Baystate Organic, a Certifier of Organic Hydroponics

Don Franczyk

photo by Jack Kittredge
Don Franczyk, Baystate Organic administrator, at home where he works

Many of our readers are too young to remember this, but the National Organic Program came into effect only 15 years ago, in 2002. Before that a network of dozens of public, private, and non-profit organizations served to certify organic farms. Each certified to its own rules and its own standards — although 95% of these were the same, many memorable arguments took place about the 5% or fewer that diverged.

In the Northeast most NOFA chapters and MOFGA set up their own state certification programs, with the exceptions of New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New Jersey, where the state departments of agriculture played that role. This author served on the NOFA/Mass Certification Program for over a decade in the 1980s and 1990s and well remembers the long night meetings and arcane debates about Chilean nitrate, agronomic responsibility, and how much manure free range chickens can deposit in a pasture before it stops being a pasture (200 lbs of elemental N per acre per year, we decided, thanks to Bob Parnes’ incredible reference book on fertility sources!)

When the federal National Organic Program became law in the fall of 2002 (it took twelve years after Congressional 1990 passage of the Organic Foods Production Act for the USDA to come up with acceptable regulations) we all had to decide what to do with our certification programs. Most public state programs continued, although a few shut down eventually. Many private and non-profit outfits (like MOFGA and NOFA in Vermont and NY) became accredited certifiers under the NOP. Some ceased operation or, like NOFA/Mass, spun off their certification committee as a fully independent entity to go on to become NOP-accredited.

That is how Massachusetts Independent Certification, Inc. was born. It continued to operate under the licensed name “NOFA/Mass Certification Committee” for a transitional year or two, but finally became the current “Baystate Organic Certifiers”, headed by administrator Don Franczyk.

“I don’t have any background in agriculture,” Don confesses. “I was born in Chicago. I grew up there and when I was 13 my family moved to Massachusetts. I worked in high tech up until the nineties, but then I started thinking I needed a change. I started looking into farming. My dad had a garden when we were kids. I always hated what he sprayed in it – Sevin – I hated that smell. So organic gardening made sense. I went to NOFA meetings and did a lot of reading, and in 1998 my wife Karen and I bought a farm in Winchendon, Massachusetts.”

Karen was against the idea of farming at first, Don says. She thought he was having an early mid-life crisis. But he talked her into it over time.

“She didn’t mind doing something different,” he explains. “She has done other things that are different – having our kids at home, or extended breast feeding. She was just concerned about uprooting our whole family.”

They started out trying to market with a CSA, but couldn’t get to the level of participation they needed to support the venture. Karen’s sister worked at Whole Foods, however, so they started selling wholesale there, specializing in tomatoes.

About this time Karen joined the NOFA/Mass board. Don went to a couple of meetings, but couldn’t stand them. He wanted to do something to help out, however, and joined the Certification Committee when Ed McGlew was the administrator.

“Ed tried to talk me out of joining,” Don recalls, “but I did anyway. That was probably in 1999 or 2000, so it was still the NOFA/Mass Certification Committee. The federal program had put out draft regulations, but was still getting comments back and hadn’t started the national program yet – all us small groups were still certifying to our own standards.”

Don was on the Certification Committee when Ed resigned. Kelly Phelen, Ed’s assistant, ran the program for a year but didn’t want to do it full time so the program was going to end if they didn’t find another person to run it.

“Judy Gillan talked me into doing the program,” sighs Don. “I needed some income to supplement the farm income, and didn’t want to go back into high tech, so I took the job. It was a part time job for a long time.”

At about that time the final NOP regulations were promulgated and the patchwork of certifiers around the country had to conform to the national rule. At a long board meeting NOFA/Mass debated forming an LLC to run the program and maintain the certification revenue, but finally opted for a clean separation between the quasijudicial certification work and the education and advocacy role of the chapter.

“I think splitting the advocacy and regulatory work was great,” Don asserts. “It was a wise decision for NOFA/Mass to let us go and be somebody else. We have certain tasks and a function to do and that is our life. It allows us to make decisions strictly on our role as a certifying agent, based on the standards and not influenced by anything else.”
Originally Baystate Organic was only a Massachusetts agency, didn’t certify in other states, and didn’t certify processors. But in 2003 they added in processing and working in other states. Connecticut NOFA had a certification program but decided to close it down and the state was supposed to take it over. But once the state found out how much regulation was involved they bowed out as well. So in 2003 Baystate started working in Connecticut as well as Massachusetts.

“Over time we’ve added operations in a number of areas.” Don says. “We have about 450 certified operations now. Probably 300 are in Massachusetts and Connecticut, with the rest spread over the other states. We have a core full time staff of seven — three administrators who work with me, and three full time specialists. Then we have a number of part time inspectors. Overall the staff is 7 full time people, 2 part time file clerks, and 5 or 6 part time inspectors. The inspectors can work for other agencies besides us. All of us full time people work out of our homes. But the files are taking over my house and we’re getting an office next year!”

Baystate certification is a 4-step process. When an application comes in, it must be checked in for completeness. Then it goes out for initial review for compliance with the standards – which involves communicating back and forth with the client. Then it goes out for an inspection. Then it comes back to Don or to another trained administrator for final review. At that point a certification decision is made, which can be certification, renewal, or rejection for non-compliance.

“The board does not do any of this work,” Franczyk explains. “It serves to set corporate goals, run the corporate paperwork, etc. For a while we had a volunteer certification committee, but we got rid of that because you have to know so much specialized knowledge that it was too much for volunteers.”

Baystate’s biggest vegetable farm is about 200 acres, but except for that and one or two others above 150 acres, most of their crop farms tend to be well under 50 acres, with many under 10 acres. Their mix of fully organic farms versus organic/conventional ones is about 50 – 50. Quite a few certify their crops but not their livestock because organic grain is expensive, even non-GMO grain is high, and many can sell animal products as grassfed or local and people will buy them. But Don thinks that there is a tremendous market for organic meat and eggs – we don’t produce anywhere enough in the Northeast.

The organization is interested in slowly expanding and has been going to trade shows and reaching out to encourage farmers to get certified.

“We find it very helpful to let farmers know how the system works,” says Franczyk, “and that they have the option to pick a certification group that fits them. Certification is kind of a captive market and if people think they have to go to a particular agency it makes it more captive. We feel there should be alternatives. We are willing to grow but don’t have a set number. We think there is a good opportunity out there for a group like us – people are paying too much and not getting good service. Our selling point is that we are affordable. We keep our fees very low. We have excellent customer service and we are inclusive. We won’t turn away anyone, even small farms. Our mission is to make sure that certification is available to anyone who wants it.”

Baystate tries to balance out small and larger farms, losing money on the small ones, but making it on the larger ones and processing operations that are in no way large, but are large compared to the other farms. They balance each other out so the group can afford to stay in business.

“We are right at the bottom of the rate scale,” Don asserts. “We can’t compete with a state agency because they are subsidized. If you go to the Rhode Island DEM you are going to get a better fee than here. But we are the low end for private certifiers, and dramatically lower than some. Our goal is that when we certify a small farm we want to make it affordable. Of course we have to send a trained person to inspect, but if we certify a small farm we are incurring a small risk of fraud or anything else that would come back on us. The larger the operation, the more risk there is going to be.

“We are comparable to NOFA-NY or MOFGA,” Franczyk continues. “Sometimes our category fee is lower, sometimes higher. But basically it is the same. But it is all based on gross sales and then there is a cap at $10,000,000. But every certification agency is different. Some have all sorts of ancillary fees, for instance. Some charge extra for the inspection, which we don’t do unless it is outside our core area, say in the West. The only extra fees we have are for exports, and one for new operations when they show up.”

Baystate is part of an accredited certifiers organization so they can talk to other agencies and research troubling issues apart from the USDA. They try to make an independent decision, but be sure they are reflecting what others in the industry know, too, to avoid certifier shopping, where growers will go from one of certifier to another, trying to get an opinion they want. That was a prevalent pre-NOP practice.

Baystate has looked at social justice certification as a new program, but feels that so far there hasn’t been much demand for it.

“It has to be something that people will pay for,” Don stresses, “because we can’t run it for free. We’ve talked about it but so far not gotten involved. There are some programs like that on the processing side already, like Fair Trade coffee, so people are not going to join two.”

Running a certification program for a government is a somewhat schizophrenic task, to listen to Franczyk explain it. For some things the rules are clear and you have quasi-governmental power of enforcement.

“There is, for example, the whole misunderstanding that you can grow crops and sell them as organic without being certified,” he relates. “That is not the case. You can make whatever claims you want privately, but if you represent the product as organic when you sell it and you are over $5000 gross per year, you have to be certified. People don’t understand that and will get fined if they do it.”

Most crop standards are also clear and unambiguous, Don feels. Other areas, however, are a lot grayer.

“Honey is a good example,” he says. “You can certify it, and many European countries do, but there are no standards here for it, only ‘guidances’. So different certifiers treat them differently. Honey is like mushrooms or hydroponics in that each agency has more leeway since there are no official standards. Honey goes into the livestock standards, sort of. But you have to figure out a whole lot of it yourself. Mushrooms go into the crop standards, sort of. But again you have to figure out a whole lot of it yourself, along with anything to do with sprouts and microgreens. As long as you root your decisions in one or more guidances you will probably sustain yourself if questioned by the NOP.”

On hydroponics, Don feels the certification decision really depends on the details of the operation.

“The NOP allows hydroponic certification,” he states flatly. “They made this decree a long time ago. There is a statement that hydroponics are allowed so long as they are consistent with the Organic Foods Production Act. So if they fit with the OFPA, they can be certified.

“But what does it mean,” he asks, “to be consistent with the OFPA? You can’t have synthetic nutrients or anything that is a contaminant in hydroponics. You can’t have the crop contact any prohibited substance. No synthetic micronutrients unless allowed by the standards, no fertilizers at all (that is where the problem comes for most hydroponic growers – they want to use synthetic fertility.)

“But you could try compost tea,” he concludes, “although I think that would be difficult. But it is really a lot up to us, the certifiers. There are no specific standards like there are for dairy farms, for instance. As a former farmer I would say that, yes, there are different levels of farming and some do a better job by feeding the soil and using it to feed the crops. But the way the standards work, there is no judging better or worse. There is just allowed and not allowed.”

Baystate currently certifies three hydroponic operations, according to Franczyk. They get 50 to 75 calls inquiring about hydroponic certification over the course of a year, but almost all of them never send in an application or call them back. He feels that is because they can’t get a system that meets the requirements of the standards. It is very difficult to do. In conventional hydroponics you can purchase a nutrient mix, primarily from synthetic chemicals. But this doesn’t work for organic. You have to devise your own nutrient sources – there is nothing commercially available you can purchase.

“I have heard complaints,” sighs Don, “that there are a lot of people out there getting hydroponic operations certified organic. We’re not seeing that. I don’t know what the industry numbers are, and possibly there are other agencies that are certifying a lot, but Baystate has 3 out of 450. That is not a lot.

“There is a huge movement toward urban agriculture and aeroponics,” he continues. “People who have unused buildings like warehouses in urban areas are interested in that. But we’ve never been able to get an aeroponic operation even remotely close to certification. They use towers and I’m not really sure how they function, but they still have the problems of getting nutrients organically.

“I think what people don’t like about the allowance for hydroponics,” he concludes, “is that you are recreating soil. We have this wonderful soil already, but instead of improving that and growing crops there we are looking at a system that replaces that — so we have more control. But it requires replacing everything. All the nutrients that were available in soil have to be replaced inside. Some people like the controlled environment because they can produce in it year round. They are in control, they can tie in other things, like aquaponics. But it is not easy to do that organically.”

When you add in aquaponics, of course, you are raising fish in a controlled environment too. You have to tinker with the water and add substances so that you are sure the water remains a proper environment for the fish. But what you are adding in most cases is not natural substances. That causes problems because that water then can’t be used in the system to grow the hydroponic plants.

Baystate doesn’t certify any aquaponic operations. Every one that has come to them has been turned down because of some problem regarding inputs — either for the fish or down the line for the crops. In any case, the fish can’t be certified fish anyway, no matter how organically they are raised. The Fish and Wildlife Service control federal rules about fish, not the USDA. Baystate can certify systems which use the runoff from aquaponics, but not the aquaponic system itself.

“Feed the soil, not the crop” is an old argument in organics. But, says Franczyk, you can go down into California or Florida or Mexico where these big industrial vegetable operations are growing in what looks like sand and wonder – are they really feeding the soil when they are growing that much organic crop? Or are they doing a liquid nutrient based crop production system, but just in a ‘soil’ matrix?

Other crops can be certified although grown in a soilless system, points out Don. If you go to a high volume mushroom facility, it looks nothing like a farm. Mushrooms can use lots of things for substrates that aren’t soil. Also, a microgreen is pretty much a sprouted plant. It’s a little larger than a sprout, but not much. It is at an age when it doesn’t need much nutrition and is still working off whatever was supporting it in the original seed.

“To us,” reasons Franczyk, “hydroponic is like every other soilless system that is allowed. Mushroom production, sprout production, container growing in greenhouses, many microgreens – they don’t involve soil either. Soilless is not defined by the NOP. It is a vague area. This is one of the things that was talked about years ago – we were going to get supplementary rule making to guide us. It never happened.

“The National Organic Standards Board creates guidance,” he continues, “but their real job is to evaluate materials and maintain the National List. When they do offer guidance, those documents have to be put into federal rulemaking. That is where this breaks down. We were originally going to have different rules for hydroponics and mushrooms, maybe. But none of that ever happened. So it has been left up to the certification agencies to determine what is certified.”

Not all certifiers agree whether mushrooms are even livestock or crops, much less require soil in the mix. MOFGA thinks of mushrooms as livestock because of where fungi fit into the tree of life. Baystate understands that argument, but puts them in crop production.

“How about compost or potting soil,” suggests Don. “I would say true compost is not soil. Nor is potting soil. But people grow in it and mix it with peat and vermiculite and other things. Is that organic? With hydroponic, people get upset because there is sometimes nothing even like soil. You can use nutrient film technique where there is no media at all. Or often they will use coconut coir to anchor the roots. Same with some of these other container growing systems — they all use substrates that aren’t soil.

I asked Franczyk how he felt about hydroponic producers in other countries, where such operations may not even qualify for domestic organic certification, getting certified to NOP standards by USDA accredited agencies and then importing that ‘organic’ product into the US to the detriment of US soil-based producers.

“That is the way it works in many Third World countries,” he admits. “If you want to market your product in the EU or the US, you get certified to the standards of the place you are marketing. It is also true that many other countries don’t allow organic hydroponics. So we are the outlier, organically, because we allow it. I don’t know if the Mexican standards allow it, but the Canadian ones don’t. Mexicans, however, do get hydroponic crops certified to the NOP rules and market them here.”

Don feels that a regulation on the horizon that is far more important to the future of organic farming is the pending animal welfare standards. Baystate was an early defender of strict outdoor access for poultry and sued the USDA to defend it, losing to the decision allowing henhouse ‘porches’. It looks now as if porches may be disallowed if the new animal welfare standards are promulgated.

Franczyk feels that if they had some definition on organic hydroponics, one way or the other, it would be great. People could either certify these operations and know that this is going to continue, or not certify them and say it requires some kind of soil. But he is skeptical that will happen, because what really defines soil is hard to pin down.

“One funny thing that is part of the impetus for hydroponics,” smiles Franczyk, “is something that we get calls about all the time, but can’t certify, and that is marijuana. A lot of marijuana is grown hydroponically. And there are people who want to have organic marijuana. But it is on a federal controlled substance list so even though it is legal in Massachusetts, we can’t certify it. Actually, I have heard that the Massachusetts law requires marijuana to be grown organically. But I‘m not sure how they can ascertain that if we can’t certify it!”