Here are some clear statements based on fact. If you disagree with any because you have facts (not an opinion) to the contrary, please contact us directly with the facts and we will print them in our next newsletter:
Fact 1: Organic certification is valuable because certified produce can bring twice as much income to the farmer for the same amount of work.
Fact 2: We are the only aquaponics teachers who teach USDA organic certification using our own certified systems (since 2008).
Fact 3: Our next scheduled live trainings are in Hawaii the week of June 24-30th. There is more information on those trainings on our webpage here.
Fact 4: There is a ton of true information on USDA organic certification on our webpage here.
Today's Newsletter: The Straight Scoop On Organic CertificationSusanne here. I recently made a rare venture into one of the online forums, where I misbehaved so badly that I was banned from that forum. To the participants of that thread, I apologize. I have a far deeper understanding for the unkind words that are often written in such forums, and a far deeper appreciation for the emotion behind them that can fuel the fire of poor netiquette (with a nod of respect to you, Damon!). For those of you who were not on that forum, I would like to re-cap, with the emotion removed, as the information is very important to anyone who is considering organic certification, anywhere in the world.The initial post asked: "Does anyone know of any AP operation anywhere on the planet that has gone through their country's rigmarole and successfully gotten Organic certification? BESIDES Friendly's in Hawaii."By the time I joined the discussion there were a few replies, some of which were simply opinons and/or just plain wrong. The thread had also ventured off into food safety certification, where many people’s opinions were being presented as fact (these were also completely incorrect). I can say this with at least a small measure of authority because I got our farm USDA Organically Certified in August 2008 (the first in the world to do so), and Food Safety Certified in 2009, also the first aquaponic farm to do so. Thus, I am not guessing or offering opinions in this newsletter, I am relating the actual facts of the certification process and requirements based on first hand experience.What follows is an edited version of what I posted, with the sarcastic comments (which I never should have made, and for which I deeply apologize –removed) “Just the facts, ma’am”, as the old saying goes.No one in the thread had come up with a single other AP facility that had been certified, though there are in fact, many. The tone of the conversation seemed to be implying that we are not telling the truth about other people being certified. It is difficult to know exactly how many AP systems have been certified because only one of the four certifying agencies that currently certify AP have a searchable database that allows key word searches. None of them have any definition of HOW people are growing, just the names of the farms, and the crops they grow. This is why some people have been claiming to be certified organic for aquaponics when they are not. Their farm was certified for dirt crops, but not their aquaponics systems. This is an important distinction!We’ve gotten all of our aquaponics systems certified organic, and our entire seven acre farm, and we’ve maintained those certifications since August, 2008. As far as I know, we were the first in the world to do so. If anyone knows of anyone else who got their aquaponics system certified before that, I’d LOVE to know about it, and will gladly change that statement to us being the second in the world, or the third, or whatever. Just send me the name of the farm, their certifying agency, and if possible the name of their inspector.
I can easily provide this same information to anyone who wants it, and am suspicious of anyone who won't. There is no reason for anyone not to provide it, except the fact that they can’t (ie, they are not certified). Everyone we know who is certified trumpets it to the hills, because it is an accomplishment, and means not only that your produce is guaranteed to a certain standard by the USDA, but that you can legally get almost double the price for it in the marketplace. In my fit of pique on that forum thread, I went so far as to name the names of the two AP players who have their farms certified, but not their aquaponic systems; and still claim that their aquaponic produce is certified organic. This action of mine is considered by some to be “hurting the aquaponics community”. I totally disagree with this view, as I believe lying and being sneaky about certification are far more harmful to our community: “Rocks are hard, water is wet”, as my Buddhist friends say, their way of defining the immutable nature of reality.The original poster subsequently wrote the following: “And I was really wondering about the AP systems being certified, as I too can get a portion of my dirt farm certified, then create a subtle confusion by associating my AP system with that certified portion of my farm, sow the seed and let "the telephone game" do the rest...(along with some crafty marketing/labeling so that you are "technically" not lying) but that's not what I'm after here”.*
I applaud his integrity. As Baruch Spinoza once said, “All things excellent in life are as difficult as they are rare”. Sadly, integrity seems to be not only beautiful, but almost heart-breakingly rare.Organic Certification works this way: I present my entire operation in a written application, which is verified through physical inspection, with the organic certifying agency sending an inspector to my farm, all of which I pay for. Both of these requirements (the legally binding application and the inspection) are meant to make sure my farm operates according to the rules laid out in Federal law by the National Organic Program (or NOP, go here for their website, and all their rules).If I want to add or change anything from what was on the initial application that I submitted, and signed my name to (under the possible consequence of Federal felony charges) then I am supposed to call the certifying agency and tell them of the changes, and to get the changes approved before I even make the changes! If the changes are significant enough, the certifying agency may require that I pay for and get a re-inspection of my farm before they sign off on the changes. I guarantee you that adding an aquaponics system to an organically approved in-ground operation would be considered so significant as to trigger a re-inspection, which would require that I pay all associated fees again. If the farmer went ahead with his change (claiming their aquaponic system’s produce was organic, in this case) and neglecting to get the changes approved beforehand, his certification could be suspended at any time by the certifying agency, after sending the farmer a written notice through certified mail. If they’re nice, they might give the farmer an opportunity to justify the changes through written testimony and/or a re-inspection, and if he cannot do so, his organic certification Is formally revoked, also through certified mail. But the bottom line is, the certifying agency does not have to give them a chance to justify the changes if they’ve made them BEFORE getting permission!Back to the forum drama: one post said that some people have gotten their AP systems certified, but are unwilling to be public about it, and postulated this was because “AP is not vetted technology", and that we have somehow flown under the radar in being certified, and that the certifying agencies are going out on a limb to certify us.This is simply without basis, based upon my experience, at least not for the reason the poster gave. I did find out about one grower in California who is certified by CCOF, who grows in AP exclusively but does not make this public – but I do not know why. It is NOT because AP is considered “unvetted”, according to the CCOF inspector I spoke to. More on this follows.Four separate certifying agencies currently certify AP, that I have found, and last week I spoke to all of them. None of the four people I spoke to at these agencies consider AP as unproven technology, and all said they would freely welcome new applications from AP farms. Three out of the four that I spoke to last week actually are proud advocates of AP, and tell others about it. Mike Gill, of Oregon Tilth, said lately he’s been getting between five and ten requests for information about certifying aquaponics each week, and that the day before I we spoke, he said he had received three separate requests!For a little history: when we first approached our local certifying agency, Hawaii Organic Farmers Association (HOFA), we were rebuffed rather rudely. AP was unknown to them, and they simply did not see the value in certifying us, so they just said "no”. AP was “unvetted technology” at that point in late 2007. A lot has changed since then, and we are proud to have had a hand in getting AP better known and understood by both organic certifiers and food safety certifiers.One initial objection HOFA made – and the reason they stated for remaining unwilling to even consider our application was that the “rafts we use are not an OMRI-approved material”. At that time, I did not even know what OMRI meant, and I had to ask! I also did not understand the critical distinction between a “material” and a “device”. I learned from the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) that materials and devices do not have to be OMRI-approved in order to be approved for use in organic food production, but they do have to conform to the NOP rules, as interpreted by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).OMRI was formed in 1997, and is a 501(c)3, which means it is a not for profit organization. They offer a service to manufacturers in the form of rigorous product testing to make sure a product conforms to NOP rules, and if it does, the product then qualifies for being “OMRI-Listed”* and can carry the OMRI seal on the product’s label. This process costs about $600,000 per product, according to what I was told in 2008. From a marketing standpoint, it often makes sense to get a product listed, and to put the seal on the label, as it increases credibility in the mind of the consumer. It provides instant information, but because the seal costs so much to obtain, the products that carry it always cost more. Usually these products are patented, and proprietary, and so that fee to get the seal makes sense. It’s a lot like Underwriters Laboratory, for electrical devices, if you’re familiar with their seal. Only materials can be OMRI approved as products, not devices.One great gift OMRI provides to organic growers on their website are two frequently updated lists that are offered in print and online. The OMRI Products List is the most complete directory of products for organic production or processing, with over 2,300 products, all of which are "OMRI Listed”. You can search their Products List using the free basic search here: http://www.omri.org/omri-lists, or subscribe to use their advanced search function, here: http://www.omri.org/subscribe . An updated version of the Products List is also available to download as a PDF (download here: http://www.omri.org/omri-lists/download) or you can purchase a paper copy for $21.The second list is the OMRI Generic Materials List, a catalog of over 900 materials and their statuses in organic production, processing, and handling. You can search the Generic Materials List using the free basic search, also here: http://www.omri.org/omri-lists.To clearly define this: both products and materials are approved for use in organic food production, processing, and handling according to the National Organic Procedures (NOP). Materials are anything that is consumed in the growing process, such as seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, mineral additives and so on. A product is just a material which has gone through the $600,000 approval process, carries the OMRI seal and is OMRI Listed. A generic material is an approved material that does not carry the OMRI seal, but is still perfectly fine to use, while a device is something that is not consumed or used up (rafts, PVC piping, stainless steel pumps, liners, etc.).Because I could not get a response to my request from HOFA, even after eight solid months of calling them at least weekly and leaving polite messages, a friend suggested that I apply through Oregon Tilth, the oldest and most respected organic certifying agency. I knew so little about the process then that I thought one had to apply within one's state, and did not understand that any certifying agency can certify anywhere, even overseas if they follow some additional guidelines.Initially, Oregon Tilth was also a bit dubious, but the logical argument I made to them was this: If we were growing in 3 gallon black plastic pots, filled with coir and vermiculite, which we watered with AP water, no organic certification agency in the world would have any problem certifying us. So, the question I posed them was this: The main problem you seem to have with certifying aquaponics is (in our deep water culture systems at least), is that we don't use enough media and we have too much water? Having no counter to this logic, Oregon Tilth agreed to consider our application - and ended up approving us after several months of back and forth, and several meetings with their entire staff about our application and whether or not to go out on a limb and approve us.As of today, the following aquaponic farms are certified, and I include contact information if you feel the need to verify with the certifying agencies or the farms themselves.Friendly Aquaponics was certified in August, 2008 by Oregon Tilth. At one point, Tiffany Huson-Labbe, our original certification inspector, told us in 2010 that seven of our students had been certified by Oregon Tilth, but that she did not know the names of all the farms. Because we’ve been so busy running our farm, we have not kept close tabs with most of our students, and typically only hear from them when things are NOT going well, when we help them troubleshoot until their problems are solved. According to Mike Dill, Oregon Tilth's Processing Program Reviewer and Inspector, (503) 566-3010, Oregon Tilth currently certifies the following aquaponics farms that he could immediately remember off the top of his head:21st Century Farm. LLC, Norman Avery, 324 San Nicolas Way, Saint Augustine, Florida 32080. According the Oregeon Tilth database entry, here: http://tilth.org/producer-search/producers/OT-000002, this farm is certified for cucumbers and tomatoes, but makes no mention of AP, as that’s not how they sort information; the only way I could get this information was from an inspector who happened to know that 21st Century Farm was certified for AP. They do not have a web presence that I can find, so perhaps they are also quiet about using AP, although according to Mike Dill, this is NOT because of Orgeon Tilth.Super Natural Organic Farm of America (SNOFA), website: http://snofa.net/drupal1/, is located at 38818 Drott Lane, Ponchatoula, LA 70454, proudly say on their website that they are "the First Aquaponic System in mainland United States to receive USDA Certified Organic accreditation through Oregon Tilth since April 2009". This farm is run by Dr. Vinny Mendoza, the very first of our students to be certified organic for AP, after attending our first training in October 2008. They are very public about their certification, and even scanned their Certificate for their webpage, here: http://snofa.net/drupal1/certification.CCOA (California Certified Organic Farmers), http://www.ccof.org/, is another agency that certifies AP. They had a “aquaponic supporter” in their searchable database (the only certifying agency where one can search for the word “aquaponics”, and this is Lake Country Aquaponics, LLC. (512) 800-0800, 7401 Lohman Frd,, Lago Vista, TX 78645 http://www.lakecountryaquaponics.com/). I initially thought this farm was certified, as they are in the database as well as having claimed on their website to be certified organic. They had even put the USDA seal on their home page, and this is in direct violation of Federal law, as when I spoke to one of CCOFs representatives, I was told Lake Country is NOT certified, but is in fact a “supporter” of CCOF. Lake Country’s website is down right now, so presumably the lady from CCOF contacted them with the advice to change that, as it carries an $11,000 fine per occurrence. And that could mean per day, per impression – almost whatever the Feds want it to mean! Remember, this is not a penalty that the certifying agency levies, but instead is imposed by the USDA, who can also bring felony charges against the perpetrator, if they choose to (and at this level, they often do).The CCOF representative I spoke to told me that CCOF does currently certify two aquaponics farms that she knew of: Santa Cruz Aquaponics, Inc. run by Christopher Newman, Todd Henley and Fonta Sawyer, in Freedom, CA (831) 724-2883, but my research shows they closed their doors in early 2012, after only a year and a half in operation, although their certification is still current.I found another farm that was “newly certified” by CCOF in early-July, 2010 that she evidently did not know about, named “Abundant Farmer”. This farm was mentioned in CCOF’s quarterly publication, here: http://www.ccof.org/pdf/CCOF_Mag_Fall_2010.pdf. The story covers a Grower Certification Field Trip taken by CCOF staff members from the grower certification department in early July of 2010, where the Abundant Farmer aquaponics farm was visited. The story states the tour was given by a man named Michael Behan. And at that point things went “click” for us. We recognized the name as that of a wonderful man named Mick, originally from Ireland, who had come to a Personal Intensive in early 2010. He told us he had squandered $100,000 of his own life savings buying Colle Davis’ Portable Farms systems, but had received no instruction as to how to grow produce, let alone how to market what he grew. We gave him the best of what we knew at the time, including how to get certified organic, but that point he was pretty much out of money. The last we heard from him, he was close to giving up. I do not know if they are still in business, but their website is still up.Quality Certification Services, or QCS (gotta love all these acronyms!), http://www.qcsinfo.org/index.htm, out of Gainesville, FL, certifies “Farming, Wildcrafting, Livestock, Processing, Packing, and Handling operations. QCS certifies a diverse array of Organic operations regardless of type, location, or size”, according to their website, so certifying aquaponics is evidently not a big deal to them. The man I spoke to told me he knew of at least one AP farm that they certified, and that there were probably more, but he’d only been at QCS for 15 months, and he did not know how to find out, as their data entry does not include that field.Organic Certfiers, of Ventura, CA, http://www.organiccertifiers.com/, happily certifies AP, and currently certifies three farms. Cheryl Hudson, (805) 684-6494, said she'd get back to me via email as to the name of these farms, but that has not yet happened. (Will add in our next newsletter.) Obviously, we are one of the three they’ve certified, there is another that she knew of in New Hampshire, and one in Colorado. They also receive regular requests for aquaponics certification information, including from overseas, and she said she had gotten one such request from Australia the day before.In conclusion, I reiterate my strong belief that lying or misrepresenting anything in regards to AP, or stretching the truth in any manner, hurts us all. But I have a rather high standard there, especially in light of our legal situation, which I also believe to have been somewhat detrimental to AP as a whole, though certainly - and for which I am grateful - not as detrimental as it has been to us personally. I have learned a very valuable lesson there, and as such, hold myself and others to a much higher standard than I would if we had not made the terrible mistake we made in 2008, long before we knew we would become leaders in this fledgling industry. One of the people in that disaster of a thread actually complimented us on taking a “black and white” stance, and I am grateful for that, but several there did not agree, and seem to prefer to live in shades of grey. To each his own, I suppose.If anyone has more information about any one else who has been certified that has not made this list, or if anything whatsoever here is incorrect, please email me, email@example.com. While this newsletter will no doubt generate some surprisingly heated discussion in online forums, we are happy to respond if you communicate with us directly, as I have neither the time, the patience, nor the tolerance to participate in such forums. Again, humble apologies for my shortcomings.Please remember that we freely share all the applications that got us certified, in a writable .pdf format, to make applying easy! Even though one of the other main participants in the “cat fight” (as one of the other posters very aptly described it) in the above mentioned forum said that we promise this, and don’t deliver, the reality is, every single person who has participated in our Commercial trainings has received these applications, either on a DVD-R, or more recently, as an email invitation to share these files, stored in the cloud. And if you want certification, but have NOT attended our training, we’ll send them to you anyway. Just ask.You might want to ask any of the other people offering Commercial Aquaponics trainings if they have a certified organic system from which to train you, and if they’ll share their successful certification application(s) with you, and how many of their students are certified organic. I’d love to know that we were NOT the only trainers with this level of accomplishment, and also to know that we are not the only trainers who share information so freely. I think our community would be a far better place if this were the case.Thanks for reading,**Susanne**PS Our next newsletter will address the food safely misconceptions that were proffered in this same thread, as this has taken more far room than I thought it would!
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Tim with the PV system charge controller, inverter, breakers, and cabling from the PV panels on the wall to the right. The roll-down white plastic cover (rolled-up in this picture) keeps all this (black) equipment from heating up too much on a sunny day.
"The Fish's View"
It was 1982, and I was fishing my 56-foot sailing fishing vessel "Tropic Bird" off the coast of Kawaihae on the Big Island of Hawaii; trapping deepwater shrimp.
The species we were after were Heterocarpus ensifer and Heterocarpus laevigatus. These are a commercially valuable saltwater shrimp that like a 34-degree water temperature; which in Hawaii means they live in water 300 to 400 fathoms deep (or 1,800 to 2,400 feet in depth).
Like any fishery you're new to, it took me a couple of weeks to figure out where the shrimp were, and another couple of weeks to figure out the best trap to catch them with. We lost an average of one trap per day due to them getting hung up on the rocky bottom where we were fishing; so developing a cheap trap that didn't cost much for materials, and took little time to make was a priority.
Although the traps we started out with were the "standard" in the industry, they also took 8 hours and cost $150 in materials each to make. They were painful to lose!
Under the prod of not having much money, we soon developed a trap that caught just as much shrimp, but only cost $30 and took 1-1/2 hours to make. The biggest benefit of this trap was that we could get 10 of them on each of our 3 trap lines instead of the 4 of the "expensive" other traps we'd been able to before.
Fishing for shrimp consisted of looking for your float, snagging it with a boathook, then hauling in 3,000 feet of half-inch polypropylene rope until the first shrimp trap broke the surface. Then the traps were untied off the main line one by one, and emptied into the cooler full of ice on the foredeck. You had to get fresh shrimp onto ice right away or they started turning to worthless shrimp mush in just a few minutes. Turns out the shrimp have an enzyme that does this, and leaving a trap on deck for even ten minutes was enough to render the shrimp inside it unpalatable and unsaleable.
However, once iced, the shrimp kept quite well. I used to go to the nearest town about ten miles away and sell shrimp off the back of my truck, but after the news about these shrimp got around, I soon had people meeting the boat with their pickup truck full of coolers when we got to the dock and buying all we had on board.
The shrimp tasted great either cooked or eaten raw as sashimi, as is often the custom in Hawaii. We eat almost everything out of the ocean raw, and some prefer raw over cooked. As a shrimp fisherman I was everyone's friend, for I always had a cooler with at least a few pounds of the smallest (least valuable) shrimp in the back of my truck to sit down with friends with and "talk story", as we call shooting the breeze in Hawaii.
The shrimp traps had a "rot-away" panel of cotton mesh that would rot away underwater so that a trap, when lost, would not become a "ghost trap", continuing to catch (and kill) shrimp. The other end of the trap had a 3-inch diameter steel ring in a mesh funnel that the shrimp climbed through to get into the trap.
One day, my crewman yelled at me to come look at the contents of a trap. Inside I could see a beautiful little shark with eyes that looked like opals (jewels!), and what looked like a miniature king crab.
It was obviously the largest possible crab that could have come through the 3-inch ring into the trap, and we immediately thought we'd discovered the heretofore unknown Hawaiian king crab fishery.
We threw the shark back overboard, wishing that he make it back safely to his familiar depths, and put the crab in the cooler on the ice. It was so obvious to us that what we'd caught was just a baby king crab! He looked just the big ones, only small, and we hadn't caught any larger ones because they couldn't get through the 3-inch steel ring! Boy, were we excited!
All the way back to the dock, we planned how to make the bigger traps we'd need to catch the adult king crabs, and how to stack and handle them on the boat. This was exciting! I'd read about the romantic (and incredibly dangerous and cold) Alaskan king crab fisheries, and thought that making a pile of money doing the same thing in the warm Hawaiian waters would be a huge improvement!
Fortunately, I gave the fisheries biologist I knew on the island of Oahu a call before we spent any money on building king crab traps! It turned out that that was as big as this deepwater crab got, and our dreams were dashed. Although disappointed, we still had the shrimp, and it was kind of a relief to know we didn't have to build a bunch of $500, 400 pound king crab traps and wrestle them around on the pitching deck of the Tropic Bird.
More fishy stories in the next newsletter!