USDA Organic Certification Of Aquaponics Systems

If you were asking yourself: “Is organic certification of aquaponics possible?”, the answer is a resounding YES!

My gorgeous wife Susanne got USDA Organic Certification for our farm’s aquaponics systems in 2008. She was the first in the world to obtain this organic certification for aquaponics! (I get excited about her accomplishments, so please correct me if I’m wrong here, for we searched and searched, and found no others USDA certified before us). We don’t consider ourselves “the” experts on aquaponics, but we are the experts on organic certification of aquaponics. Since our first system was certified in 2008 at least fifteen of our students have gotten their farms USDA organically certified, according to our certification agencies Oregon Tilth (http://tilth.org/ on the web) and Organic Certifiers (http://www.organiccertifiers.com/ on the web).

Also, our back Commercial Newsletter #10 has complete information (as of 5-10-2012) of all the organically certified aquaponics farms and their certifying agency that Susanne could locate. If you know of any additional certifying agencies or farms that have received organic certification since then, or that we missed in our informal “survey” of aquaponics farms with organic certification, please email us with the details; for this will benefit everyone who wants to get their aquaponics systems certified.

What does organic certification mean for you and your farm? We’ll talk about what is and is not organic, and will include lots of free information, sources, and definitions that will help you decide if it’s a good business decision for your aquaponic farm to apply for organic certification.

Susanne smiling and holding a lettuce big enough to feed a family (with organic certification, of course!).Susanne smiling with a basket of assorted vegetables from our aquaponics farm (with organic certification).

Why Is Certification Valuable To You?

Because you can get double the prices for certified produce as you can for conventional. When writing a recent newsletter, we checked the Atlanta, Georgia, USDA terminal reports for three produce items that you can grow anywhere in the world in aquaponics systems. We found that the price for all three was slightly more than double when they were certified. If you ask a farmer anywhere in the world if they would like to get twice as much for the same amount of vegetables, they will look at you as if you’re stupid. It’s an of-course from a business point of view. Of course, if you have a trust fund, you can ignore this information and do anything you want.

Defining “Organic Certification” Precisely And Accurately:

“Organic” is a word that the US Government owns, and its meaning, and where you can and can’t use it, is strictly defined by Federal law. Although all organic certification in the US is by definition USDA (United States Department Of Agriculture) Organic Certification, the USDA doesn’t do any certification or inspection of farms themselves. Those services are performed by private companies who have been certified as “Accredited Certifying Agents” by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the USDA. These are the “organic certifiers” you will deal with when certifying your farm. There are currently 50 domestic certifying agents and 41 foreign certifying agents (more on which agency/company to pick to certify your aquaponic farm in a bit).

The NOP is administered under a federal law that defines who can use the word “organic” on their produce and under what conditions it may be used. You may label your produce organic without requiring organic certification, and sell up to $5,000 worth per year without risking any penalty. However, you’re playing with fire if you simply decide your produce is “organic”, and you don’t need to abide by their “silly” law, and sell more than $5,000 worth a year.

Fines Are NOT Fine!

There is a provision in the law for a $10,000 fine per occurrence (which can mean per box or bag of produce), when produce is labeled organic but does not come from a USDA organically certified source. If the USDA finds 50 bags of lettuce from your farm labeled “organic”, determines you are not certified, and decides to play hardball, you could be liable for a half-million dollar fine. You can break the Federal laws regarding organic certification in exactly the same way you can hit the gas and exceed the speed limit if you want to; just know that for both actions there are consequences.

Gorgeous vegetables from an aquaponics farm with organic certification are worth almost twice as much.Gorgeous vegetables from an aquaponics farm with organic certification are worth almost twice as much.

Get Certified Anywhere In The World:

Your aquaponics systems and farm can get USDA Organic Certification anywhere in the world through the USDA-accredited certification agencies, not just in the USA. You just have to pay the inspector’s expenses for the visit to your farm. You may engage an organic certification agency located anywhere to certify you, you are not limited to the ones in your State or located nearby.

How Do I Get Certified?

Getting certified is a simple process: after building aquaponics systems that only use NOP-approved materials and devices according to the OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) guidelines, you fill in an organic certification application and send it to your agency of choice. After your farm is fully planted out and in operation, you can schedule a visit by one of your agency’s certification inspectors. If you’ve taken our Commercial Aquaponics Training, or bought one of our Commercial DIY packages, we’ll help guide you through this process at no additional charge (in most instances).

It is much easier and less expensive to get certified through one of the two certification agencies we used, because they already have experience certifying aquaponics systems (Oregon Tilth (http://tilth.org/ on the web) and Organic Certifiers (http://www.organiccertifiers.com/ on the web)). Organic Certifiers will now certify systems built by people who use our designs, even before vegetable production begins! (Contact Cheryl Hudson, Cheryl Hudson, [email protected]).

If you use another agency that doesn’t already have experience, you run the risk of a long and expensive certification process, and/or the possibility that the agency will find they are uncomfortable certifying you (due to their lack of experience). The worst-case scenario may be that they pull out of the certification process entirely before certifying you, and you will have wasted your time.

What Are “Materials And Devices”?

OMRI used to publish three manuals: one lists all the materials approved and restricted under the NOP; the second lists all the products approved and restricted under the NOP, and the third lists all the devices approved and restricted under the NOP. You can find the materials and products manuals on the OMRI website (omri.com); they used to be free, but are now $30 for materials and $21 for products. The devices manual seems to have disappeared somewhere, although I have a printed 2010 copy. What are we talking about here?

A material is something generic that gets consumed in the process of growing, and needs to be replaced, like seeds, fish food, fertilizer, potting mix, pesticides, or chemical additives that we add to our systems as supplements. A product is something that gets in the process of growing but is manufactured by a factory, like a nutrient additive or organic pesticide or fungicide. A device is something that is durable and does not get consumed in the process of growing, like the pipes the water flows through, the plastic pots we plant in, the rafts in our systems, and the liner of the aquaponics troughs.

Gorgeous aquaponics lettuce varieties with organic certification are worth almost twice as much.Gorgeous aquaponics lettuce varieties with organic certification are worth almost twice as much.

What Does Certification Cost?

Our original certification cost us a little more, because we had to pay for the inspector to fly to our island, accommodations and car, plus the inspection fee; but now our yearly reinspection fee is $800, because an inspector lives on a nearby island. This is a small price to pay for a farm that can produce $150,000-plus of certified crops per year; especially when you consider the fact that that $150,000 worth of crops would only be worth $70-80,000 if it wasn’t certified!

How To Prevent Certification/Shoot Yourself In The Foot

Now that we’ve outlined how to get certified, we’ll outline how to prevent it! It’s easy: just use a material, a product, or a device that is not approved by the OMRI guidelines (you’ll find the Products and Materials lists here: https://www.omri.org/omri). If you use something in your system that is not OMRI approved, such as a construction material, a liner material, a fertilizer, a pesticide, or a chemical additive, for example, the certifying agency does not have to certify you no matter how much you argue in favor of it. Once you’ve incorporated this device or used this material or product in your system, you are already on the wrong side of the fence.

Even if you now do whatever the certification agency says you have to do to be certified, and make the necessary changes in your systems and methods, it doesn’t automatically jump you to the right side of the fence. The agency may still require you to go through up to a two-year “transition period” before your farm can be certified. During this transition period, you must operate your farm with only approved materials, products, and devices, yet during this two years, you are prohibited from claiming your produce is “organic”, and you can’t get organic prices for it. And saying your crops are “transitional organic” will get you the same legal penalties that claiming “organic” without certification will; you simply can’t use the word until you are certified.

Trying To “Trick” The Organic Certification Authorities:

To the best of our knowledge, the only aquaponics systems in the world that are currently USDA Organically Certifiable are our deepwater raft system designs using our operating protocols. Also to the best of our knowledge, there are no certified media-based systems, aeroponics systems, flood-and-drain systems, vertical systems, or NFT systems. If one exists that we don’t know about, please inform us, with the name of the farm and their certifying agency.

This is important, because a claim of certification that omits the name of the certifying agency is a worthless, meaningless claim. We know of at least two farms whose soil-grown product is certified, but whose aquaponic produce is not. These two still claim (in violation of Federal law) that their aquaponic produce is also organic. How did we find out? We simply asked their certifying agencies. There are also farms that use “Organic” as part of the farm’s name, even though they are not certified. One of these has received a “cease and desist” order from the NOP to stop using the word organic, and may be facing fines and other penalties as well.

Colorful heirloom tomatoes from an aquaponics farm with organic certification are worth almost twice as much (yes, these are orange and green when they’re ripe!).Gorgeous tomatoes from an aquaponics farm with organic certification are worth almost twice as much.

Design Your Own (We Did)

Making a hasty decision when setting up your farm, or designing your own aquaponic system and hoping it will be certifiable can cost you two years of organic certification, and up to half your potential income for those two years. This is why knowing about organic certification before beginning a commercial aquaponics venture, and investing in systems and methods you know are certifiable is so important.

If you are sure your design is the way to go, then all you have to do is convince the certification agencies that it is certifiable. The questions to ask yourself then are: “How much is organic certification worth to my operation as compared to my proprietary design?”, and “How long will it take, and how much will it cost me, to convince a certification agency that my aquaponics systems are certifiable?”, and finally “Am I certain they will certify me?”.

We tried to help a well-known “organic” aquaponics farm in a big city get certified once; they had been “trying” to get certified for almost a year at that time. We even told them we wouldn’t charge anything for the help. When we asked how their systems were set up so we could suggest changes as necessary to meet the certification requirements, we were told “We need to certify the systems exactly as they are; we can’t change anything”. Knowing how the certification agencies work, we said “good luck”, and went our own way. In the face of this attitude, we couldn’t do anything to help. Two years after our offer, they still weren’t certified organic, and a year after that they went bankrupt. Who knows what double the price for their produce would have done for that situation?

Who Teaches Certification For Aquaponics Systems?

We are your best choice to teach you how to get your aquaponics system certified. We’ve been certified since August 2008. Currently, approximately 30 of our students have gotten organic certification. To the best of our knowledge, no one but we and our students have certified aquaponic systems. If you know someone with an aquaponics system that is USDA certified organic, and we’re not aware of it, we apologize, and would like very much to be corrected; with the name and contact information for the farm, and the certifying agency that certified their aquaponics system (not their farm, it’s not the same thing!).

Our courses, our DIY materials, our website, and our USDA Organically Certified aquaponics systems are designed to remove as many of the barriers as possible between you and your success in commercial aquaponics.

I hope this has helped you understand what the word organic means when applied to aquaponics systems, produce and our food.

Aloha, Tim and Susanne