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Organic certification. It is a hot topic in the aquaponics world. Sure being certified organic has its benefits, namely commanding a higher price and the ability to use that golden word. But really, how essential and valuable is it? Is charging a higher price really worth it? Or are we as farmers just playing the bureaucratic game and feeding the machine? I think as an industry we really need to assess the value of organic certification.

Those waving the organic flag and boasting the benefits of the higher prices organic produce commands always fail to compare the costs associated with that certification. Once that cost is truly and accurately factored in are they really making any more money? Especially if that organic produce is being sold at wholesale prices? I’ve asked several of my traditional farming friends this question and the answer is a resounding “NO”! It’s not that they can’t get certified. It’s that they choose not to.They rely on a completely different marketing strategy and still get top prices for their chemical free and naturally grown produce. This is our strategy as well, and it has been highly successful!

Getting organic certified not only incurs a moderate outlay of upfront capital but also a lot of time and, of course, that time must be factored in. If you are like me, your time comes at a premium and if we add that premium to the hard costs for certification, getting certified can exact a hefty price. There is the application fee that generally costs about $1350 plus the cost of inspection which depending on your location and the proximity of an inspector can run perhaps $500 or as much as $1000 or more. Then there is the time. How many hours will go into preparing the application, research, follow up, and insuring your farm is compliant? And that’s just on the front end! Maybe 20 hours? A 100? I’ve heard claims of 100′s of hours from one farm that is certified. Let’s just be conservative and say that the upfront time is 50 hours. If you price your time at, say, $50 per hour now that cost just escalated another $2500! That is just on the front end. There is also the time spent in maintaining records, the ongoing costs of the certification, and additional yearly inspections. What this means is that we must deduct from that organic price tag all of these costs. So even though an organic lettuce mix being sold by the pound to a big box store is definitely commanding a higher price than its conventional counterpart, we still have to deduct those costs whether it is for certification or labor, packaging, cold storage, etc. We can name our premium  price, but no price comes without costs and what we must really look at is the all-in cost to present an accurate picture of value.

What we are seeing here is that the value in organic certification then may not be so much in the price you can command at the market. Then where is the value? Is it in the ability to advertise that your product is organic? Without certification and paying the price to use that precious, government-owned word you cannot call your product “organic”.  So what does the little guy do? Play the big game? Get the certification that has in many people’s eyes less value everyday, especially since it is from the same bureaucracy that has announced that it is about to make GMO crops more protected? Many have lost faith that “certified organic” really has value and is nothing more than an instrument for Big Brother to make their cut on the farmer toiling in the field or the greenhouse. Read the new farm bill. If you think it helps or protects little or organic farmers you are in for a big surprise.

Well, despite our stance about organic certification not having the value others think it does, we are going to pursue it. Why? Simply because not everyone is on the same page yet. Slowly more are awakening but until others like us are effective in branding the benefits of aquaponically grown food , we think there is some small value in paying for that certification. However, we do recognize it could also benefit those that deal with different market conditions than we do. We’ve been successfully establishing our tribe and charging based on the fact that our customers know and trust us, but that may be a challenge for other growers depending upon their market. The other thing this will do is to certify a media system for the first time. It will answer the question once and for all if media and worms and the ecosystem we media growers create can be certified or not. We think it can!

Eventually, with the help of the Aquaponics Association that was formed a year ago, I see something happening that will throw organic certification to the wayside for aquaponic farmers. You know how when you walk into the produce section at Whole Foods and see signs that say Organic! Locally Grown! Pesticide Free!? I see one more, Aquaponicly Grown! What goes hand in hand with that will be educating consumers. They need to know that when they select that beautiful, aquaponically grown lettuce, herb or tomato priced slightly less than organic, but considerably higher than conventional, they are getting clean, chemical-free, naturally-grown food that is much, much better for themselves, the environment and supports the small farmer who grew it. Who needs organic certification then?

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Comment by Derald Howell on August 1, 2012 at 11:09pm

As a produce manager for Publix supermarkets, I have learned that there are a few interesting facts about the general public and the organic world. 1) With all the misleading and/or confusing labels about organic foods, most people don't have a real understanding of what organics really means. 2) With the rising cost of produce, the difference between organic and conventional seems to be lessening. 3) Local and natural are words I hear more about every day when customers ask for produce. 4) As transportation costs keep climbing, we will be not be able to keep up with the demand for locally grown food.................

So, that being said, I believe we are heading in the right direction. Keep growing naturally and our market share will continue to expand. Every sale you make will lead you to at least 2 or 3 more sales if your quality is consistently the best available. "Live" produce will always outsell the dead plants.

Keep up the good Work,

Derald

Comment by Converse on July 29, 2012 at 6:29pm

  I wish the best to your operation and the O Cert.  odessy.  Interesting game plan. Seems well thought out.  We will all be watching....and learning, no matter what happens.  

- Converse

Comment by Gina Cavaliero on July 27, 2012 at 6:51am

Hey gentlemen, believe me I am on the same page as all of you that "The word organic doesn't mean crap in my book".  Unfortunately there's far too many books(metaphorically speaking) out there that does and as long as there are those in the AP community that keep beating that damn drum so hard, it always will.  That's the problem.  I do think it is both conceivable and possible to eventually brand aquaponically grown to the point of instant consumer recognition, but it is going to take much time and quite frankly money.  So in the meantime, what do we do?  I don't see those touting Organic to be the end all and be all for higher pricing stopping any time soon.   

Converse I understand that it may be a leap forward in pricing, but I honestly don't see that happening.  I guess part of my reasoning is to prove that the precious O cert isn't all its cracked up to be when you sell wholesale especially when the prices you can get locally right now  for our product is either nearly as good as O pricing or better!  Right now I could sell my Heirloom tomatoes to the Organic distributor I buy from for $2.00 a  pound.  Guess what I get for them in my buying club, at the market or to chefs?  Drumroll please.... $4.59 to $5.59 a pound! The difference is that I could sell a tremendously greater volume to the distributor, but factor in the time and space to grow that volume, I just don't think it is worth it.  Same thing for lettuce.  I know that a pound of Organic salad mix goes for $5.86 to Costco.  Again compare it to what I get from restaurants, buying club, market and it ranges between $5 to 10 a pound, but also keep in mind we don't process, have expensive printed packaging and again we don't have to grow that massive volume.  How much is that $5.86 processed, certified, pricey packaged pound worth now?  $4? $3?  If you are lucky.

Slowly, I hope that more in the industry will get it and not think that they have to be O cert and will put their advertising and marketing dollars towards advertising and marketing our own industry brand like "Powered by fish poo!"  Just kidding, that's probably not the best marketing slogan!  But seriously, in the meantime, we will take one for the team so to speak.  Get the certification, assuming a media system can be certified and drop it after a year! What will this do?  Two things.  One, answer that question and set the precedence for certifying media and two, give me yet another bit of experience I can pass along to my students.  Yes it has to do with out trainings too.  I won't deny that but the simple fact is that I wholeheartedly am invested in passing along the technology we have developed and our farm model because it works and I seriously intend to infuse the way we grow our food with hundreds and eventually thousands of small family farms.  We don't need monolithic farms growing all of our food (not that I think large AP farms are wrong, I'm talking about factory farming) and our culture is gravitating back to wanting to eat local and have a connection to their food and the people that grew it.  When they go and buy a bag of salad mix at Whole Foods from Taylor Organic, all they are getting is a salad, when they buy it from a small family aquaponic farm they get a story. 

Comment by Vlad Jovanovic on July 26, 2012 at 2:53am

Educating the consumer should surely be top priority in the long run, but I can see where it might be good thing for someone, somewhere to certify a mixed/hybrid or media based system. Particularly if this O cert is then used to further the public's 'education' on aquaponically grown food...

I'm sure it's different in each region/country, but judging from some of my experiences here, education the consumer might be a more difficult task than O certifying Monsanto GM corn (sarcasm). This year I could not give my zucchini away...it was as if people thought that it was going to eat them and not the other way around. Folks here are used to just ONE type of (and a crappy variety at that) summer squash and that is all they want to see/buy...Start talking about AP or bio-ponics and whoa-nelly, how they do run...right now the 9 different tomato varieties are up to bat...

Things were different in the Capitol city, but gasoline here is almost $10 USD a gallon, so we're taking a 'hit' either way...chalk it up to 'marketing research' and 'educating the consumer'...which is OK, as I didn't expect anything to happen overnight, but man-oh-man are consumers here a very 'strange breed'...

There seems to be a small group of 'freaks' (I use that term with earnest and loving endearment...hippies, vegans peace punks etc...) as well as a small segment of 35 years and older, college educated females that seem interested in AP grown food/Organically grown food...I'm not sure how to proceed exactly on that one, but we're working on it...

At any rate...

I'm glad that you guys are pursuing the big O certification even though I share Carey's well stated sentiment..."The word organic doesn't mean crap in my book".

Comment by Converse on July 24, 2012 at 9:48am

Hey Gina,

  At the beginning of your post I was mentally saying, "Yes!", but it changed to, "Oh, No!", at the part where you state your operation is going to move towards O. Cert....

    Your mission to get a media bed O. Certified is noble.  But I wonder, do your loyal followers want to pay the extra you'd have to charge them to keep your business profitable? Then, once you step over the line into the O. Cert. prices range will it be possible for you to really step back to the land of not-quite-O.-Cert. prices?  More $$$ can be a very comfortable place (even with the work to get there). Please understand that I do not begrudge you the step you are taking or the possibility of higher profitability.  What I do see is that this may not turn out to be the grand mission you hope it to be. ( I hope I am wrong.)  Stepping off the O. Cert. slope may just prove to be the slippery slope for all....The Land of Higher Prices (and yes, more work to get there)...and then it may follow that in order to be one of the 'good' AP growers one would need to be O. Certified, just like it went with other farmed foods.  I certainly hope this is not the case.

    I'll be watching with hope.  I am sure others will too....but I also feel this may be the beginning of the chasm separating "O. Cert." Ap-ers and those who aren't (for various reasons).  We know the true value of all AP grown foods, but the general public does not.  Advertising (education) is a top dollar investment. Most of us could do one or the other...so I certainly hope that it just does not turn into a trend of 'it is easier to get O. Cert. than to stick to the education of our local and loyal and new customers' situation. 

  I wish your operation the very best of all success as you forge ahead.

  Please keep us posted as to how this all goes. 

Comment by Carey Ma on July 23, 2012 at 10:48pm

I think we've talked about this before. I'd rather be an outlaw along with my rebel client/friends than to submit to the food police.

Stewards that sell wholesome natural food...the best that humans can produce, by word of mouth to local friends, ...thats what we should be about. Nothing else.

If one steps into the big box world, they have to cut corners somewhere. So in my opinion, they cannot be ecologically sustainable and produce the best food possible.The word organic doesn't mean crap in my book. My methods are frikin beyond organic, as they define it.

But seriously, we really need to fix the feed situation to be truly organic, otherwise we will be no different from any other factory farming operation except we look a bit greener. To produce whole foods we need appropriate inputs. How on earth can we expect our fish to have appropriate levels of Omega3 if they don't get the right greens? How can we expect to get a high brix levels from our fruit and veggies if most of what our fish eat are grains. The problem with our society is that we have all bought into the concept the facsimile of food equals real food. A bit better isn't good enough. It is or it isn't.

I believe what we need is to build our local communities large enough so that we can internally supply through co-op, all the things necessary to be good stewards. Some form of IBS input has to be found locally to support a wholesome feed mix.

We simply have to be uncompromising and stubbornly push the right way to grow and raise or we are no better than them and deserve to be gobbled up by the big box suppliers.

We have to be active in communicating to our neighbors so local laws can reflect our desire to be a long term benefit to society while earning an honest living.

Cheers

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