Aquaponic Gardening

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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"

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In Canada rules are now being reviewed for a organic fishery

and have been working to have aquaponics certified which has been very interesting because hydroponics so far is not allowed ,as people seem to have a mindset that only soil can be organic .So I do agree that aquaponic people need to speak out .and all these third party certification companys drive up the prices for small growers.

 

My daughter worked at a small coffee roasting company in the Northwest of the United states. They purchased their beans from all over the world and are involved directly with small farmers and fair trade procedures. They chose not to go after the "certified organic" label for the same reasons you found. They instead market simply as organically grown coffee, no pesticides used. The small company has done very well, even through the economic down turn. And their relationships with the small coffee farmers is excellent. They are able to buy direct, pay the farmer a premium while still buying coffee beans at a discount by cutting out the middle man.

I'm not sure how this could translate to aquaponics except to say that as long as there are people interested in buying truly organic produce and there are producers willing to educate the market, then aquaponics will find it's place in the marketplace. AP grown produce is synonymous with organic produce, therefore is organically grown.

Chris, Are you referring to the initial applications? I filled it a very long application already, it did take time..might be nice to just have it once to say I had been ceritified and could then decide not to based on experience.

There were some things I had questions about and I'm just curious how much is involved in the ongoing recordkeeping/reporting and not sure I want to bother.

Doug,

Thanks for sharing this info. 

I sell coffee under my Passion for Produce label as well..one is "Naturally Farmed" and the other is "Cerified Organic".. It was important to me to support/buy beans from only those that were grown using organic methods and without pesticides (plus from women owned farms). The local roasters assured me that they visited the farms and I trust the them. It's this trust and education that is important. Both coffees sell for the same price, but I feel good that the extra money goes to the farm and not to some governing body.

Just a sad side note, the certified organic does seem to be selling a little better even though I assure the customers too!

Doug Effinger said:

My daughter worked at a small coffee roasting company in the Northwest of the United states. They purchased their beans from all over the world and are involved directly with small farmers and fair trade procedures. They chose not to go after the "certified organic" label for the same reasons you found. They instead market simply as organically grown coffee, no pesticides used. The small company has done very well, even through the economic down turn. And their relationships with the small coffee farmers is excellent. They are able to buy direct, pay the farmer a premium while still buying coffee beans at a discount by cutting out the middle man.

I'm not sure how this could translate to aquaponics except to say that as long as there are people interested in buying truly organic produce and there are producers willing to educate the market, then aquaponics will find it's place in the marketplace. AP grown produce is synonymous with organic produce, therefore is organically grown.

Hi Michelle, I checked out your website briefly. Very nice. I hope you tons of success.


The coffee company I talk about I can't name, but has roasters in Portland, OR Seattle, WA and New York, NY yet sells most of their product online. They are having no trouble selling their product. I know the Nicaragua Coffee was retailing online at nearly $100 lb as a specialty coffee to upscale restaurants. Crazy prices, but a profitable business model.In Portland, I met one of their roasters, a young Nicaraguan man from Matagalpa, NI. He had a 7 acre coffee plantation where the company loaned him the money to develop and grow coffee organically in his native country in order to control quality. The young man made great money after his first harvest (3 years after planting in 2008). I imagine he has made a killing this year since coffee prices are very high this year in Nicaragua.

 

OK all that is an aside to aquaponics. But interesting non the less. I'm just starting my first aquaponics project with plans to construct a urban aquaponics system in our Nicaraguan town as a training facility and a small produce center. Our goal is to create something that could be replicated amongst the poor in our part of the country, with a little hand holding and encouragement. :-)

 

Michelle Silva said:

Doug,

Thanks for sharing this info. 

I sell coffee under my Passion for Produce label as well..one is "Naturally Farmed" and the other is "Cerified Organic".. It was important to me to support/buy beans from only those that were grown using organic methods and without pesticides (plus from women owned farms). The local roasters assured me that they visited the farms and I trust the them. It's this trust and education that is important. Both coffees sell for the same price, but I feel good that the extra money goes to the farm and not to some governing body.

Just a sad side note, the certified organic does seem to be selling a little better even though I assure the customers too!

Doug Effinger said:

My daughter worked at a small coffee roasting company in the Northwest of the United states. They purchased their beans from all over the world and are involved directly with small farmers and fair trade procedures. They chose not to go after the "certified organic" label for the same reasons you found. They instead market simply as organically grown coffee, no pesticides used. The small company has done very well, even through the economic down turn. And their relationships with the small coffee farmers is excellent. They are able to buy direct, pay the farmer a premium while still buying coffee beans at a discount by cutting out the middle man.

I'm not sure how this could translate to aquaponics except to say that as long as there are people interested in buying truly organic produce and there are producers willing to educate the market, then aquaponics will find it's place in the marketplace. AP grown produce is synonymous with organic produce, therefore is organically grown.

Sorry, I have to bring this back up, at first I thought it was a dumb question but after more reading I think this is just often overlooked or not talked about:

 

Greener said:

General question related to this --

 

If I add veggies/kitchen scraps etc to my worm bin that are not certified organic, and then add worm juice from that bin to my AP system, would the veggies be considered organic according to the USDA (assuming everything else was OG)?  I don't think so, but I want to double check this.

 

So now check out this link about 'organic' composting, it is a bit alarming:  http://www.composterconnection.com/site/commercial-compost.html

 

It sounds like for compost to be 'certified organic' the ('acceptable', whatever that is) feedstock just needs to sit at 130F for 3 days, to kill pathogens, weeds etc.  Does anyone know more about this??  I find it a little ridiculous that people can put totally non-OG feedstock (laced with pesticides, fertilizers etc) into a composter and then have that compost be certified organic!  If this is true, then the OG label on compost means NOTHING to me.

 

Please, take the time to read or skim this article and comment back here.  This is an incredibly important topic and I think we should get some discussion going.

 

I think there is a bit of a chicken and egg issue here.  If you have to use only certified organic stuff i order to grow more certified organic stuff well where does the first certified organic stuff come from?

 

They don't require that composted manure be from certified organically raised animals be used when using the compost in organic farming.  If they did, certified organic aquaponic veggies would not be possible since there is no certified organic way to grow fish to provide certified organic fish waste for the aquaponics.

 

Now I totally understand the worries about herbicides in compost, that is scary.

 

I'm not sure on the worm bin situation.  I haven't read up to see if there is a certification for growing worms or if using worm juice is acceptable for organic aquaponics.  You would probably have to take that up with your certifying agency.

 

Now if you are talking about for home use.  Well were you willing to eat the veggies in the first place?  Then are you really concerned about any residues that might go through the worm processing before later being diluted for use in the aquaponics?  (This is kinda like the people who are worried about washing out the composting buckets with a few drops of dish soap and pouring the wash water through the compost pile-as if the soap residue might some how get through the hot composting process and then be taken up by the plants 2 years later and some how become toxic to eat at that later date- while in the mean time they are eating food directly off dishes and utensils that are washed with the same soap at much higher concentrations every day?)

 

Anyway, composting, at least hot composting of manure and anything else that might carry pathogens and especially commercial compost has to be process such that it gets to the hot temperatures to kill off pathogens and weed seeds.  If they don't get it to that kind of level, it can't be sold commercially as compost.  Most cities that do composting give the compost away because they don't manage the composting process actively enough to ensure that it all gets hot enough for long enough in order to sell it.

I see what your saying greener on purity of OG certification.  It is really strict for certain aspects, and then very loose in others.  It confuses me.  For example, if an organic farmer uses cow manure to fertilize his crops it must be from OG cows, UNLESS, there is no OG available at an economical price. So then they will be allowed to use cow manure from cows that have been fed GMO's and pumped up with rghb while still retaining the OG label.  I call that type OG produce, BUNK.  For a more relevant example; Friendly AP is certified organic, and the certifying agency said the same thing to them about fish feed, "well OG feed isnt available at an economical price, or quantity."  So they use conventional fish feed. Yet they are certified OG.  They seem like a nice bunch of people at Friendly AP, but my guess is their fish feed contains GMO's, as do %99 of all cultured/farmed fish; BUNK.  I personally would feel horrible selling certified organic produce, knowing that my inputs have been sprayed with non-OG pesticides or even worse contain GMO's.     

All that this means to me is that $ is at the root of most things today.  For most companies OG is not about being good to the earth, its about $.  It's a trend, a fad.  And the business' know how to make fads profitable.  They have become exceedingly efficient at it because USA is mostly populated with people acting like cows waiting to be herded. And if its  not money driving them then it is shear ignorance.  Grow your own, or Know your farmer, buy local.  Why do you need a certification, or a label of any kind for that matter, if you can meet up with your farmer and ask any questions about his production methods and tour the farm?  Knowledge must prevail, not labels, which can only confine. Processed foods are a whole different ball-game when it comes to their production.  Im talking about fresh foods; which in my opinion should compromise at least %50 of the daily diet.

I'm not sure about the chicken/egg issue -- the egg doesn't need to be manmade, does it?  If we had a more sustainable agriculture system set up, with OG inputs from various sources, why could we not grow organic food using organic food/plant/animal wastes?  Nature can do it, right?

 

TC you make a good point about the level of worry this is all worth, when we are already bombarded everyday by a wide range harmful chemicals (and I see your point about the dishes, though I am careful to check that all visible detergents have been rinsed off of my things before using them to eat.  I do realize there will always be trace amounts though.  But I am not into putting manmade/chemical soap or anything else artificial into my compost either!  I feel that things like that, especially when they can easily be avoided, should be.  Although it might not make any difference, why risk it if you can help it?).  To me the fact that we are already surrounded by so many harmful/artificial inputs in our lives only makes me want to be even more careful about what I grow and eat.  At least I have some control there.

 

It just bugs me that there exists this label to set the standard for what OG is (and others can't even use the word in their advertising), but this standard actually lets a lot of nasty stuff slip through into 'organic' food.  Maybe my own OG standards are too high or just plain unrealistic, but I think this is something people should really start thinking and talking more about.

 

AJ - I agree 100% -- so many loopholes and different standards depending on product, it really just doesn't mean much to me anymore.  

 

Of course I see the $ premium attraction for those who go through with the certification and I certainly don't blame them for going for it.  What I think is a shame though is that most consumers (even those that care about sustainable farming) have no idea that farmers can use non-OG inputs to grow certified food, and I'm sure many are happy to never think about it (and farmers are happy to keep quiet).  I have been guilty myself of just wanting to see that someone else has checked a product according to a standard without knowing the details of the standard myself.  Call me a cow. :)   But really, having looked into these 'standards' I can say that it would take a lot of study to really know all the ins and outs, so of course most people are left unaware and the 'OG' marketing continues.  In fact 'organic' consumption is going through the roof..

 

I totally agree that it's become a "marketing" thing and a "people feel more comfortable if the government says it's safe" thing, yea herd animals.  (Government once decided fat was bad and had everyone switching to trans fat instead at one point in time)

 

on a side note, Friendlies veggies are certified organic, the fish are not.

 

Now it would be nice if "organic" wasn't so corrupted but for now, I'll stick with trying to grow much of my own food and hopefully learn a bit about the farmers growing the stuff I do have to buy.  Ya know there are non-certified farmers out there who really do follow the "spirit" of the organic ideas but they can't get certified or it would just be too much paperwork and fees to do it.  Then there are certified organic growers who have secret pesticide rooms.  At least you know in aquaponics that if some one is cheating on the pesticide front, they at least have to use the less toxic ones that won't kill the fish.

Yes, it really comes down to knowing your farmer, and to farmers educating their customers.  The more you talk to farmers the more you realize there are plenty of 'beyond-organic' producers out there with no certification..


TCLynx said:

Now it would be nice if "organic" wasn't so corrupted but for now, I'll stick with trying to grow much of my own food and hopefully learn a bit about the farmers growing the stuff I do have to buy.  Ya know there are non-certified farmers out there who really do follow the "spirit" of the organic ideas but they can't get certified or it would just be too much paperwork and fees to do it.  Then there are certified organic growers who have secret pesticide rooms.  At least you know in aquaponics that if some one is cheating on the pesticide front, they at least have to use the less toxic ones that won't kill the fish.

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