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For some small farmers in New Hampshire, Certified Naturally Grown makes more sense

When Rick Barry arrives at the Concord farmers market on Saturday mornings, he unpacks squash, kale and garlic from his white van. He also unfurls a banner, printed with a “Certified Naturally Grown” emblem, that he hangs atop his stand.

This is the standard under which he grows his produce at Random Hills Farm in Weare. It is an alternative to “Certified Organic.” And CNG, Barry said, is better suited to his small farm where he grows the produce and then sells it directly to his customers.

The two certifications, organic and CNG, follow very similar growing standards, Barry said. But Certified Naturally Grown minimizes the necessary paperwork and relies on annual peer inspections versus inspections run by the state.

“It is like a network; we help each other,” he said.

The nonprofit certification group launched out of the Hudson River Valley in 2002, at the same time as the national organic program. It was an alternative for small farms that didn’t feel the national program was a good fit, said CNG Executive Director Alice Varon.

“The organic program can include local farmers, but it can also include huge agribusiness farms that stretch over hundreds of thousands of acres,” she said. “We’re about sustainable agriculture on a community level.”

Since Barry runs a small farm on leased land in Weare, producing enough to share with friends and sell at Concord’s two farmers markets, it makes more sense for him.

“There are different expenses and time constraints,” he said. Being certified organic “is not a small burden on a small farmer.”

If he were to eventually sell wholesale, he would pursue an organic certification, he said.

Barry started farming in 1989 in a backyard garden. He transitioned to a more commercial operation several years ago, and that was when he heard about CNG.

Barry was attracted to the certification process because of the peer evaluations, the openness – he has a profile online where his annual inspections are posted – and he liked the stamp of approval for customers.

“It gives you a little bit of credibility, that somebody else is checking what I am doing,” he said. Barry got his first CNG certification in 2011. Since then, he has taken the standards even further. Barry stopped spraying his fields altogether, even with pesticides that are approved under sustainable farming practices.

Nationwide, the CNG alternative has been gaining steam. The organization has certified 775 farms across 47 states, Varon said. At the moment, the program is taking off in Georgia, she said, in part because the organic movement is just gaining traction there.

“CNG is well established. New farmers are coming on and they have a choice,” she said.

The organization gives out stickers and other marketing materials, but one of the challenges it faces is that the certification is not always recognizable in every corner of the country. “We have to introduce ourselves to the food-buying public on a grass roots level,” Varon said.

In New Hampshire, there are six CNG certified farms. “We have a modest number of farms in New Hampshire,” Varon said. “We continue to get interest there.”

The number of organic farms in the state has held steady over the past few years. Last year, the state supported about 155 organic farming operations, said Jennifer Gornnert, who oversees the certification process at the state Department of Agriculture.

In some cases, the organic certification paperwork can be a burden for farmers who aren’t farming full time, she said. “The extra time it takes for someone to stop business of farming to sit down behind a desk and write this all down and have it available to the state to audit . . .” It can be a “burden for some farmers,” Gornnert said.

But, becoming certified organic is one of the best ways to strengthen the voice of farmers who are harvesting in a sustainable and organic way, said Janet Wilkinson, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire. But, Wilkinson acknowledges that it’s not for everyone and it can take several years of record-keeping before a farmer can apply for the organic certification.

“The fact that anyone is growing food sustainably, we applaud and congratulate,” she said.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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