Sitka Local Foods Network applies for Certified Naturally Grown status for St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm

The Sitka Local Foods Network is in the middle of the application process for a Certified Naturally Grown status for St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm communal garden and its satellite gardens.

We had an inspection on Tuesday, July 2, and as soon as the inspection paperwork is submitted showing we follow the CNG principles, St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm will become the fifth, sixth or seventh farm in Alaska to earn the status (there also are farms in Juneau and Palmer awaiting the results of their inspections).

“This certification will show our commitment to making sure Sitkans are able to buy naturally grown produce at the Sitka Farmers Market, and they can know it’s being grown without chemical fertilizers or other additives,” Sitka Local Foods Network board president Charles Bingham said. “Nearly all of the produce we sell at the Sitka Local Foods Network farm stand at the Sitka Farmers Market is grown at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm communal garden and its satellite gardens, and now people will have more assurances that the food they are buying is grown in a natural and sustainable manner, and that it’s the healthiest we can provide.”

The Certified Naturally Grown program is fairly new to Alaska, but many farms are turning to the CNG program because of the difficulty receiving an USDA organic certification in Alaska. Right now there are no USDA organic certification inspectors in Alaska, so it is costly to bring an inspector from the Lower 48 to Alaska and usually only happens when a couple of farms in one area get together and split the cost. The Certified Naturally Grown program has similar principles about not using chemical fertilizers and other enhancements, but uses a peer review inspection process where other local  farmers (even those not in the CNG program) who follow these principles can perform inspections. It also costs less money.

For this inspection, Andrea Fraga of Middle Island Gardens worked with St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm lead gardener Laura Schmidt to go through a multi-page checklist that asked questions about how you prepare your garden beds, how you compost, what types of fertilizer and other enhancements you use, what types of crop covers you use, how you rotate crops, and more. There are separate certifications for produce, livestock, apiaries (beekeeping), aquaponics, and mushroom farming.

There currently are four farms in Alaska that have passed their CNG inspections — Faith Farms in Kodiak, Four Winds Farm in Haines, Wilderness Earth Farm of Soldotna, and Wilderness Greenhouse of Anchor Point. The three Alaska farms waiting for CNG inspection results include Sitka Local Foods Network/St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm in Sitka, Orsi Organic Produce in Juneau, and Seeds and Soil Farm in Palmer.

Some photos from the St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm communal garden inspection are posted below.

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• USDA offers cost-share assistance program to help farms get certified as organic

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2000px-USDA_organic_seal.svgWith the growth of the local foods movement in recent years, many consumers are more aware of the health benefits of eating organically grown food. But in Alaska, getting certified as organic is a challenge due to high costs and no accredited certifying agents being in the state.

In an effort to meet the growing demand for organic food, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced two cost-share assistance programs to increase the number of farmers and manufacturers working with organic products. The programs cover three-quarters of the certification costs, up to $750 per category (up to $3,000 total), for each of the four categories of organic food — crops, livestock, processed products, and wild crops.

“The organic industry saw record growth in 2014, accounting for over $39 billion in retail sales in the United States,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “The organic certification cost-share programs help more organic businesses succeed and take advantage of economic opportunities in this growing market.”

The USDA Agriculture Marketing Service National Organic Program (NOP) has allocated approximately $11.9 million to participating state departments of agriculture to help defray the costs of organic certification incurred by organic producers and processors. Reimbursements to organic operations will be made under the Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) Certification Cost Share Program or the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP).

The cost-share programs were included in the 2014 Farm Bill. NOCCSP has approximately $11 million available for producers and processors in participating states, U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. AMA has $900,000 for producers in 16 participating states (Alaska is not in the AMA program).

Each state has its own application process, and Barbara Hanson from the Alaska Division of Agriculture in Palmer is Alaska’s contact for the NOCCSP program. She can be contacted at (907) 761-3854 or barbara.hanson@alaska.gov. The program this year is for organic certification costs incurred between Oct. 1, 2014, and Sept. 30, 2015.

Organic certification is important because no food can claim to be organic without the certification, even if it’s grown or processed following organic standards. In Alaska, this has been a challenge because it’s difficult to get a USDA-accredited certifying agent out to our farms and there are none based in our state. So many Alaska farms go without the label. Click this link to learn more about the process for becoming certified as an organic farm.

• 2014 Alaska USDA organic certification cost-share program letter

• 2014 Alaska USDA organic certification cost-share program application

• What Is Organic Certification Fact Sheet

• USDA Organic Cost-Share Programs Information Sheet