USDA Organic Certification For Your Aquaponic Farm:
We often hear: why bother? Doesn’t it cost money? Here’s some REALLY good reasons to do it:
Consumers are willing to pay 50-90% more for organically certified produce than conventionally grown produce; this means wholesalers are often paying twice as much for organically certified produce as for conventional produce. If you farmed for a living, wouldn’t you be willing to do something simple and easy that brought you 50-100% more income? In addition, as the farmer, you and your workers do not have to suffer from exposure to toxic chemicals on the job.
(Below) It’s quite simply worth MORE! Some organic watercress with incredible shelf life and awesome flavor that the chefs and cooks go wild over.
The market is increasingly demanding organic produce. Chemical fertilizers are becoming more expensive. As they do, organic becomes not only a cleaner way to farm, but less costly compared to conventional. At some point, consumers will switch to organic because the price difference is minimal and the benefits are so clear. Having this certification on your products will increase sales.
In addition, even at a small scale, organic certification makes financial sense: Even if you are only selling $10,000 worth of conventionally-farmed produce per year to a wholesaler, that becomes $15-20,000 worth with just the addition of Organic Certification, but no more work on your part. If you subtract the $1,000 per year or so that Organic Certification costs, you still made $4-9,000 more that year. It’s a no-brainer! At any scale larger than this, it is essential to the viability of any aquaponic business plan!
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 on 5-14-2012 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 have a small commercial aquaponics farm grossing, let’s say $20,000 per year selling non-certified produce, then you will make an additional $20,000 or so gross income from growing the exact same amount of certified produce! It’s a no-brainer decision to spend the $1,200 or so per year certification cost when it brings in an extra 20 grand per year gross income.
Defining “Organic” Precisely And Accurately:
“Organic” is a word that the US Government owns. 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 certification, and sell up to $5,000 worth per year without risking any penalty. However, you’re playing with fire if you 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 an $11,000 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. It has nothing whatsoever to do with what you may think organic is, the same way you can’t exceed the speed limit just because you want to. There are consequences to violating any law.
We thought the $5,000 per year wasn’t necessarily a hard and fast rule until a student commented on it at one of our Commercial Aquaponics and Solar Greenhouse Trainings: he had been selling produce at a Sacramento, California Farmer’s Market. A USDA certification compliance inspector came up and “flashed the badge” and required him to show his sales records for the year to date. Fortunately, he was right at $4,840 for the year at the end of that day! We now know they audit; we don’t know how often or where. It’s an $11,000 fine for each “occurrence”, which means if you have ten bags of lettuce labeled “organic” on your table, and you’re over the $5,000 mark for that year, you could have yourself a $110,000 fine! Do the smart and lawful thing!
Get USDA Organically 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 a 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 a 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).
Although any organic certification agency can theoretically certify you, 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)). We recently heard (late 2016) that Oregon Tilth is now certifying systems while under construction if they can clearly see they use our designs (see next paragraph also). What a bonus! Why is that valuable? You’ve got to know your certifying agency before you can get any of your packaging or boxes printed; and this gives you a head start instead of having to sell lower-value produce without the organic label.
As a bonus, 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 publishes two free manuals (well, they used to be free!): one lists all the materials approved and restricted under the NOP; the other lists all the devices approved and restricted under the NOP. What are materials and devices? A material is something 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 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.
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!
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