August 22, 2017
I drove slowly along the country road in mountainous Boonsboro, Maryland, looking for a large greenhouse facility, which is typically the marker of a commercial aquaponics farm, where fish and plants are grown together in a re-circulating water system. Instead, all I found was a small sign for “South Mountain MicroFARM” posted next to a gravel driveway in front of a modest home. I turned into the driveway, headed down the hill, and was met by a smiling Levi Sellers, operator of South Mountain MicroFARM. Levi led me farther down the hill, past their family’s Christmas tree farm, to the impressive new barn and greenhouse structure that houses their recently established aquaponics operation.
I was invited to Sellers’ operation to complete a peer-review inspection for their application to the Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) program. CNG is a certification based on the same standards as the USDA National Organic Program, but it’s designed for small farms, since it is less costly and burdensome to attain. The certification relies on peer reviews by fellow farmers to inspect the farm’s adherence to organic growing practices, and a small farm will only pay a small administrative fee, about $150, compared to thousands of dollars for certification through USDA’s National Organic Program. For South Mountain MicroFARM’s customers, which consist of the local school district, a restaurant, a food co-op, and people who visit their stands at two farmers markets, the farm’s CNG designation will serve as a validation of their commitment to growing its food without use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or GMOs.
As we entered the greenhouse structure, Levi and I stepped in a pool of disinfectant and washed our hands – steps to control the introduction of any potential pathogens into the food production facility. Although it was a warm day – about 80 degrees– the greenhouse was cool. Its hillside design takes advantage of a prevailing west wind that lifts warm air out of a top vent in the structure, and a shade cloth, controlled by a thermostat, unfurls to prevent direct sunlight from heating up the building. He then showed me the fish tanks, where hundreds of tilapia are raised in large circular tanks, and the filters, where the fish effluent is filtered and converted to plant fertilizer. The main crop at South Mountain MicroFARM is lettuce, and the grow beds were full of lettuce plants of all ages, from young and small to mature and ready to harvest.
I was especially impressed by the enormous dinosaur kale plants, which looked like they could be growing in the Jurassic Period. These kale plants were growing in a flood-and-drain grow bed system, which traps and mineralizes solid waste from the fish, then converts it to fertilizer for crops such as kale, tomatoes, and cucumbers. I also learned a new method of tomato and cucumber cultivation from Levi, which allows the greenhouse farmer to train the plant along one vine, while keeping the fruit of the plant at eye-level, and coiling excess vines at the base of the plant.
After the farm tour was complete, we dove into the nuts and bolts of the farm operation, checking to see whether the farm was compliant with CNG standards. There was much to cover, including materials used, water source, water quality, seeds, pest management, fish health, fish feed, energy use, and potential environmental contaminants. Perhaps the most interesting part of the CNG inspection is its requirement that farmers set sustainability goals along with their peer reviewer. Together, Levi and I decided to focus his goals on establishing renewable energy sources, conserving energy by properly insulating his building, and increasing his production efficiency and total output by using empty spaces within the greenhouse.
By the end of my visit, I was thoroughly impressed by the Levi and his family’s commitment to organic practices and to sustainability, and I recommended South Mountain MicroFARM for CNG designation. The recommendation was approved quickly, and in less than one month their farm was approved to use the CNG logo for all of their marketing purposes. I appreciated my experience as a peer reviewer, since it helped facilitate the sharing of best practices between me and Levi, both aquaponics farmers. The certification also seems to be a less expensive and more practical option than USDA’s National Organic Program for a small producer like South Mountain MicroFARM. Given the close relationships that Levi and his family maintain with their customers, I don’t feel the CNG approval is critical to their sales value but instead reinforces the message they are sending to their customers – that their food is grown locally and naturally. As a fellow aquaponics farmer, I wish the Sellers the best of luck in their ongoing venture.