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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Bravo, Chris. I agree totally. The term "certified organic" is becoming meaningless, especially given it's focus on dirt based crops. And the fees in both time and money are not realistic for a small, local operation. As I said in the other thread, "Better than Organic" captures my imagination. I think it can be supported in so many ways. Aquaponics is far more sustainable than traditional, dirt-based farming. There is no chance of getting e. coli or salmonella. It is more productive on a sq ft basis. The only problem is it is based on a negative comparison rather than being a new term entirely....

I had an interesting discussion with Murray Hallam about this when he stayed with me in September. He feels very much the same way about finding our own unique labeling that identifies the unique benefits of aquaponics.
Chris, I think your focus on Local and educating your local customers is a definite winner!! Totally need to bring out food production closer to home as much as possible.

Not just for sustainable and "organic" reasons but also for food security. Most locations and grocery stores really only have enough to cover about three days. As in, if there were a disaster that cut up food deliveries from where ever it is coming from, the stores will be cleaned out of most important things in less than three days. Anyone who knows how to grow food and preserve food is a valuable resource for any community.

Another bonus on the food safety for people buying local from farmers they know, the farm family is constantly testing the quality of the food and likely being far more through about it than the large scale operations. If the farmer/family are sick with food poisoning they won't be selling that food the next morning at market or be giving farm tours. Can you get much better testing or quality control than that?

I especially like the selling live produce idea and the pick your own.

I don't know that we must agree on some new label or term for Aquaponics, I think for farmers, simply getting to know your neighbors and customers is probably the best way to go about it and letting them get to know your farm and practices so that they are comfortable getting their food from you. Granted, such methods won't make anyone rich but for myself personally, all I want is enough and enough for me would be to stay out of debt and save up enough to someday retire while still being able to afford electricity, internet and health care. Food, well I'm growing that.

Thanks for this thread Chris. I agree that "organic" has lost most of it's shine, heck to many it has become a dirty word.

Now I don't personally see that aquaponics is always better than everything. I'm into permaculture (which also has some negative aspects since it I guess is a trademarked thing) or the concepts behind it at least with things like food forests and systems which could provide food without requiring huge amounts of regular inputs once they are established. Every situation is different and so the solutions will be different too.
I started my concern with e coli as a water topics thread. It's not a direct response to this post, but you reminded me that I need to start talking about it in public, rather than just messages to experienced aquapons.

The certification process did not make sense for a farm of our size and our business plan. I am however helping to build a very LARGE aquaponic farm where it does make sense and is a key component of the farm plan. We will have organic certification, food safety certification and a health department approved vegetable processing facility. Having there certs, on top of locally grown, will get a premium price for the produce and we will process and package.
Through education on the process on our farm we are able to get organic prices for our produce AND give our customers a good price. For example we sell live heads of lettuce for $2 each. The heads average 1/4 to 1/3 lb, so we get $6 to $8 per lb. The local health food store marks it up $1.49.

At the local health food store our produce is displayed next to certified organic produce from other farms. Our produce sells very well despite not having the cert. I believe the education that we have provided the community, during the past year, has really increased our sales in the store. Many of our customers will not eat other produce and are willing to pay the stores markup if they cannot make to our farm sales. The local factor and the obvious freshness are also big reasons for good sales.

There are two agencies that currently certify there. Organ Tilth and Organic Certifiers.

Peter Shaw said:
We went through the certification process for several reasons:

1. we are an educational facility and the process is something that needs to be taught. We also discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the certification in general.

2. Some of our former students are with the local certifier and we felt it was a good way to make connections for students, as several have been hired to be the "dreaded certifiers" but its a pretty decent job.

3. Certification is the only way you can use the word Organic

Organic has a market advantage in some areas, maybe not everywhere but in some areas it is large. People will pay a premium for O produce.

We have a great sat market that is open to certified and non-certified produce. The booths that say "no spray" or "sustainably grown" do not get the same $ for their crops.

I do think certified is becoming somewhat diluted but for the most part consumers know that synthetic fertilizers are not used, but of course they do not know that pesticides are allowed.

Sylvia, you will not be able to use Better than Organic because it has the O word in it,

E. coli can of course enter into your produce if you have employees that do not wash their hands and handle food.

TCLynx... agreed, local food is key, getting the purchaser to know the grower is the answer. And, there is more than one way to do it right, Local is great, we also do inorganic hydroponics and it sells very well at several local stores and when our consumers that see our system and understand how little water is used to produce basil and lettuce or tomatoes.

Please help get the word out!
Daniel E Brown said:
I started my concern with e coli as a water topics thread. It's not a direct response to this post, but you reminded me that I need to start talking about it in public, rather than just messages to experienced aquapons.
LOL...Its funny how some people think of the concept of growing food with fish poo, and they go ahhhh. in disgust not understanding the relation of how food is grown in general(lack of education).
many people don't realize that the food the pay top dollar for and says ORGANIC is grown with all kinds of animal shit, Oppsss....Manure and what there animals eat to produce it could be so contaminated or compromised.
I guess my point is that we need to educate ourselves and then our friends and customers.

Great point Giorgio! For those of you who would like to start educating yourselves about food there are many books and documentaries that I recommend. Michael Pollan has published many books on food. I am currently reading The Omnivores Dilemma. After that I plan to read In Defense of Food. Pollan says"America is suffering a national eating disorder". I believe this to be very true in an age where diabetes and obesity is out of control.

For those of you that are not big readers like me I recommend the following documentaries.
Food Inc.
The Future of Food
King Corn
Food Matters

A couple of good non food related documentaries to see are:
Fuel
A Crude Awakening
Blue Gold

Giorgio said:
LOL...Its funny how some people think of the concept of growing food with fish poo, and they go ahhhh. in disgust not understanding the relation of how food is grown in general(lack of education).
many people don't realize that the food the pay top dollar for and says ORGANIC is grown with all kinds of animal shit, Oppsss....Manure and what there animals eat to produce it could be so contaminated or compromised.
I guess my point is that we need to educate ourselves and then our friends and customers.
Ohh, yea, book club, or a recommended reading list would be great. I think I'll go start something just for that. Probably even deserves a group. Hum,
What do you think? Books, Documentaries, Articles and Links. Yea done!
Chris please join and share this list there too!
Books group

I belong to a hydroponic CSA for the 2nd year.  It is not currently "certified organic". I'm not sure it's even possible for hydroponics on a commercial scale, but if the CSA was certified like their sister "in ground" operation in a nearby city, they could easily triple their membership.

People that are not deeply involved in researching their food supply, like many on this site are, don't understand all the in's and out's of one versus the other.  Personally, I like the hydroponic produce much better. The in ground CSA lettuce is almost inedible for me (too much sand in it).  I like the food that's never touched the ground.

The one negative I see to hydroponics for commercial production is the barrier to entry for most smaller farms. $80,000 for 6 acres of hydroponic stacks and all the plumbing, is not practical for most commercial farms.  However, organic certification is easier to attain than it is to triple membership. Tripling membership will take years for the hydroponic farm, but organic certification could be attained in a few months time if it becomes a priority. They are actually adding in ground certified organic production to accompany the hydroponics for marketing purposes on a nearby property.

Where I live, there are many certified farms and several companies that ONLY sell organic produce and food products.

Sorry that I'm beginning to ramble. My wife works in the "CSA industry" and it's always a "hot topic" in our house.

 
TCLynx said:

Chris, I think your focus on Local and educating your local customers is a definite winner!! Totally need to bring out food production closer to home as much as possible.

Not just for sustainable and "organic" reasons but also for food security. Most locations and grocery stores really only have enough to cover about three days. As in, if there were a disaster that cut up food deliveries from where ever it is coming from, the stores will be cleaned out of most important things in less than three days. Anyone who knows how to grow food and preserve food is a valuable resource for any community.

Another bonus on the food safety for people buying local from farmers they know, the farm family is constantly testing the quality of the food and likely being far more through about it than the large scale operations. If the farmer/family are sick with food poisoning they won't be selling that food the next morning at market or be giving farm tours. Can you get much better testing or quality control than that?

I especially like the selling live produce idea and the pick your own.

I don't know that we must agree on some new label or term for Aquaponics, I think for farmers, simply getting to know your neighbors and customers is probably the best way to go about it and letting them get to know your farm and practices so that they are comfortable getting their food from you. Granted, such methods won't make anyone rich but for myself personally, all I want is enough and enough for me would be to stay out of debt and save up enough to someday retire while still being able to afford electricity, internet and health care. Food, well I'm growing that.

Thanks for this thread Chris. I agree that "organic" has lost most of it's shine, heck to many it has become a dirty word.

Now I don't personally see that aquaponics is always better than everything. I'm into permaculture (which also has some negative aspects since it I guess is a trademarked thing) or the concepts behind it at least with things like food forests and systems which could provide food without requiring huge amounts of regular inputs once they are established. Every situation is different and so the solutions will be different too.

What we need is an 'Aquaponic Natural' certifying agency, or something like that, to set a standard small AP growers can prove they follow.  Something to officially trump the Organic label.  Anything like this in the works?

 

It's hard to believe I haven't seen this post until now.  I have been away from the group since November with a computer crash and one and a half month recovery, but this was the exact subject we had been discussing just about the time this was posted!

 

We have been dicussing how to get around the "Certified Organic" label, since in fact, the aquaponic raised produce is "BETTER THAN ORGANIC".  That was our first choice for our Market banner.  The question is, can we make this claim and use the word "organic" without running into government hyjacked words trouble. We had decided since that our banner at the upcoming Farmers Market season will read, "Ask us why we think - Aquaponic Produce is Better Than Organic"  Then have available fliers explaining how certain herbicides and pesticides are still used in organic certified growing operations and how it is impossible to employ those same methods in an aquaponic system, and of course water conservation and environmental impact.

 

I always enjoy seeing someone is thinking the same things at the same time.  It tells me the thought is timely and the issue is important.

 

JoeJ

Hahaha........Georgio, another kindred spirit!  Just the other day, in a conversation with my sister, I said I had just had an epiphany!  Then went on to say, 'Success in aquaponics, as in life, is directly proportional to ones ability to generate and handle shit!'  ...Oppps! may be applied wherever one deems necessary...hehe.

Giorgio said:
LOL...Its funny how some people think of the concept of growing food with fish poo, and they go ahhhh. in disgust not understanding the relation of how food is grown in general(lack of education).
many people don't realize that the food the pay top dollar for and says ORGANIC is grown with all kinds of animal shit, Oppsss....Manure and what there animals eat to produce it could be so contaminated or compromised.
I guess my point is that we need to educate ourselves and then our friends and customers.

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