers — often, younger farmers — who appear to be following organic practices don’t bother to get certified,” says Jack Kittredge, co-owner of a certified organic farm in Barre, Mass., and editor of “The Natural Farmer,” journal of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. “My major concern is that sometimes, unless you’re certified you’re not even aware of some of the problems,” such as calling livestock organic even though the animals eat feed containing genetically modified crops.

Atina Diffley, an organic farming consultant and author in Farmington, Minn., says alternative labels create confusion for customers. She says there are only about 13,000 USDA certified organic farms out of 2.2 million farms, and more organic farms are needed to bolster the movement’s impact on national farm policy. “When farms have an alternative certification, they’re not counted,” she says.

Sam Jones, spokesman for USDA’s organic certification program, says the agency doesn’t comment on guidelines other than its own and doesn’t take a position on whether alternative labels cause confusion. But he notes that growers are required by law to get federal certification if they want to sell their product as organic. Jones says USDA has a new program called “Sound and Sensible,” aimed at reducing paperwork and other burdensome aspects of certification.

Room for all

But farmers who opt for labels like Certified Naturally Grown and The Farmer’s Pledge, sponsored by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, say there’s room for all the labels; some farms even boast several alternative labels in addition to USDA organic.

“The Farmer’s Pledge is a better program for direct-sales farmers like me, who find the national organic program too burdensome,” says Mark Dunau, who farms five acres in Hancock, N.Y.

About 130 farmers in New York and Connecticut have signed The Farmers Pledge, a commitment to a broad set of farming principles that address labor issues, organic production practices, community values and marketing.

Farmers who participate in Certified Naturally Grown rely on peer inspection by other farmers to ensure they follow organic practices, such as avoiding synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and using cover crops and rotation for healthy soil.

While critics say peer review rather than USDA-certified inspectors could lead to cutting corners, Varon says that’s unlikely.

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