USDA: Sweet Water “Organics” cannot claim its produce is organic

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:

USDA letter regarding SWO

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.


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4 thoughts on “USDA: Sweet Water “Organics” cannot claim its produce is organic

  1. Great work, way to stay after it.

    Aquaponics, duckaponics, urban agriculture, Permaculture, vertical farms….. are key technologies that will bring desperately needed decentralization and diversification to the food supply.

    Really, really sorry that Sweet Water cannot get it together.

  2. SWO hasn’t got it together because from the outset it appears that they had no intention of providing safe, organic products. The earliest discussions clearly show that they opted for potentially toxic infrastructure materials, i.e. PVC pipe instead of a much safer alternative. The reasons may be complex or as simple as trying to save a little (very little) money. Nevertheless the opportunity and the information were there and they chose not to pursue the responsible course.

    You can read through much of the discussions here:

  3. IMHO, this 28-minute youtube, “A Geodesic Greenhouse — Year-Round Gardening at 6000 Feet” is high quality. If they can do that in the “high desert,” of the “Western Slope,” in Colorado, imagine how much more we can do in Wisconsin? Yields would be down in the winter, but thanks to global warning and green house technologies, folks who want to invest can literally harvest year round.

    We can grow a lot of rice in Wisconsin. I don’t think folks will get rich, but it’s an export crop.

    “Ducks replace paddy-field pesticides: Japanese farmers rediscover ancient rice-growing technique that boosts production without the need for chemicals”

    Duck eggs and meat add to net income. The ducks weed the rice beds as they fertilize.

  4. In looking at the list that SW turned in the to the city to get the $250,000 forgivable loan, the cost of a sprout production room was indeed on it. Sweet Water has bit themselves in the tail again by not spending the money on what they said they would.
    It was hoped that the city would hold SW to that list so that more money wouldn’t be squandered, but with the loan money all or mostly spent, the itemized list is nowhere near complete. As a matter of fact if you go through the list, there’s no sprout production room, no “8 tons per month” of increased compost production, and the outdoor project that was to include “7 specialized greenhouses” (greenhouses already on site at SW well prior to the loan) currently include a fish house and just one of the smaller greenhouses. As for the already forgiven portion of the loan, where are the $10-25/hr jobs that Tony Zielinski touted to the city council when getting this money for SW?
    It’s so tragic that it’s hard to even stay angry anymore.
    A nearly half million dollar investment that for whatever reason didn’t pay for the original outdoor expansion plan it was intended for in 2010, employees told to work for weeks/months without pay just to have them find out later that not only were the expansion materials not paid for but SW was horribly in debt as well, a $100,000 investment that didn’t pay for the water filtration systems it was meant to, and now $250,000 of taxpayer money that, once again, wasn’t used for what it was supposed to.

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