Get to Know “Certified Naturally Grown” and Other Food Labels

Let’s face it: The bevy of certification labels on food products these days can verge on bewildering. But for foodies eager to select food that represents the highest quality, most sustainable, ethically grown, minimally processed, and/or other criteria, those potentially confusing labels serve as helpful badges of authenticity.

Read on for a breakdown of some labels worth knowing about for steering your way to some of the best-of-the-best regarding Virginia’s homegrown bounty!

Certified Naturally Grown

Last year, Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) celebrated its 20th anniversary: a big milestone for any non-profit and a testament to this innovative program’s appeal to producers and consumers. 

The CNG label denotes farm and beekeeping operations that don’t use synthetic chemicals or GMOs in their production and take the soil’s health and the vitality of local ecological processes to heart. It offers separate certification for the following categories: Apiary, Aquaponics, Livestock, Mushrooms, and Produce & Flowers.

There’s a lot of overlap in standards between these CNG badges and the Organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But, as CNG’s executive director Alice Varon shares, “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.” 

Offering a more affordable certification process than the USDA’s—while still upholding the same exacting requirements—stems from CNG’s focus on direct-market producers growing for their local and regional communities.

And the process of certification is unique, thanks to the group’s adoption of a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS). Farmers and beekeepers earn certification through peer review by other reputable growers, with all CNG members contributing to the system as either peer reviewers or observers. And “we really lean in on transparency,” Varon told VAFoodie, with inspection reports posted to the CNG website. 

The peer-review process yields all sorts of benefits besides the expert scrutiny itself. The program fosters a sense of community, builds a supportive farmer network, and connects producers with others who face similar environmental and market challenges and opportunities. 

This supportive farmer network also reflects the kind of producers who are drawn to the program in the first place. “Most of the farmers who join Certified Naturally Grown are joining because this is how they farm,” Varon said. “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 themselves. They want a certification to verify that this is how they farm.”

When you have producers with those kinds of admirably lofty standards assessing others’ practices, Varon notes, the result is a strong level of accountability, a label consumers can trust, and a sort of healthy pressure put on aspirant farmers. She stresses, “Our members do help each other level up, but we also have a baseline for those who are just getting started.”

The CNG Farm School & Other Resources

CNG goes beyond “simply” validating the responsible, ecologically minded practices of farms, apiaries, and other agricultural operations. The organization offers oodles of educational resources for producers as part of its CNG Farm School. 

Lately, that outreach has included a film-and-discussion series called Branching Out, which digs into different farm products such as microgreens, cut flowers, and broiler chickens. Like CNG itself, the Branching Out films cover producers across the country, and among those featured is Virginia’s own Kat the Farmer.

Other Food Labels You Might See

The USDA Organic and the Certified Naturally Grown labels aren’t the only ones we Commonwealth foodies are seeing in our markets. It’s not all that surprising, given agriculture is the number-one private industry in Virginia that the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) has its own certification programs. These badges and many others adorn countless food labels here in the Commonwealth. 

  • Virginia Grown. The Virginia Grown label, for instance, was established in 1995 to identify agricultural products grown or raised in the Commonwealth. 

  • Virginia’s Finest. Farm and food products produced in Virginia that also satisfy particular quality standards earn the Virginia’s Finest designation, which has been active since 1989. 

  • Virginia Farm to School Program. This program strives to bring the Commonwealth’s healthy, nutritious farm-fresh foods into schools, boost education and awareness about foodsheds, and support hard-working local producers. 

  • Virginia Governor’s Cup. The Virginia Governor’s Cup®, one of the most stringent competitions in the US, is hosted by the Virginia Wineries Association in partnership with the Virginia Wine Board and the Virginia Vineyards Association.

  • Virginia Craft Beer Cup. Hosted by the Craft Brewers Guild,  this is the largest state competition of its kind in the United States, with breweries from across the Commonwealth competing each year in a juried competition.

  • Good Food Awards. While not a state-run program, the nationally recognized Good Food Foundation holds annual taste and quality reviews in multiple food categories. The program celebrates the makers of tasty, authentic, and responsible food in order to humanize and reform our American food culture. Virginia regularly has products that win this prestigious award.

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