MCCUNE (AP) — Kevin Schenker and his wife, Cherie Thomas-Schenker, bought their farm on April Fools’ Day 2008.
Today, the 160-acres spread just west of McCune is home to about 80 head of cattle.
It also has become the first farm in Kansas to receive a Certified Naturally Grown distinction for its beef, pork and lamb products.
The couple pursued the designation to help market their meats and other products that they grow using natural methods on their farm.
“I think it’s very important because it reassures people that these are the standards we’re following,” Cherie Thomas-Schenker said. “They can rest assured that it is a healthy, all-natural product.”
More than 500 farms nationwide are part of the program, with six in Kansas, eight in Oklahoma and 31 in Missouri.
The Schenker farm also received the Certified Naturally Grown designation for its all-natural pickles, preserves, relishes and raw clover honey.
The couple sell their products direct to customers via their Web site, www.schenkerfarms.com, and Kevin Schenker said the operation is content to stay a small family farm.
“We’re not trying to compete (with big farms),” he said. “We’re not looking to compete with them at all, actually. We’re looking for somebody who wants a better quality of meat.”
The designation comes from a nonprofit consortium of small farmers who have banded together to provide their own means of assuring consumers about the growing practices used in their products.
Alice Varon, executive director for Certified Naturally Grown Inc., said the label holds farmers to similar or in the case of livestock more stringent guidelines compared with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, without requiring the same level of costs.
“We want to encourage people to adopt these practices without compromising on standards by making it more affordable (for farmers),” she said. “I would say that the organization is built around a much bigger vision than just providing a label. It’s about strengthening sustainable agriculture and farming communities so more people can buy food that’s grown locally and with natural farming methods.”
Varon said the program requires that an application be submitted by interested farmers, and suggests that a donation of between $50 to $150 be sent to the organization. By contrast, the USDA program can cost farmers $500 to $1,500 for produce alone, with livestock certification being even more expensive.
While the Naturally Grown label is based on the USDA’s own organic-growing standards, Varon said group has adopted more stringent guidelines for farmers like the Schenkers who choose to certify their livestock.
“We specified that livestock need to be on-pasture most of the time during the growing season, at least 120 days per year,” she said. “They need to derive a significant portion of their diet from the pasture that they graze themselves.”
The USDA’s organic-labeling program began in 2002, at roughly the same time the Certified Naturally Grown distinction began.
Farmer Dennis Smith said he initially got CNG certification in 2006 for produce at his Evening Shade Farm in Milo, Mo. He then pursued USDA organic labeling last fall.
Smith said both distinctions have provided a boon to his business in terms of selling produce to restaurants, supermarkets and at area farmers’ markets.
“When I go to farmers’ markets, that’s what (customers) are looking for,” he said of the labels. “They’re looking for natural products. On the restaurant side, they’re looking for freshness and quality. And if they can put organic’ on their menu, it sells.”
Smith said the programs are distinct, both in cost and in the way they are administrated. He said the USDA’s program is more expensive to be involved in, and it requires a significant investment in time to prepare documentation of growing procedures.
“With CNG, you don’t have to do all the paperwork, and you’re not spending a lot of money up front,” he said. “The time involved in documenting everything (for organic growing) is the biggest concern.”
Already faced with high input costs for fuel and equipment, the Schenkers said they opted to pursue the Naturally Grown distinction.
“When I first checked into getting our farm certified (organic), it would literally have cost us over $15,000,” Cherie Thomas-Schenker said. “Once USDA started regulating the organic standards, and who could come out and certify you, the costs skyrocketed.”
Alice Varon, executive director for Certified Naturally Grown Inc., said the program relies on other farmers who are members to conduct inspections to make sure the growing practices are up to standards.
“One of the advantages of this model is there’s a lot of sharing of practices,” she said. “One learns new farming techniques from their inspectors, and relationships are built. It encourages sharing of information.”