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. It’s no different than deducting the costs of 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 some 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 my friend Sylvia Bernstein and I 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?