Make Your Farm or Garden Certified Sustainable
Find a sustainability certification that’s right for your plot to add transparency to your growing practices and connect with other proponents of organic agriculture.
By Rachael Dupree
Photo by Terry Wild Stock.
When people ask if I garden, they mean broccoli or roses,” says Martha Rabinowitz, owner of Sister Sanctuary, a farm in Guilford, Vermont.
But Rabinowitz isn’t that kind of gardener. While half of her land produces organically grown hay that feeds the cows in a neighbor’s dairy operation, her passion lies in the plants she cultivates on 40 acres of her property’s forestland. This is the Sister Sanctuary, and it houses a congregation of endangered and rare woodland medicinals, such as black cohosh, bloodroot, trillium, and ramps. It’s a place where she puts “rescued” plants — those she’s dug up from a construction site or roadside and then replanted in the sanctuary.
Letting the public know about her garden work can be challenging, so Rabinowitz decided to apply to make her wooded acreage part of United Plant Savers’ Botanical Sanctuary Network. United Plant Savers (UpS) is a nonprofit working to protect native medicinal plants, and its botanical sanctuaries serve as conservation centers, seed repositories, and educational hubs for endangered plant species. Getting the Botanical Sanctuary designation allowed Rabinowitz to connect with others and show that the work she’s doing is intentional and important.
Oftentimes, gardeners turn to organic certification to add transparency to the type of agriculture they’re engaging in — farming that’s sustainable and mindful about its effect on the land — but while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certification is perhaps the most well-known, it’s not the only one out there. Here, we’ll look at other certifications you can pursue.
The UpS Botanical Sanctuary Network designation is presented to gardeners and landowners who commit to preserving native medicinal plants on their land. A one-time application followed by yearly UpS membership renewal allows a lifetime designation as a Botanical Sanctuary.
While the application process is open to sanctuaries in various levels of development, there are a few requirements:
• The land must be privately owned or previously established through a land trust.
• The land must be endowed with native plants or in the process of being planted with them, including those considered by UpS to be “at risk” or “endangered.”
• Applicants must commit to some sort of educational and research work.
The application is reviewed by UpS, and is sometimes accompanied by a visit to your farm. Each year, UpS solicits stories from members of the Botanical Sanctuary Network to share on its website and in its Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation. The application fee is $100, and annual UpS membership renewal is $35.
“A lot of our sanctuaries are [run by] herbalists, because those are the folks who are attracted to the plants we’re trying to conserve,” says John Stock, UpS outreach coordinator. Stock says sanctuaries range in size, from small urban plots to farms hundreds of acres large. “What we really look for, beyond what plants you have growing on your land or what your land looks like, is what your intentions are toward these plants.”
Currently, UpS is aiming to engage gardeners like Rabinowitz who are looking to intentionally farm their forests with rare woodland medicinals, not just gardeners who are stewarding wild populations.
Botanical Sanctuaries are given priority for UpS grants, and they get access to useful books and a resource guide that includes sources of grants and fundraising.
Last year, as part of its work to protect native pollinators and their habitats, nonprofit The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation — along with Oregon Tilth and funded by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service — launched Bee Better Certified (BBC) as the only third-party-verified certification focused specifically on pollinator conservation. The certification holds farmers accountable to standards in four main areas — pollinator habitat, pesticide mitigation, managed bumblebees, and record-keeping — and in return, adds more transparency to their efforts to support native pollinator populations.
Photo by Jim Cairns/USDA-NRCS.
The base certification costs $400 and must be renewed every three years. Before applying, you must develop a Bee Better Certified Plan based on the standards outlined in BBC’s Production Standards. You can then present the plan to Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit certifier best known for its work in organic certification, which will review the plan, perform an on-site inspection, and then issue a certification based on its findings. After your farm is certified, you can use the Bee Better Certified logo to market your conservation efforts free of charge, or license use of the seal for farm signs and product packaging.
“Bee Better Certified is intended to complement other sustainable agriculture systems, such as organic production, by highlighting and rewarding farmers who protect and restore habitat for pollinators, a concept not required under other certification systems,” says Eric Lee-Mäder, co-director of The Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation Program.
For growers looking for a grassroots, community-based certification system, Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) is a great option. The hallmark of the program is its peer-review model of certification, in which on-site inspections are conducted by other CNG producers, Certified Organic farmers, or noncertified producers who use natural methods. While the CNG standards for fruit and vegetable producers are modeled on those of the USDA Certified Organic program, they’ve expanded over time and allow the use of biodegradable plastic mulch and paper transplanting pots.
To start the certification process, you must create an account on the CNG website, fill out an online application, and select the type of certification you’d like to receive. While the produce certification may be best suited to gardeners, you can also consider livestock, apiary, aquaponics, and mushroom certifications. After signing a declaration stating your intention to adhere to CNG standards, you’ll arrange an on-site inspection, which will be performed annually. In return, all CNG producers are asked to perform an inspection of another farm located within an hour’s drive of their property. CNG requires annual dues of a recommended $200, though this amount is flexible based on what you can pay, and CNG offers payment plans for those who want to pay smaller amounts over time.
Photo by The Living Centre Eco-Spiritual Education Sanctuary
The typical CNG applicant is a direct-market grower selling a diverse range of produce at a farmers market, through a CSA, or in an independent grocery store. CNG appeals to beginning, small-scale, organically minded growers, particularly those for whom cost and time can be a barrier to achieving USDA certification.
“For farmers who are just getting started, CNG has served to help them get established and reach a point where they’re ready to access wholesale markets, at which time they will decide if adding organic certification would be valuable,” says Alice Varon, CNG’s executive director.
Plus, CNG offers a supportive network of like-minded farmers seeking peer-to-peer knowledge exchange.
Biodynamic farming, developed in 1924, is one of the oldest forms of organic agriculture. Demeter International began issuing certifications in 1928, just four years after this model surfaced, and nonprofit Demeter USA, the country’s only biodynamic certifier, was established in 1985.
All the requirements for achieving Certified Organic status are also required for the Demeter Certified Biodynamic designation. Demeter has expanded on the USDA’s standards, with a specific focus on soil regeneration. “Biodynamic agriculture views the farm as a closed system, a living organism,” says Elizabeth Candelario, president at Demeter USA. “The intention is that the needs of the farm are met through the farm itself.” That includes fertility, pest and disease control, and more.
Conventional and organic gardeners can take the first step toward Demeter certification by contacting Demeter USA to apply. After you submit a plan, Demeter will arrange a visit from an inspector, who will make the recommendations necessary for preparing your farm for certification. The conversion process of a conventional farm takes about three years, while a farm that’s shown to meet the requirements of USDA Certified Organic standards can become Demeter Certified Biodynamic within one year.
Photo by Benziger Family Winery.
Biodynamic certification is available to farms and brands in 16 product categories, with the standards for the Fruit and Vegetable, Herbs and Spices, and Cider and Fruit Wines categories being of particular interest to gardeners.
Beyond what biodynamic certification offers in terms of transparency, the standard is a great educational tool for any gardener who wants to move toward practicing regenerative agriculture.
Bob Rodale, founder of Rodale Institute and a leader in organic agriculture, believed farmers must not only focus on minimizing harm, but actually incorporate regenerative practices that improve the land, the health, and the livelihoods of all that agriculture touches. That’s why Rodale Institute, along with the organizations and businesses in the Regenerative Organic Alliance, launched a new certification last March that takes organic farming to the next level. “We cannot sustain the system we have now,” says Diana Martin, director of communications at Rodale Institute. “We need to start reversing and mitigating climate change.”
Photo by Jack Sherman, courtesy of Rodale Institute.
Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) builds on the requirements of the National Organic Program and encompasses standards of other certifications, such as Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Fair Trade. Gardeners can apply for three levels of certification — bronze, silver, and gold — which all require annual certification. The standards are a mix of required and optional practices, with some optional practices becoming required as the level of certification increases. Applicants must already be Certified Organic, and will likely have to pay an additional fee, though the cost structures for the certification aren’t yet set up. Farmers who don’t yet have organic certification can expect a four-year preparation timeline before earning ROC.
Regenerative organic is all about continuous improvement. While the certification may make the most sense for farmers who plan to market what they produce, the principles upon which the certification is based are scalable to gardens of all sizes. Currently, about 10 farms are enrolled in the pilot program.
Gardens attract creatures large and small, and gardeners who want to do more to protect local wildlife can apply to become a Certified Wildlife Habitat through the National Wildlife Federation. While this isn’t an official certification that requires third-party inspection, it’s a great way for you to learn more about coexisting with the animals that live around your home, and to share what you learn with your neighbors.
Photo by the National Wildlife Federation.
The NFW’s Garden for Wildlife page walks families through how to incorporate sources of wildlife food, water, cover, and places to raise young into their backyards and gardens, as well as other sustainable practices they can put into action. To be certified, you commit to providing a certain number of elements in each of these areas. A $20 fee for a certificate or a $50 fee for a certificate and a sign or flag is considered a donation to the NWF.
With a little creativity, gardens of all types, from urban patio gardens to rural kitchen gardens, can serve as sanctuaries for birds, pollinators, and other wildlife.
Choosing the Right Certification for You
Not all gardeners will seek certification — many of us simply enjoy our plots of land and the miracles of what they produce. But for those wanting to share with the public or customers how their gardening or farming practices impact the environment, wildlife, and consumers, achieving and retaining some sort of certification can add value to their operations.
Instead of chasing after a certification, it can be much more sustainable to assess your garden priorities and choose one that holds you accountable to the work you want to do, whether it be protecting pollinators, reducing dependence on chemical fertilizers, fostering native medicinals, or something else. While choosing a set of standards that challenges you in the direction you want to go can be helpful, choosing one that seems beyond reach can leave you feeling frustrated at best, or cause you to abandon the project altogether at worst. Remember, certifications are meant to add transparency and value to your work. Choose the certification that’s most accessible for you, and let it be a badge of honor for your garden as you go out and share your abundance with the world.
Rachael Dupree is a writer and beginning farmer who grows food and medicinal plants for her family on 50 acres near Lexington, Kentucky.