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Every summer my family takes a trip to Virginia. C’s parents, as well as his sister’s family, live outside of Richmond. Once, a very wooded area, much of the woodland has been cleared (and continues to be cleared) for commercial and residential development. The particular development where my in-laws live has strict rules about cutting trees and is still very wooded. The development includes Swift Creek Reservoir, on which my in-laws own their property. The view of the lake from their house is very pretty. While gazing out over the lake, a bald eagle flew up and landed in a tree along the shore in front of the house. I feel like I am staying in a vacation home. But, venture out onto the main thoroughfare and it is a completely different universe, a perfect example of big box store sprawl.

Until last summer, the only places residents of Brandermill and surrounding areas could buy produce were at the large grocery store chains lining the wide boulevards. So, when I learned a new farmers’ market had opened near by, I had to make a visit.

The market is very small, with only four produce stands on the Saturday morning we visited. We picked up a loaf of great sandwich bread, enjoyed locally roasted coffee, and scanned the other vendors. One of the produce vendors could not tell me which variety of sweet corn they were selling (so obviously not someone connected that closely to the farm).

There was one organic farmer present at the market, so I stopped by their booth for a chat. Broadfork Farm is one of three farms in Chesterfield county. They have five acres of land and have so far cultivated only 1.5 acres. While bouncing her infant on one hip, Janet described their decision to come to Virginia to start-up their own farm, and how they have found that organic farming has not hit it big yet in the state. I got so busy talking to her I forgot to buy some beautiful bell peppers I spotted on my way over, and had to go back.

While learning about Broadfork Farm I stumbled upon a process called “Certified Naturally Grown,” which is a process that many small farmers opt for instead of going through the USDA for organic certification. MK Wyle describes the process very well in an article posted on Civil Eats. He says,

Certified Naturally Grown is grassroots alternative to the USDA, through which farmers audit one another for sustainable practices.  Certified Naturally Grown is neither costly (the program requests a donation of $50-150 annually, though the exact amount is left to an individual farmer’s discretion), nor overburdened with paperwork, thus allowing small farmers to devote their energies to farming, rather than to proving themselves to strangers via a mountain of forms.

Though a Certified Naturally Grown farm leaves less of a paper trail than a Certified Organic one, all CNG records are openly available online. Growers clearly state their growing practices and sign a statement that they have abided by all of the CNG regulations (which are essentially the same as certified organic).  So what’s the difference?  Besides price and time, the auditors are other farmers and are allowed offer advice as they walk the fields, talk to the grower, and evaluate the farm (USDA certifiers, on the other hand, are not allowed to offer any suggestions during an audit).  To avoid conflict of interest problems, you are not allowed to audit the farmer who audited you.  In addition, every year, CNG randomly selects farms for pesticide residue testing, at no cost to the farmer.

This seems like a great alternative to the USDA’s organic certification. It allows for a much more diverse group of farmers to communicate to their customers their sustainable farming practices. According to the CNG website, twenty-eight farms in California and thirty-two farms in Virginia are using the certification. Approximately 700 farms in all the country are opting for the certification. Thank you Broadfork Farm for leading me to this information.

As we return to Brandermill every summer, I imagine we will see this nearby farmers’ market grow, with more and more sustainable farms coming with their produce. I have high hopes for Broadfork Farm as they clear the path for other sustainable farms to put down roots in the area. In future summers, not only will I be in good company and enjoy the pretty lake views, but also be able to partake in sustainably grown food from farms just a few miles away.