Aquaponics company launches hyper-local food in Bend
By Mason Walker
New media manager
The Volcano Veggies aquaponics system can grow 1,900 vegetable plants and 450 tilapia in 64 feet of warehouse space. Click through for a few views of the new Bend company.
Like many entrepreneurs, Shannon and Jimmy Sbarra drew the inspiration for their startup, called Volcano Veggies, from a place close to home.
When Jimmy's mother, Pam, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, she turned away from traditional treatment and began drinking smoothies made from leafy greens. A lot of them.
In solidarity, the Sbarras took up the green juice habit and were quickly hooked. The couple had always been avid food growers, and after taking an aquaponics course in Hawaii, they drew up plans for their own fish-and-salad-growing system. The term "Aquaponics" refers to growing plants and fish symbiotically in a closed system.
The Sbarras tested their aquaponics setup in their home for a year before launching their business in Bend.
Bend's harsh climate — hot, arid summers and cold, snowy winters — provides only a small window for traditional agriculture. And with the lush and fertile Willamette Valley nearly 100 miles away, truly local food is often hard to come by.
The Sbarras felt the timing to provide year-round urban agriculture was ripe. They located an abandoned warehouse in downtown Bend and leased 1,600 square feet to begin production of salad greens and tilapia.
Volcano Veggies, which began selling produce this fall, primarily sells products using a direct-to-consumer, subscription-based model. It has begun talks with restaurants and grocery stores, but will need to add additional production capacity before entering retail or wholesale markets.
The Sbarras are seeking outside investment capital to make that happen.
"We've poured our life savings, hearts and souls into this," said Shannon Sbarra.
Volcano Veggies' custom-designed aquaponics module is 8-by-8-feet wide, and includes 1,900 plants growing vertically above the fish tank. The single module is currently producing around 200 pounds of salad greens per month. The 450 tilapia grown in the system won't be mature enough to harvest for at least a year.
The Sbarras envision operating eight of the proprietary modules in their current warehouse space. They're also working to improve produce yields, testing induction lights specially designed by Sisters-based Smart Grow Lamps and natural light systems designed by Vista, Calif.-based Solatube.
While the produce is grown without the use of pesticides, the Sbarras haven't yet invested in the USDA Organic designation.
The Sbarras, who are considering marketing their systems for future sales, are seeking investors and eventually want to hire six workers.
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