Jul 02, 2014
by ROLAND WHITE CBN Feature Writer
The sustainable plant and fish production facility, Volcano Veggies, is the first in Central Oregon to implement aquaponics for year-round food production without chemicals and pesticides.
Jimmy and Shannon Sbarras have started a cutting edge business with environmental sustainability that will potentially keep organic green produce and mercury free fish available for Central Oregon 365 days per year. Ruth Lindley, marketing manager of Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO), says, “They presented at the last PubTalk and created quite a buzz. They are an agriponics company…think vertical farming raising fish and plants in a complete bio cycle.”
The idea is simply brilliant as described by Jimmy and Shannon, “We grow the fish, the plants clean the water for the fish and then we eat both.” The term Aquaponics refers to growing plants and fish symbiotically in a closed system. The practice combines aquaculture, which is raising fish and hydroponics, which is raising plants without soil.
However Volcano Veggies has come up with a unique solution growing the plants vertically which allows them to grow six times more per square foot than traditional farming with the 1,200 gallon fish tank beneath the plants.
Jimmy says,” Being in a warehouse we are growing vertically to maximize the amount of square footage we can grow. The nutrients are in the water and naturally fertilize the plants, and the water drains back into the fish tank and aerates the tank which is good for the fish. We separate the solid waste and only need to add about 20 gallons of water per week because of evaporation. We clean the chlorine from the city water before we add it or it would kill the fish. This vertical growing module is good for the plants and the fish.”
This allows them to recycle the water cleaned by the plants within their closed system with no additives, pesticides, hormones or heavy metals like mercury. The chemical free water is perfect for raising the fish, which can be harvested once a year. Jimmy adds, “The fish provide organic fertilizer for the plants, and the plants grow organically without artificial fertilizer.”
There are additional benefits to growing in this method as Jimmy explains, “There is no toxic runoff to the watershed from over fertilization and the water stays in the system using 90 percent less than normal farming methods. The Aquaponics farm does not require land with fertile soil and can be implemented in areas that can’t be used as traditional farmland. A major benefit is that it is 100 percent naturally organic.”
The Sbarras’s discovered aspects of Aquaponics through a family member’s cancer illness. Crisis can create opportunity and after reading that green plants have built in cancer fighting qualities, they added green smoothies to their family’s diets in addition to traditional cancer treatments and successfully fought off the illness for Jimmy’s mother.
Being avid gardeners, they took an interest in Aquaponics and took a class in Hawaii to learn about it. After an initial introduction they tried it for a year to refine their system before starting Volcano Veggies in late 2013.
After a year of experimentation they developed a custom designed Aquaponics growing module that is only eight by 10 feet that can grow 1,500 or more plants vertically above fish tanks of Tilapia. This currently produces approximately 350 pounds of salad greens per month nearly 4,200 pounds per year and up to 450 fish per tank per year. Currently they are offering produce only while the system is refined with more tanks to be added and growing modules built.
Growing inside eliminates the challenges of the short growing season. Volcano Veggies has partnered with Smartgrow a grow light manufacturer in Sisters that provides them the most energy efficient grow lights available and cuts their energy bills in half. Long term plans are to add solar power and eliminate fossil fuel dependence. Growing locally also reduces the distance food has to travel to get to the table estimated by the USDA at 1,400 miles that a head of lettuce has to travel to get to the consumer.
Volcano Veggies is excited about the future of offering healthier fish for the consumer. Jimmy explains, “There are two main concerns to farming fish: the fish are living in too high of densities and are swimming in their own waste causing disease. Tilapia are vegetarians and naturally live in high densities and are more disease resistant than other fish.
“We make sure to not “over-stock” our tanks with too many fish. We have committed ourselves to only raising our fish in the best environment that is healthy and humane.”
With a short growing season locally the Sbarras’s felt the time was ripe to start a year round agriculturally based business. Shannon says, “We have the simple goal of providing Central Oregon with fresh, environmentally-friendly produce. Currently we grow dark greens, kale, collards, and chard, salad greens, romaine, mixed and butter greens. Coming soon will be spinach, basil, strawberries, tomatoes and Tilapia fish.”
Jimmy remarks, “We have created a system that can grow food consistently all year long in any climate. Think of the possibilities. Fresh produce and fish anywhere in the world all grown right in the heart of towns and cities, right where the people need it the most and at the same time reducing the impact of fossil fuels in growing and transporting the food.”
Location: 1201 NE Second ST Suite B, Bend, Oregon 97701
Owner: Jimmy and Shannon Sbarras
No. Employees: 4
Year Established: 2013
Product/Service: Fresh produce dark greens, kale, collards and chard, salad greens,romaine, mixed, butter greens.
Hot News: Coming soon will be spinach, basil, strawberries, tomatoes and Tilapia fish and working on adding solar energy and fish harvesting production.
Outlook for Growth: Very positive response with new business partners being added, plans in development for the addition of seven new grow modules.