Sweet Water Organics – not really organic

Back in March and April, I wrote two entries about Sweet Water Organics (SWO) questioning how many jobs SWO has really created since receiving a $250,000 forgivable loan from the City of Milwaukee and questioning whether Sweet Water Organics was really organic according to USDA standards.

At the time I questioned whether SWO was certified by the USDA, but an email exchange yesterday with Todd Leech, the VP/Sales Manager of SWO, confirmed that Sweet Water Organics really isn’t USDA-certified organic. Here’s what Leech had to say in response to my inquiry:

No, Jesse [Hull] lost all the paperwork I gave him in the first place. We are currently working with Oregon Tilth at the recommendation of my friends at MOSA and our sprouts will be certified soon and the rest to follow. If you’ve ever worked at a farm in this country you’d understand the politics of the USDA who’s more in line with Monsanto than farmers or producers. The only reason that I’m going forward with organic certification is because it means more to people like you than understanding real local agricultural systems. The organic mess that the USDA certification has created makes it more profitable for Chilean farmers to ship to China then to Canada before import to the U.S. and still be cheaper than farmers from East Troy, Boscobel, Viroqua or Milwaukee who can’t compete, ergo people like you and companies like Wal-Mart propagate this system.

Asked if he had any response to Todd Leech’s accusation that he lost “all the paperwork” pertaining to USDA organic certification, Jesse Hull emailed me noting, “I did not “lose all the paperwork” that Todd gave me. It was left in the filing cabinet just as all the other documents and property of SWO was.”

It’s worth noting that even if Todd Leech’s version of things is to be believed, it’s taken just about a year for Leech to re-file the paperwork, paperwork that from what I can tell is readily available, begging the question why the folks at SWO seem to be dragging their feet when it comes to seeking official “organic” certification.

While there seems to be some dispute about why SWO is still not a USDA-certified organic operation four years after it came into being, the misuse of the label “organic” on food packaging and by companies seeking to capitalize on the reputation of all things “organic” is a more common practice than one would think, according to the Cornucopia Institute’s blog.

“Companies are getting away with using the word ‘organic’ in their company name, listed prominently on food packages, even if the product they’re selling isn’t certified organic,” explains Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst with The Cornucopia Institute. “These companies are taking advantage of the good name and reputation of organics, without going the extra mile to actually source all organic ingredients in their products.”

Considering the fact that Todd Leech of Sweet Water Organics has confirmed via email that SWO is not actually certified organic by the USDA, it would seem that SWO fits into the category of companies that are “taking advantage of the good name and reputation of organics” without going the extra mile to actually be organic.


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8 thoughts on “Sweet Water Organics – not really organic

  1. In there defense, being certified organic by the USDA is just shuffling paperwork and there are a lot of farms that go beyond the requirements and cannot get certified. I would not look to much into this.

  2. Speaking as a former employee, it’s more the principles behind the decision making that bothers me more than the individual decisions. The attitude that “hey, we can make good money selling stuff if we call ourselves organic because that’s all the rage now” without even thinking or looking into what would be involved was what I witnessed while there.

    Whatever you think about the organic certification process (and I fully admit that there are flaws and problems with it), it can’t be denied that organically certified produce sells for a premium price above conventional. For most farmers it’s a simple business decision – if I pay this much to get certified and to grow organically, can I make enough money to justify the investment. But the leaders at Sweet Water never liked actually dealing with numbers or planning much.

    Another former staff member who was in charge of going to farmer’s markets was frequently approached by other farmers who actually had jumped through all the hoops to get their produce certified organic who asked her how they thought they could get away with calling themselves organic. She was told to respond that they had begun the process of certification despite that not being true – and this was two years ago.

    Around the same time, I came across the Cornucopia Institute piece quoted in the post above and brought it quickly to the attention of the owners of Sweet Water Organics. I suggested that we consider shifting our packaging to say Sweet Water Aquaponics or Sweet Water Urban Farm instead of Sweet Water Organics to sidestep the issue. All of these suggestions were shot down without consideration or even a full conversation.

    I don’t know of any farms that ‘go beyond the requirements’ and cannot get certified, John. I do know of several that go beyond the requirements and simply choose not to be certified because they don’t feel that it is worth the expense or the hassle, or disagree with the process. I respect those decisions.

    On the other hand, I don’t respect those who choose to ignore a problem in order to take advantage of the goodwill of the community.

  3. John, concerning your take on the USDA and organic certification, I totally agree that the system is screwed up. But there’s a reason why companies who aren’t certified organic aren’t allowed to call themselves “________ Organics” (could I build and sell a “100% electric car” that runs on gasoline?).

    It’s just as misleading as going before the city council and requesting a $250,000 forgivable tax funded loan, saying that you only have four employees when half your staff just walked out being owed back wages (info verifiable by City Council video and city documents).
    The organic issue isn’t the end all be all of this… no, it’s just the next thing on what’s becoming a very large pile of legitimate and unanswered questions and concerns regarding Sweet Water ________.

  4. This is what happens, more often than not now, when people don’t want to pay for adequate government. NO NEW TAXES! NO NEW TAXES! >:-0

  5. Exactly Cat Kin! Government is not a bad word! It’s what protects average citizens from people like the owners of SWO who CHOOSE to not play by the rules and represent themselves as something they are not. This whole enterprise began, I believe, with good intentions. Once they got into it, the owners recognized that they didn’t have the knowledge or expertise to run an urban farm, so they did the logical thing and hired the best people they could find to help them get SWO off the ground. This seems to be where the good judgement of the owners ended.

    These employees, experts in this field, poured their hearts and souls into trying to make SWO a shining example of what urban farming should be. Keep in mind that these people and the many volunteers who gave incredible amounts of time to Sweet Water, truly believe in urban farming as the future of providing local fresh food! This is the SW that was featured in the Wall Street Journal and the NBC Nightly News. Behind the scenes however, the owners were rejecting the recommendations of these people with the expertise that THEY HAD HIRED to advise them, and instead, were constantly undermining them. The owners were, and probably still are, the biggest impediment to the success of Sweet Water.

    It makes me sick that what could have been a true feather in the cap of Milwaukee has been sullied by a couple of people who were apparently more interested in making a fast buck than actually achieving the vision that they said they were working toward. They’ve hurt the urban farming movement, they’ve undoubtedly made it harder for honest and earnest people who still want to see urban farming succeed in Milwaukee to get the city’s support, and according to Todd Leech’s statement above, they’re still trying to blame the people that they disregarded for their own failures to do the right things to create a successful urban farm.

    I applaud the former employees for having the courage to speak out in order, not to hurt Sweet Water, but to SAVE the urban farming concept which I truly believe is necessary and very achievable for Milwaukee. How can we get behind the people who left SWO and help them make this dream a reality?

  6. To clarify some things…
    The reason SWO’s organic certification application was never submitted was not because we lost the paperwork, but because the former Directors of Horticulture and Compost/Soil Systems at SWO refused to finish, much less sign our names to the organic certification documents after we were asked to “fudge” certain information on it in order to make SWO appear compliant. It was stated to us that “some friends at MOSA” would have let the application slide through despite any incorrect info put down in the documents.

    Understand that not only was it wrong to ask us to do this, but it would have been us, rather than the upper management/owners, who would have had our tails in a sling if the situation went south. Further, as Zach already pointed out, it’s not like the paperwork that Todd claims I/we lost was a ‘one time only printing’. If Todd or anyone else at SWO thought that the forms should have been completed and submitted, then they could have re-printed a copy of the application at that time (a full year ago now), put the info they asked us to on it, signed their names to it, and turned it in at THEIR risk.

  7. SherryS,
    I would not be too sure that the owners of SWO had the best of intentions from the beginning. You may want to review http://bit.ly/Ikg3Cs (a google groups forum) especially the early threads. I and others tried to dissuade them from using the potentially toxic PVC pipe in their infrastructure yet the owners insisted, for their own reasons, on using it. I believe that their modus operandi was in place from the beginning.

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