Naturally Made Certification for Beekeepers and Mushroom Growers

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by Valhalla Organics
Valhalla Organics in Talent, Oregon, is currently the only CNG apiary on the West Coast.

Since 2002, the Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) organization has offered certification for farmers and beekeepers who use natural methods to grow food for their local communities. CNG’s peer-review inspection process is tailored for direct-market growers who are dedicated to working in harmony with nature without relying on synthetic chemicals to manage pests and diseases.

Today, nearly 800 producers across the United States and Canada hold CNG certifications. Of this prestigious, tight-knit community, a select group holds CNG’s Apiary or Mushroom certifications, both of which were created in direct response to feedback from those seeking an alternative to other certifications.

Jay Parsons of Dances with Bees apiary in Cornelia, Georgia, describes the CNG designation as “a door opener.” He continues, “It’s similar to having a practical organic certification, in that it helps people to know that special efforts were made to attain specific standards and practices.” CNG mushroom operations and apiaries comprise a diverse and devoted bunch, from backyard enthusiasts to trade show pros. Here are just a few of them, and the practices they maintain to meet the CNG label standards.

A Sweet Alternative

CNG launched its apiary certification 10 years ago in response to feedback from beekeepers concerned about colony collapse disorder. These apiarists understood that keeping synthetic chemical treatments out of their hives was important. They wanted to certify these standards, encourage other beekeepers to adopt them, and raise awareness among customers. The CNG Apiary certification standards focus on the health of the honeybees and the sustainability of beekeeping, with a secondary focus on agricultural products of the hive, including honey, pollen, and propolis. Additionally, these standards ensure natural methods of Varroa mite control, minimal colony relocation, and beekeeper safety.

Beekeepers can’t control where honeybees fly and what they encounter along their way. Because honeybees can cover a geographic range of more than 8,000 acres, it’s more than likely that they’ll forage on a crop or landscaped area that’s been treated with synthetic pesticides. Christina Neumann of Apoidea Apiary in Pennsylvania has chosen CNG as the framework for keeping her 75 to 90 hives throughout Pittsburgh to make her Good Food Award-winning honeys. She explains the conundrum of organic certification and the CNG solution: “CNG provides a way for beekeepers to signify they follow a holistic approach, since it’s virtually impossible for an apiary in the United States to obtain organic certification unless it’s located within many square miles of organically managed or untreated land. The CNG logo symbolizes the factors I consider to be most important to my apiary management: no antibiotics, no high-fructose corn syrup feed, no synthetic treatments, humane bee care, and healthy bee landscapes. All of these are critically important to a holistic approach to apiary management.”

group of bees eating honey on a white table bees crawling on a partially honey filled honeycomb oyster mushrooms growing on a log

The certification standards also recommend that beekeepers leave enough honey for the bees to survive winter without supplemental feeding. Tara Lynne Groth of Five Acres Honey Farm in Pittsboro, North Carolina, believes this practice and others focusing on honeybee health have led to her success: “The aspect of my apiary I’m most proud of is that I’ve never had a hive fail to make it through the winter, and this is my third winter keeping bees. I went into my first winter with one hive, while 50 percent of other winter hives were lost in my area. Each winter, I go into the season with one more hive than the year before — if not more — given splits and swarms.”

The standards for holistic hive health were developed with the expertise of an Apiary Advisory Council, which includes Jennifer Berry, lab manager of the University of Georgia Bee Lab; Pam Fisher, founder of the Beekeepers Guild of Southeast Virginia; Master Beekeeper Buddy Marterre; and Master Beekeeper Jon Zawislak of University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Regardless of your own hives’ certification status, CNG offers two free digital publications for natural beekeepers: Handbook for Natural Beekeeping, now in its third edition, and Help the Honey Speak: A Marketing Guide for Beekeepers with Naturally Managed Apiaries. They’re available online, or can be purchased as printed booklets for a small fee.

yellow and brown mushrooms growing on blocks sitting on a table

Kingdom Fungi

When the CNG team noticed an increase in the number of mushroom farmers applying for certification, they soon realized the existing produce standards didn’t adequately address most aspects of mushroom cultivation. Given a recent increase in consumer demand for healthy, clean fungi, mushroom growers clearly needed a separate set of rigorous standards tailored for them.

So, CNG developed standards from scratch, in close collaboration with the Mushroom Advisory Council, which includes Tradd Cotter, the author of Organic Mushroom Cultivation and Mycoremediation, and Steve Gabriel, Cornell Small Farms Program specialist in mushrooms and agroforestry. CNG’s Mushroom certification was launched in 2016, and provides guidance to the growing numbers of mushroom producers nationwide. CNG has strict substrate standards. Many non-CNG mushroom producers rely on the byproducts of genetically engineered crops, such as soy meal and cottonseed hulls, while CNG certified growers are required to use substrates of logs, wood chips, straw, coffee grounds, and agricultural waste from non-GM (genetically modified) crops. In addition, the certification’s standards don’t allow mushrooms to be treated with synthetic chemicals during any stage of the growing process. Pressure-treated wood to elevate logs or to build racks in mushroom fruiting rooms is also prohibited, and water quality is of utmost importance.

One of the newest CNG mushroom cultivators is Green Box Mushrooms in Gainesville, Georgia. Owned and operated by John and Elizabeth Moon, this indoor operation uses a unique system adopted from a sister farm in Korea to produce more than 600 pounds of mushrooms a day. Using recycled peanut hulls and wheat from nearby farms as substrate, the Moons produce oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus), and Cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps sinensis). Green Box Mushrooms’ hallmark is the durable and reusable plastic bottles that hold the substrate and the young mushrooms. “We produce organic and non-GM mushrooms,” Elizabeth says. “So joining Certified Naturally Grown is just an intuitive step to take, and an affordable option for our farm.”

Woodland Jewel Mushrooms in Spring City, Pennsylvania, cultivates its mushrooms more traditionally. Norman Fetter uses logs, grains, and other CNG-approved substrates to grow shiitake (Lentinula edodes), oyster, lion’s mane, and Pioppino (Cyclocybe aegerita), also known as black poplar, for local restaurants. “I’m most proud of the friends and connections that we’ve made through CNG,” Fetter says. “From the chefs that turn our fungi into culinary delights, to our talented local farmers and the consumers that support us all, our community is a beautiful, interconnected system.”

caps of lions mane mushrooms and pink oyster mushrooms sitting on a log

The Power of Natural Peer Review

The CNG network is constantly evolving through its annual peer-inspection process, a distinct feature of CNG that appeals to farmers of all stripes. CNG’s annual peer review is a core requirement for certification. Its primary goal is to verify high standards, while also promoting full transparency, building trust, and boosting the sharing of knowledge. “I was attracted to the fact that CNG was not only founded by farmers, but also that it’s administered by farmers,” Fetter says.

The peer-review model works to minimize paperwork, and keep certification dues affordable through the requirement that all members conduct a peer review. Inspections aren’t meant to be formal or intimidating, but an educational opportunity. Christina Fabris of Iris & Callisto’s Apiary in Avondale, Pennsylvania, says, “This is how we grow; this is how we learn. CNG is a great soundboard.” Christina Neumann of Apoidea Apiary, like many CNG producers, finds the inspection experience to be valuable. She says, “Reviewing the successes and struggles of the prior year during the inspection not only solves problems, but creates camaraderie. Maintaining an apiary is challenging, so finding like-minded people can be reassuring.”

CNG offers distinct marketing benefits across many groups of customers. Members of its Guide to Exceptional Markets (GEMs) recognize and promote CNG producers’ high standards, and in some instances, even prefer or require that vendors hold a certification such as CNG, among others.

Once applicants complete the certification process, they have a profile on the organization’s website. They’re also eligible to purchase marketing materials, such as logo stickers, other packaging, laminated certificates, and signs. CNG also offers affordable custom design services for banners, sticker labels, business cards, and more, so farmers and beekeepers can benefit from a full suite of customized marketing supplies. Michael Thompson of Chicago Honey Co-op in Illinois says, “Our most successful market, Green City Market, transitioned to requiring a third-party certifier for all the vendors. This is the only market in the city that requires this, and it’s a key to their popularity — and consequently, to ours.”

For those beekeepers and mushroom growers who find that USDA organic certification doesn’t work for them, a grassroots alternative can be just as powerful. As for CNG, “People know it’s a rigorous certification and that you’ve done your due diligence,” says Peter O’Donnell of O’Donnell Apiaries in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. “You’re working hard to provide the best care of the bees, and decreasing the risk of chemical exposure. Certified Naturally Grown means high recognition, high standards, and high expectations.”

If you’re ready to pursue the holistic CNG certification, you can learn more, get certified, and register for updates.

Suzannah Schneider is the former communications manager and certification coordinator for Certified Naturally Grown. For more information, visit Certified Naturally Grown.

Button Mushroom Fruiting Kit

Anyone can grow some amazing white button mushrooms at home with this “just add water” countertop kit that comes complete with casing soil and easy-to-follow directions. It only takes a few weeks for the mushrooms to spring forth and mere days to mature before you’re harvesting from your kit and enjoying fresh mushrooms daily! This product is available at our store or by calling 800-234-3368. Item #8652.

Techniques for Indoor and Outdoor Mushroom Cultivation

In Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation, author Tradd Cotter offers readers an in-depth exploration of best organic mushroom cultivation practices, shares creative ways to apply cultivation skills, and more. This title is available at our store or by calling 800-234-3368. Item #7341.