I want to share this comment from Chris Smith who has an Aquaponic farm in Hawaii. He definitely feels that the USDA Certification is too expensive, and too intrusive in our lives as farmers. After the comment he made about it was like doing your own taxes, it shows the difficulty without some legal advice and consulting fees to go along with that, to get it done.
Here is Chris Smith’s Comments:
Aloha, my wife and I operate a small commercial aquaponics farm on the Big Island of Hawaii. Our farm is called Coastview Aquaponics. The farm is about 1000 square feet of growing space, split between 3 systems. Our systems are mainly the raft method, but we are integrating gravel beds, vertical, and NTF into the mix. We primarily sell our produce to the neighborhood and what is leftover we take to a local health food store.
We sell produce to the public 3 times a week. We invite the public to come to the farm and pick their produce directly out of the system. We sell our produce live(roots attached) whenever possible. Live plants do not need refrigeration if consumed within a week(as long as the foots are kept wet). I guarantee my live produce to last 3 weeks in the refrigerator.
During our sales I give free farm tours and explain the relationship between the fish, the bacteria and the fish. I go out of my way to be sure everybody understands the concept. People leave the tours understanding that aquaponics is not just a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, but also a simple ecosystem in a man made container. We have the nitrogen cycle going on inside the systems.
Many months ago I started the organic certification process which I gave up, after a while, for many reasons.
The term “organic” is a government regulated label. In order to use the label a farm has to be certified by an outside agency. These agencies charge a fee depending on the farm size or the amount of income brought in by the farm. This is on top of an application fee and the farm has to pay for the inspectors travel, food, and car when they come to inspect the farm. In Hawaii these expenses add up quickly! We decided that it was just tooo expensive of a process for a small farm like ours. We believe that “local grown” has as much, if not more, value as “certified organic” since most produce in the stores here is imported.
Like anything that the government is involved in, the organic certification process is very complicated. The organic rules are very hard to read and understand. Reading the rules is similar to reading tax code. The organic application is similar to doing your own taxes. After several hours of working on our application I gave up in frustration.
We have, to the best of our knowledge, built our systems with organically approved materials and we do not use any non approves substances in out growing process.
We gave up the organic process and decided to educate the public on the benefits of aquaponics. We believe that aquaponic is better than “certified organic” as it is a natural ecosystem and we think that the process is as organic as it gets. We cannot cheat and use most chemicals or use most pesticides, even the organically approved ones, as they will harm the fish and/or bacteria. Most people are horrified to learn that there are organic approved pesticides. There is a common beliefe that organic means pesticide free(not true).
Through education of the public we hope to get aquaponics held to a higher standard than “certified organic”. All of us involved with aquaponics have an opportunity to educate on the benefits of the process and I would like to encourage you to do so. With enough public education on aquaponics it will not matter if the government makes aquaponics non “certifiable” in the future.
We need to come up with a better label for aquaponics and get away from “organic”
My Ideas on USDA Organic Certification are as follows:
Perception of Quality and safety is important. I agree with the way that you educate your customers. That works great for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Your Customers and neighbors know you, as do other farmers.
You could actually at little or no cost become Certified Naturally Grown. That solution is a volunteer label, where the farmer and inspectors certify each others crops and growing capabilities as well as adhering to the USDA Organic Certification. However, it is not that well known type of certification.
I understand that you can get crappy food from a USDA Organic Certified farm. There are many factors that contribute to poor quality. But to sell Organic food to whole foods, they require the USDA Certified Organic label for your food to be considered Organic.
As you recommended, we as organic Aquaponic and Aquaculture growers could come together and start our own certification. There is a standard of quality and lack of contaminants that can be met and certified by those of us who would be willing to spend their own time to go through and create the entire system. We could follow the Certified Naturally Grown label currently being used, maybe even join with the farmers and producers that adhere to those standards.
Those standards are the same as the USDA Organic Certification and the cost of implementation would be a lot less. However, as you indicated, there is the education of the end users, our customers. That means marketing. That can be accomplished either automatically through the internet, events and even getting a few restaurants that only serve Aquaponic clean food to their customers.
So my recommendation is to continue to sell directly to your customers, label your produce naturally grown, and let your customers be your inspectors while building a CSA for your future growth. That is the way that it has been done for hundreds and hundreds of years. Buy local, or guess how the products were produced.
If on the other hand you want to sell USDA Organic Certified products, get a grant, ask for a discount as well as help from the same agency that is having you go through the process. After all, it is in their best interest to help you get that certification. It expands their customer base also.
May you prosper well, your customers become healthier each day and tell your community about your farm. With the passion that you have for serving others, your customers are truly blessed.
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