Those of you who are regular readers of Blogging Blue may remember a series of articles I wrote about Sweet Water Organics (SWO), the Bay View-based aquaponic fish and vegetable farm. In those articles, I attempted to draw attention to what I believe to the rather shady circumstances under which SWO received a $250,000 forgivable loan from the City of Milwaukee, with the help of Milwaukee Alderman Tony Zielinski. I questioned whether SWO had the ability to create the number of jobs it pledged to create, given the fact that the company has never once turned a profit during all its years of operation.
In a followup to my original report, I also asked whether Sweet Water Organics was really producing organic produce, and apparently now I have my answer. Last week I came across a letter from Matthew Michael, Director of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) Compliance & Enforcement Division, to Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute. In the letter, Mr. Michael makes it clear that in representing its produce as being organic, Sweet Water Organics had violated USDA organic regulations, and that as a result SWO could no longer package its produce as being organic. Here’s a copy of the letter in question:
In addition to the USDA deciding that SWO’s use of “Organics” in their name misrepresents the produce grown by Sweet Water, the letter states that SWO is seeking organic certification presumably to avoid having to take “Organics” out of it’s name. All products on store shelves are now labeled simply, “Sweet Water,” with no reference to “Organics.”
According to a knowledgeable source, the problem that Sweet Water will (or at least should) have is that the building materials used to construct both the older indoor aquaponic systems and the new outdoor prototype (‘Phase 5′), as well as the seeding plugs Sweet Water uses to produce its aquaponic vegetables may not allow the company to meet organic certification criteria. From my source:
I’m not sure if their sprout production will be affected by this since those are not produced in the aquaponic systems. Todd Leech has stated several times in the past that SWO is seeking organic certification and that they would try to get the sprouts certified first. Sprout production requirs an FDA approved facility, whether organic or not. As I understand it, Sweet Water’s current sprout production area is far from what the FDA would approve, and is therefore illegal. Removing the word “Organics” from the label doesn’t change that.
It’s worth noting that among the infrastructure items included on an itemized list Sweet Water provided to the City of Milwaukee to obtain the $250,000 forgivable loan was the cost of a climate-controlled sprout production room. I’ve been told (though I’ve not been able to verify) that Sweet Water has spent nearly all (or quite possibly all) of the loan money it received from the City of Milwaukee with the itemized infrastructure list not having been fully completed/purchased by Sweet Water. Essentially, the $250,000 forgivable loan helped Sweet Water create a prototype of the much larger system they actually proposed – and little else.
I attempted to reach Todd Leech, the Vice President of Sweet Water, for comment on Sweet Water’s slapdown from the USDA, but as I write this he has not responded to that request.