By Jillian Hishaw, Esq.
According to a 2015 Consumer Report, 67 percent of Americans are willing to pay more for sustainable meat products raised humanely. At the same time, desire for cheap meat unfortunately has given us what we pay for in environmental, social, and health improprieties on the part of merging agricultural and feed conglomerates of the United States. Producing meat and produce utilizing sustainable farm practices can contribute to a decrease in carbon production. Healthy soil, clean water, and a livable climate must be treated as non-renewable resources. Without a balance of all three, the likelihood of increased greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion will persist until the Earth has nothing left to give. In response to this imbalance, Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), a farm certification program, recognized the need for sustainability in the U.S. food system.
Since the 1970s, small farmers and advocates have been developing methods, techniques, and certification programs that seek to protect soil, water, and health. Among one of the most recent programs is Certified Naturally Grown. CNG believes that implementing programming focused on small farm stewardship is essential to increasing sustainability. Shifting from a feedlot to a certified natural, pasture-based production model produces food that doesn’t strip the soil of nutrients but replenishes it. The CNG model focuses on the fact that the true stewards of the land are small farms, not corporate farms that mass produce animals as units, and which extract and degrade soil and water just to generate money for corporate tax breaks.
In 2002, a group of small farmers in the Hudson Valley, New York created CNG, a farm certification program designed to raise livestock and produce free of GMO and pesticides. CNG differs from USDA organic certified program in that CNG is a non-government entity, requiring less paperwork and regulatory requirements. CNG is affordable and timely when it comes to certifying farms as compared to the USDA program, which is designed more for mid- to large-scale operations. Peer-to-peer knowledge is an integral part of the CNG program model and continues to grow the program among many small farmers.
Interestingly, Georgia is home to the largest number of CNG farms, followed by New York, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
According to their website, “CNG offers peer-review certification to farmers and beekeepers producing food for their local communities by working in harmony with nature, without relying on synthetic chemicals or GMOs.” CNG has inspectors across the country and are either CNG certified or USDA certified organic farmers. (A list of CNG inspectors is available on their website.) Growers are encouraged to become certified or complete certification renewal by May 15th each year. Currently, CNG has nearly 800 certified farms in the U.S. and Canada and consists of two full-time and a few part-time staffers.
To generate more CNG farms, farmers markets and grocers receive social media incentives if they have a minimum of one CNG vendor and explicitly recognize that vendor’s certification. If the market “prefers” that all vendors hold a certification (with CNG being one option), or “requires” certification, the market receives partnership attention in many ways. According to CNG’s website, 76 markets are a part of CNG’s Guide to Exceptional Markets (GEMs).
Suzannah Schneider, CNG’s Communications Manager, says that CNG “maintains a grassroots motto reflected in our model: our certification is for farmers, not corporate conglomerates.” Schneider adds, “annual dues are paid in an affordable sliding-scale model starting at $150, with the option to pay in monthly installments. However, many farmers opt to contribute more to support the certification and farmers who are tight on funds.” Farmers facing unusual hardship or who are just getting started may access the Grassroots Fund to help with their dues. New and beginning farmers who are in their first three years of operation and facing adverse circumstances are encouraged to apply to the fund. Schneider anticipates that as climate change persists and the weather becomes “wetter, hotter, and less predictable,” more and more farmers may need to tap into the fund for assistance.
Healthy soil, clean water, and a livable climate must be treated as non-renewable resources.
CNG certification takes on a peer-to-peer approach when it comes to on-the-farm audits. Farmers auditing other farmers increases the trust and transparency of the program. Unlike other audit programs which at times hire third-party auditors and do not focus solely on small farmers, CNG takes a small-farmer, localized approach. For these reasons, Seminary Hill Farm (SHF) located in Delaware, Ohio on the campus of the Methodist Theological School, recently became the first religious institution in the nation to receive the CNG-certified designation. Certified during a food and faith conference on campus accompanied by Al Gore, former Vice President and Founder of the Climate Reality Project, the event was a monumental moment for the Methodist Theological School.
Tadd Peterson, SHF’s Farm Manager, said in a recent press release, “we are committed to growing food in a way that supports the earth and fights climate change.”
“Certified Naturally Grown has verified our high standards and helps build the movement by taking a peer-review approach to inspections. This model promotes knowledge exchange and community, which is an integral part of the work our graduates will go on to do,” he writes.
Twenty percent of the produce grown on the campus farm is utilized by the school’s dining services and the remaining eighty percent is sold or consumed locally. SHF also provides a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) option to town residents. SHF is one of 15 farms in Ohio to hold the CNG designation. “The vast majority of farms in our network are produce producers, but we do have a robust community of CNG certified livestock, diary, aquaponic, and mushroom producers,” Schneider says. Interestingly, Georgia is home to the largest number of CNG farms, followed by New York, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
States have recognized the need for sustainability in farming and have changed legislation to match its commitment. In 2009, Ohio passed legislation to amend the state constitution in order to implement humane standards for farm livestock (including cattle, poultry, and pork). According to the Ohio Livestock Care Standards, civil penalties include up to a $500 fine for minor infractions (i.e. neglect and “intentional or reckless” acts of peril of life or impairment of limbs are subject up to $5,000 and up to $10,000 for subsequent acts committed after 60 months from the first offense). The law also prohibits the use of electric prods on calves weighing less than 200 lbs. and on swine less than 35 lbs. The use of prods are completely prohibited on poultry along with the stacking of cages when it pertains to the droppings of bird manure. “Cage-free layers with access to the outdoors must be provided reasonable protection from adverse weather conditions and predators,” according to the Standards.
According to Schneider, operations like SHF enjoy the fact that their “robust standards for produce and livestock certification are based on the standards of the National Organic Program. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.” Schneider states that CNG welcomes the Methodist Theological School and other faith-based institutions who have an active farm to become CNG-certified.
However, the pay-it-forward, peer-to-peer audit model of CNG continues to keep small farmers opting for the certification. The embedded organic practices of CNG appeals to the faith-based institutions like the Methodist Theological School, as the CNG criteria for ecological stewardship is worth its salt in biblical practices.
Then God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant-yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth and every tree which has fruit-yielding seed; it shall be food for you’ (Genesis 1:29). When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. 3 For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4 But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. 5 Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. (Leviticus 25:2-5)
For more information about CNG, visit: https://www.cngfarming.org/
Jillian Hishaw Esq., is an Agricultural Attorney, Founder & CEO of F.A.R.M.S., and author of “Don’t Bet the Farm on Medicaid.” Hishaw is well-versed in the areas of civil rights and agricultural policy. She was recognized as a “Food Changemaker” by Clif Bar and has been featured in O (Oprah) Magazine, The Atlantic, Vice News, and others. Hishaw has nearly 15 years of professional experience and has raised funds for various food bank and law programs. For more information about her work, visit: