Empowering Sustainable Farming with the Certified Naturally Grown Label with Alice Varon

Empowering Sustainable Farming with the Certified Naturally Grown Label with Alice Varon

How do you assure customers that the food you are selling is healthy, safe, and nutritious?

The organic label has long been a hallmark of the GOOD FOOD industry, but it can sometimes be difficult to source every ingredient from organic farmers, which keeps your brand from sporting that highly-regulated logo.

Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) may be an answer to the issue of mindful ingredient sourcing. CNG offers peer-review certification to farmers producing food for their local communities through natural ways and without relying on synthetic chemicals or GMOs.

In this conversation, we are visited by Alice Varon, Executive Director of Certified Naturally Grown, to share us with the CNG label, the organization and what they do, their mission is, and how they support farmers to do what’s best—sustainable agriculture.

Virginia Foodie Essentials:

  • [Certified Naturally Grown] is an assurance that the food was grown without any synthetic chemicals or GMOs, with attention to soil and ecological balance. - Alice Varon
  • The cool thing about our certification program is the participation in the program involved. More than just getting the label, you actually have to be engaged and agree to conduct an onsite peer review. - Alice Varon
  • Most of the farmers who join Certified Naturally Grown are joining because this is how they farm.  It reflects their values. They're committed to working in harmony with nature, and they want to get some credit for that beyond just saying, so they want a certification to verify that this is how they farm. - Alice Varon
  • It's a big leap not just financially to become “certified organic,” but it's a knowledge-intensive occupation to farm this way, and so conventional farmers really need support in making that transition as well. - Alice Varon
  • So organic is definitely better known. We're glad for that awareness, but even with the organic program, there's a need for better education about what it exactly means. I think that people do generally care. They just have full lives, and it's one more piece of information they haven't absorbed yet. - Alice Varon

Key Points From This Episode:

  • Certified Naturally Grown is a badge in the marketplace that assures the food was grown without any synthetic chemicals or GMOs, with attention to soil and ecological balance.
  • Certified Naturally Grown takes pride in its high standard of certification as it attracts farmers who have high standards for themselves and involve them in peer-reviewing the ways and means of other participating farmers.
  • Certified Naturally Grown is a label different from Organic. While CNG also follows the USDA standards, its certification model is tailored for direct market farmers who are growing food for their local and regional communities. 
  • Their certification model relies on peer review inspections that are carried out by participating farmers, which allows them to connect with one another, share their knowledge, grow, and learn from the experience of having that peer review inspection.
  • There are standards and criteria set for the peer review and it leans in on transparency by posting inspection reports on the website.
  • The transition from conventional farming to organic is a difficult thing to do, so farmers who would want to go through that transition should be supported.
  • The CNF certification also fits other business models.

More About the Guest:

Alice Varon is the Executive Director of Certified Naturally Grown. CNG offers peer-review certification for farmers and beekeepers who produce food for their local communities without the use of synthetic chemicals and GMOs. In 2010 Alice helped launch CNG's apiary program to support and encourage natural beekeeping. More recently she worked with experts to develop new CNG certification programs for aquaponics and mushroom producers.

She is an active member of IFOAM-Organics International, serving as the North American representative on IFOAM's PGS Committee, a group formed to support the development of grassroots certification programs like CNG that are built on trust, social networks, and knowledge exchange. When not working, Alice enjoys exploring the woods and mountain biking in New York's Hudson Valley where she grows Shiitake mushrooms on logs, battles invasive plants, and will someday resume her beekeeping hobby.

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            Full Transcript:

            Note: We use AI transcription so there may be some inaccuracies

            [00:00:00] Alice Varon: Most of the farmers who join Certified naturally grown are joining in part because this is how they farm. It reflects their values. They're committed to working in harmony with nature, and they want to get some credit for that beyond just saying so they want a certification to verify that this is how they farm.

            [00:00:21] Georgiana Dearing: Welcome to the Virginia Foodie Podcast, where we lift the lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind the good food, good people. Brands that you know and love. If you've ever come across a yummy food brand and wondered how did they do that? How did they turn that recipe into a successful business?

            [00:00:40] Georgiana Dearing: Then we've got some stories for you.

            [00:00:46] Georgiana Dearing: Hello foodies. Welcome to the podcast. I'm George Steering and I provide marketing strategy on coaching for good food. I work with good food brands because I believe that the only way to heal the earth is to make it profitable, to be good, sustainable stewards of our planet. And when you're in the good food industry, the U S D A organic label seems to be the Hallmark certification, yet it is just one of many badges that a brand may wear depending on their category through market or their target audience.

            [00:01:18] Georgiana Dearing: One badge I've seen pop up at small markets is certified, naturally grown. I was curious to understand exactly what that label means and what it should signal to a shopper. So I went straight to the source and reached out to Alice Vain, executive Director of Certified Naturally Grown. And in our conversation I learned a lot about C N G's peer reviewed certification, what wearing that badge means to their target customers and how C N G has been transforming local markets for 20 years.

            [00:01:49] Georgiana Dearing: Today, Alice shares the story of the private nonprofit organization and how it has been walking side by side with the U S D A organic program since 2000 and. Listen in and learn more about the seal. Your brand may be in the right place to work with certified naturally grown products.

            [00:02:15] Georgiana Dearing: Hello and welcome to the podcast. Alice. I am so glad that you joined me today. I have been bumping into your organization and your certification for a while, and so it's great for me to speak directly to the. 

            [00:02:29] Alice Varon: Yeah. Thanks for having me. I'm so glad to share a little bit about what we've been up to. Well, 

            [00:02:34] Georgiana Dearing: the very first thing I always do is put my guest on the spot and ask you to tell our listeners who you are and what your organization does.

            [00:02:43] Alice Varon: Okay, great. So my name's Alice Baron and I'm the executive director of Certified Naturally Grown. I've been doing this now for 17 years. And I got involved when I was in the Mid Hudson Valley of New York where the organization started and have been growing and building with it ever 

            [00:03:01] Georgiana Dearing: since. Oh wow. 17 years.

            [00:03:04] Georgiana Dearing: That's great. Now I wanted to ask you, I'm in Virginia. Are you still in New York or where are you headquartered? Well, 

            [00:03:11] Alice Varon: it's hard to say. We have four staff each in different states, so we're pretty geographically distributed. I am still in New York, and I guess legally that is our headquarters, . Okay, 

            [00:03:24] Georgiana Dearing: so you do serve the entire country, which is great.

            [00:03:27] Georgiana Dearing: I've run across you mostly with local brands to me here in Virginia. So certified, naturally grown. I have seen it as a badge that shows up in the marketplace. Can you talk about what that means and what that means to a product that Carrie? 

            [00:03:44] Alice Varon: Absolutely. So for customers seeing the certified Naturally Grown badge, it's an assurance that the food was grown without any synthetic chemicals or GMOs with attention to soil and ecological balance, and our standards are actually based on the organic standards.

            [00:04:03] Alice Varon: And then as an independent nonprofit organization, we've modified them in some ways. It's a real assurance of ecological integrity for those who are looking for that and the food they purchas. When 

            [00:04:14] Georgiana Dearing: you talk about high standards there, can you elaborate on that a little 

            [00:04:18] Alice Varon: bit, ? Yeah, absolutely. We do tend to draw very passionate farmers to certified naturally grown who have extremely high standards for themselves.

            [00:04:27] Alice Varon: And sometimes that comes out in the inspection process where they wanna have the folks they're doing the peer review for have those same high standards. And so, That's a challenge for other farmers, and we feel like that's a perk of the program is that our members do help each other level up, but we also have a baseline for those who are just getting started.

            [00:04:47] Georgiana Dearing: So you mentioned U S D A organic certification. What's the difference if you're following their standards, what's the difference? Yeah, 

            [00:04:55] Alice Varon: good question. The main difference is in our certification model, it's tailored for direct market farmers who are growing food for their local and regional. So we put a premium on making sure that the program is accessible in terms of how much it costs and how much paperwork is required.

            [00:05:15] Alice Varon: But in terms of standards, there's really very little difference. It's tinkering around the edges. So there was question about whether the paper pot transplanter would be allowed, and that's something that's been extremely valuable for direct market farmers, but saves a lot of labor and that's something we allowed from the get-go.

            [00:05:32] Alice Varon: And recently, the organic program allow. . It's nice to have the ability to make those adjustments more quickly than the National Organic Program can do. But the main difference, it really is our certification model that relies on peer review inspections, so those are carried out by other farmers in the area, and it's a great way for farmers to connect with one another and share their knowledge and grow and learn from the experience of having that peer review inspection.

            [00:06:03] Georgiana Dearing: I'm familiar a little bit with organizational certification in that I've worked with bigger brands that participate in manufacturing certifications and things like that. Your model of peer review means the neighbors are really the ones looking at what's happening. Mm-hmm. , how does a farmer become a review?

            [00:06:25] Alice Varon: Well, that's a cool thing about our certification program is that participation in the program involves more than just getting the label. You actually have to be engaged and agree to conduct an on-site peer review. Now, in the early years, we want folks to go through the training that we've developed, the peer review class that provides support in how to conduct a robust peer review inspection.

            [00:06:51] Alice Varon: So ideally it's another C N G farmer who conducts the peer review inspection, but it can be a certified organic farmer or another farmer in the area who uses natural practices. And I know for a lot of folks that might raise questions like, well, how do you make sure it's a good one? We really lean in on transparency and offer support as much as is needed for that process.

            [00:07:16] Alice Varon: We actually post the inspection reports on our website. Each of our members has a profile and oh, so it's very clear who did the inspection, when was it done, when was their last inspection? And the farmer conducting the peer review has to indicate their affiliation. So there's an incentive to do a good job because it's

            [00:07:37] Alice Varon: It's gonna be known who passed this farmer if they really shouldn't have been. We usually will find that out. But everyone also really wants to do a good job because especially the C N G farmers, they are invested in the quality of the program. So the real issue for us is when farmers are like, no, no, you can't do that.

            [00:07:56] Alice Varon: And the fact is, , it's something they might not do. They might have standards that for themselves that say, no, I would not use that practice, but it's not technically prohibited. So we actually need to sometimes say, all right, it's actually not prohibited, but you can pass them. . Mm-hmm. . 

            [00:08:13] Georgiana Dearing: Mm-hmm. . Okay. So basically there's a bit of an honor system there, but you're posting the results and so someone could object.

            [00:08:23] Georgiana Dearing: Have you had that? 

            [00:08:25] Alice Varon: Once in a while, yeah. Someone will contact us saying they have concerns about a farmer's practices, and we follow up. We get as much information from that person and then we contact the farmer and ask them what are their practices? In fact, can they explain why we might have received this complaint?

            [00:08:41] Alice Varon: And we sort it out. 

            [00:08:42] Georgiana Dearing: That's kind of interesting. Now I know also cuz I've had clients who are U S D A organic certified. It's a pretty rigid certification process. It sounds like you may, I don't wanna say the word flexible, but I guess the word you used was accessible. Mm-hmm. was a little bit easier. Is it less 

            [00:09:02] Alice Varon: expensive?

            [00:09:03] Alice Varon: Yes, that's one way we're more accessible, for sure. Our recommended dues, there are annual dues. We recommend 200 or more per year and leave it up to the member to determine the exact amount based on the scale of their operation. And then we have monthly plans if folks wanna do it on a monthly basis automatically from their card.

            [00:09:22] Alice Varon: But it's definitely for most farmers, more affordable than organic. There is a cost share program that really helps with organic farmers. I think it's really a question of what is the right certification for a farmer. And sometimes cost is a factor. It's also less focused on paperwork. But in terms of the standards required, production standards, I would not say there's a significant difference.

            [00:09:46] Alice Varon: If anything, a lot of our farmers do have much higher standards than the organic practices, and that's something that we like to support. But it's not a question of, well, if you're trying to go from conventional to organic, then c n G is your midpoint. That's actually not the case. You have to be ready to farm according to organic and C n G standards in order to be c N 

            [00:10:09] Georgiana Dearing: G.

            [00:10:10] Georgiana Dearing: Okay, so it's not a transitional program that I've heard a lot from farmers. Again, I don't work directly with farmers, but I've heard a lot that getting from, I'm gonna say traditional farming. Mm-hmm. , or what is now the norm in this country, over to organic farming, is kind of a lengthy, hard process and a little expensive to make these changes.

            [00:10:34] Georgiana Dearing: Mm-hmm. . 

            [00:10:35] Alice Varon: Mm-hmm. It is hard to make the transition from conventional to organic, and we do wanna support that. Right now, I think most of the farmers who join Certified Naturally Grown are joining in part because this is how they farm. It reflects their values. They're committed to working in harmony with nature, and they want to get some credit for that beyond just saying.

            [00:10:58] Alice Varon: So they want a certification to verify that this is how they. So it would be great for us to support conventional farmers in making that transition. It's a big leap, not just financially to become certified organic, but it's a knowledge intensive occupation to farm this way, and so conventional farmers really need support in making that transition as well.

            [00:11:20] Georgiana Dearing: Are there programs that you offer at this time for. 

            [00:11:24] Alice Varon: We are focused primarily on folks who are oriented towards ecological farming and wanna learn to do it better and more efficiently, and we would like to modify those programs to support conventional farmers down the road for sure. 

            [00:11:40] Georgiana Dearing: So I'm gonna flip this around again and just get back to the consumer who's buying these products, and I just want to hear you state it again.

            [00:11:48] Georgiana Dearing: What would a consumer expect from A C N G SEAL as opposed to A U S D A organic seal? 

            [00:11:55] Alice Varon: Yeah, good question. They can expect food that was grown without synthetic chemicals or GMOs by a local farmer. With the organic seal, sometimes it's grown by a local farmer, but very often it's grown by a farmer using those same practices who's in another state or across the country.

            [00:12:13] Alice Varon: So the C N G seal is gonna be found in local markets more than in, say, a big box grocery. 

            [00:12:20] Georgiana Dearing: So I'm gonna throw a another question at you then about local, and that is how far do you consider local? It's always a question that comes up, . 

            [00:12:29] Alice Varon: Yeah. Yeah. We don't set a firm definition. I think for us the question is what are the markets that the farmer is trying to sell into?

            [00:12:37] Alice Varon: And if they're selling at a farmer's market or an independent grocer, I think cn G's an excellent fit for them. Okay. If they wanna sell the Whole Foods, they should probably look into. 

            [00:12:47] Georgiana Dearing: Okay. I was gonna say that because Whole Foods really, they don't recognize C N G as a thing for mm-hmm. qualification.

            [00:12:55] Georgiana Dearing: Whole Foods has some pretty stringent standards about that organics label. Like if you are not a hundred percent organic, you can't have the word organic anywhere on the packaging. You can't have on the front face at this. 

            [00:13:09] Alice Varon: That's right. And that's by federal law. Yeah, and that's fine. I think we have a program for farms that wanna sell at Whole Foods, and that's the Certified organic program.

            [00:13:17] Alice Varon: And if that's not a market, folks are looking to get into and there's a lot of folks growing on three acres for their local community, they don't need that label. They are very happy to just sell to their local independent grocer at farmer's markets through a food hub. And for them, certified Naturally Grown is a really great.

            [00:13:37] Alice Varon: It's also important for those independent grocers who are looking to source food that's both grown organically and also is local. And what they've found is that if they insist on only certified organic, they're gonna lose out on buying from some local farmers who are doing really good work to produce high quality food without harming the environment.

            [00:13:58] Alice Varon: So San Angie's a good solution there. So then they can bring in those farmers who would like to sell there. Just can't justify the leap of going into the cost and the paperwork commitments of certified organic, but are very committed to those practices. So C N G provides a 

            [00:14:16] Georgiana Dearing: solution. That's great. So you've been doing this for 17 years.

            [00:14:20] Georgiana Dearing: What can you say about consumer education? Do you think the market is as aware of your program as the U 

            [00:14:28] Alice Varon: S D A? No, not yet. . Okay. We're working on it. It's a big project. . Yeah. We could use your expertise in that front because it is a challenge to reach people who eat food or even people who care about what they eat.

            [00:14:42] Alice Varon: That's still a pretty large group of folks, so organic is definitely better known. And we're glad for that awareness. But even with the organic program, I think there's a need for better education about what exactly does it mean. And I think that people do generally care. They just have full lives, and it's one more piece of information they haven't absorbed yet.

            [00:15:02] Alice Varon: Well, you've already 

            [00:15:03] Georgiana Dearing: educated me a bit because I didn't realize how closely that you followed the U S D A stamps program. I did kind of have in my mind that it was sort of an interim step. Mm-hmm. , I think mostly because I was only seeing it with very small brands or farms. Mm-hmm. And so I didn't quite understand that.

            [00:15:24] Georgiana Dearing: It's actually very similar. So we talked about being in markets or local grocers, but what about larger farms or value added products? Are you a good fit for business models like, 

            [00:15:38] Alice Varon: Yes, we can be. It really, again, depends on what are their outlets. You asked about two different groups. Larger farms is one, and it can be a good fit.

            [00:15:47] Alice Varon: Some actually certified organic farms choose to also be certified, naturally grown because they appreciate how it signals that they're a local farm selling into their local communi. We do have some pretty large scale producers who have been certified organic and found that they didn't need to maintain that, and they're happy to have the recognition that Certified naturally Grown brings.

            [00:16:10] Alice Varon: But again, if they wanna sell into Whole Foods, they would need to keep the organic certification. With packaged good producers? Yes, they certainly can. We do certify produce and not so much processed products, so it would have to be a product that is primarily made with certified naturally grown produce.

            [00:16:31] Alice Varon: So I think that that limits the packaged goods that we can do, but there's still a lot. So for example, sauerkraut, tomato sauce, some lavender products, it can be signaled. These are made with certified naturally grown tomato. Okay. 

            [00:16:44] Georgiana Dearing: Here's an ask on that. The thing I thought about was pesto, like we're in Virginia.

            [00:16:49] Georgiana Dearing: Mm-hmm. could a product, if they were getting olive oil from a C N G, which would be not in this state. Mm-hmm. and a pesto carry that seal. 

            [00:16:59] Alice Varon: Yeah. Yeah. That's fun to think about. Absolutely. As long as the main ingredient is a C N G ingredient, that's fine. And I don't think that the olive oil doesn't have to be certified naturally grown.

            [00:17:10] Alice Varon: It could be certified organic and that would be a lot. Oh, 

            [00:17:12] Georgiana Dearing: right. Mm-hmm. , of course. That makes sense. Yeah. Thinking of a great pesto I had from a CSA this year, and , I was like, oh yeah, it was very good. Yeah, I saw that you just had a big anniversary 20 years. I'm curious what made someone 20 years ago think this needs to 

            [00:17:34] Alice Varon: exist?

            [00:17:35] Alice Varon: I think it was a natural evolution of the launch of the National Organic Program. There were a lot of farmers who were very committed to farming that way, and I know this feels like ancient history now, but in 2002, a federal law took effect that mandated if a farmer wanted to use the word organic to describe their farm or their farm products, they needed to go through this new process, or they'd be breaking federal loss.

            [00:18:00] Alice Varon: There were some farmers who were very committed to farming this way and wanted a way to convey their practices, so this was the alternative they created so that they didn't have to either go through that process or just stop just having a way to verify their practices. 

            [00:18:17] Georgiana Dearing: So that word organic is like a legal term now?

            [00:18:22] Alice Varon: It is, yep. Yeah, it's regulated by federal law. Unless it's a very small farm selling less than $5,000 worth of products, then there's a threshold. But for someone who's running a farming business, even a modest one, they're gonna eventually wanna make more than that threshold, and it's important for them to verify their practices.

            [00:18:41] Alice Varon: It's also important for customers, we've found at a lot of farmer's markets, Folks may go in thinking, oh, everything here is organic. And unfortunately that would be great if that was true. But there it's not always true. And giving farmers a way to signal to customers actually we're different. We're holding ourselves to a standard and that's being verified is very valuable in the marketplace.

            [00:19:03] Alice Varon: Yeah, the local food marketplace. 

            [00:19:05] Georgiana Dearing: Yes. I'll be honest, I have heard frustration expressed by farmers. Shoppers just don't know how intricate all these labels are. . 

            [00:19:15] Alice Varon: Yeah, right. And how involved it is growing food and avoiding some of those products that are so tempting. It's like, oh, we'll get rid of your aphids.

            [00:19:23] Alice Varon: Just spray this on. And it's like, well, that would solve a problem, but now we've got this chemical in our food system. To be able to give farmers credit for doing things the harder way that's providing a better product is really valuable, I think, for them and for their 

            [00:19:38] Georgiana Dearing: consumers. Well, we've talked about your origin story a little bit and why you exist.

            [00:19:44] Georgiana Dearing: I'm curious, what's next? What do you do now? You've hit this landmark. Yeah, for 

            [00:19:49] Alice Varon: sure. I think we're at a stage where we would like to work with our members to grow and help them succeed as a business by tapping into bigger markets, selling into food hubs and independent grocers for those who are ready to do so.

            [00:20:06] Alice Varon: And getting more visibility because most people do buy their food in grocery stores. And if we can have more CNG food on shelves, I think it would help our farmers and it would help raise awareness about what it means to be certified, naturally grown, and have more folks start looking for it. And we're also doing a lot more education work for our members and those who are looking to get into farming.

            [00:20:29] Alice Varon: We have a new educational series called Branching Out. It's a five part series based on five different films focused on different farming crops, different scopes of production. And we've paired each film with an expert panel of three farmers from our community who can talk about their experience growing.

            [00:20:49] Alice Varon: Our first one is on strawberries. We looked at broiler chickens. Cut flowers is coming up this coming Monday, and microgreens and season long leafy greens with cat. The farmer actually in Virginia. I know Kat. Yeah. And Broadfork Farm also is featured, so we've got just an incredible array of really amazing farmers who are sharing their own experience as producers growing this crop.

            [00:21:15] Alice Varon: And it's been incredibly well received cuz in one hour you hear from three different producers with different scales, different sets of experiences that can help inform how another farmer would go ahead and start getting into that line of product. So you 

            [00:21:32] Georgiana Dearing: are peer reviewed and you're peer educated.

            [00:21:35] Alice Varon: Absolutely. That's core. I mean, they're so intertwined, but yeah, we're really amping up the peer education because farming is so knowledge intensive and isolating. One thing we can do to really support our members is help them share knowledge with one another through these forums. Well, I 

            [00:21:51] Georgiana Dearing: have to ask, this is a personal question, but do you have a farming background at.

            [00:21:55] Georgiana Dearing:

            [00:21:56] Alice Varon: don't have farming. Certainly growing food for my family and myself and working with nature is something I'm passionate about, so I was just curious. . 

            [00:22:04] Georgiana Dearing: Yeah. I am terrible at growing food . I just decided this year that I'm gonna leave it to people who are better than me and then I'm going to pay them for their work.

            [00:22:13] Alice Varon: Exactly. I really appreciate being able to get good food from farmers who know what they're. I'm better at growing organizations, so that, that's where I'm putting my energy. . 

            [00:22:24] Georgiana Dearing: Yes. Yeah. Well, could you tell our listeners how to find you if we have curious Farmers how to get started? Just a little information about how to get in touch with certified naturally 

            [00:22:37] Alice Varon: grown.

            [00:22:38] Alice Varon: Yeah, absolutely. We'd love to hear from folks. Our website is cng farming.org, and we also have an Instagram account in Facebook at CNG Farming. Pretty straightforward, and we'll have some more educational offerings coming up this winter in February, especially for folks who are looking to get into farming.

            [00:22:57] Alice Varon: And we really welcome folks to get in touch with me directly. It's Alice Vain, V as in Victor, a r o n, at Naturally Grown dot. Yeah. Really great to talk with you. 

            [00:23:08] Georgiana Dearing: Oh, it was great talking with you too. Thank you so much. Mm-hmm. , 

            [00:23:13] Alice Varon: thanks for having. Well, 

            [00:23:14] Georgiana Dearing: I enjoyed this conversation and getting to know more about Certified Naturally Grown, and if you, dear Listener, enjoyed this episode, please hit the subscribe button.

            [00:23:24] Georgiana Dearing: Liking, sharing and leaving a review is always appreciated too. And in fact, you should make this a practice with Annie. Small brands use support including small farms. And until next time, goodbye. Thanks for listening. And if you wanna learn more about how to grow your own food brand, then click on Grow My brand@vafoodie.com.

            [00:23:46] Georgiana Dearing: If you're a lover of local food, then be sure to follow us. We are at VA Foodie on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Join the conversation and tell us about your adventures with good food, good people, and good brands.