We live in a desert. And although water shortages are not always top of mind, the fact is that Central Oregon faces extreme drought conditions and our environment is suffering. The lack of water is on top of already difficult growing conditions that farmers struggle with here in the high desert: poor soil, cold winters, hot summers, pests, predators, etc.
These are some of the reasons why Jimmy and Shannon Sbarra decided to start Volcano Veggies — a certified organic, indoor, vertical aquaponic farm right in the heart of Bend. Their farm is on the cutting edge of urban agricultural. Their technology will help propel our society toward a future where farms must be able to grow food for a growing population despite a shrinking water supply. By growing with a closed-loop aquaponic system, Volcano Veggies uses 99 percent less water than an a typical outdoor farm.
Their method of growing — Aquaponics — is a system that combines raising fish and growing vegetables. In the system, fish provide nutrients for the plants, and plants clean the water for the fish. Volcano Veggies raises several different kinds of fish — Tilapia, Bass, Trout and more. In creating a complete ecosystem, Volcano Veggies is able to grow the highest quality, certified organic food indoors. Most typical hydroponic farms, on the other hand, use synthetic nutrient solutions and grow in a sterile environment (so beware of local-washing from farms that claims to be “better than organic” just because they are local!).
Volcano Veggies grows two acres worth of food in just 200 square feet in a warehouse on 2nd Street, next to the Humm Kombucha tasting room. The system requires significantly less labor and produces a consistent supply of lettuce and basil every week of the year. Growing indoors, they use extremely efficient LED lighting that mimics the UV spectrum produced by the sun. “These state of the art LEDs keep our electricity use to a minimum. We actually use about the same amount of electricity as a similarly sized greenhouse operation,” Jimmy explains.
Most importantly, their veggies taste amazingly delicious. This is why thousands of people in Central Oregon choose to buy Volcano Veggies lettuce and basil at the grocery store each week. “We are bringing the farmers market to Fred Meyer,” explains Shannon. “Our customers appreciate the convenience of being able to purchase locally grown food during their regular grocery shopping each week. And not just Fred Meyer — we also sell at Newport Market, Whole Foods, Safeway, Market of Choice, CE Lovejoys, Food 4 Less, Melvin’s in Sisters and Fred Meyer in Redmond too. Customers love how our lettuce tastes sweet and crisp. They love that our containers are compostable and made from corn. And they love that our veggies last significantly longer in your fridge because they are harvested and brought to the store on the same day.”
This is important. According to the USDA, an average head of lettuce is three weeks old and has traveled 1,200 miles by the time it gets from the farm to a grocery store. And according to the FDA, vegetables lose about 40 percent of nutrients only four days after being harvested. So eating freshly harvested, local food helps you get the most nutrition from what you eat.
“Our kitchen is stocked full of food grown here in Central Oregon. Our local farmers grow just about everything you need! Right now we have carrots and peppers from Boundless Farmstead, honey and pork from Rainshadow Organics and beef from Mt. Shasta Wild,” Shannon says. “It’s easier than you think to buy local food. Those are just some of the amazing farms in the high desert. You can even stop by the Fields farmstand on Pettigrew to pick up some fresh veggies at your convenience.”
Jimmy says, “Helping our community to become more healthy is the most important reason that we started Volcano Veggies.” This inspiration to start a farm occurred when Jimmy’s mother had cancer (she is fine now!). His mother was nervous about chemo and radiation and in researching alternatives, they found study after study touting the benefits of eating more vegetables. “It’s one of the only things that every doctor can agree on,” Shannon contends. “We all need to eat more vegetables!”
“When my mom was sick, I made the commitment to change my diet. But living in a place with a short growing season, it was hard to find fresh vegetables during the winter. So I learned how to grow my own food. And when we learned about aquaponics, Shannon and I decided to start a commercial farm in order to help our whole community have access to freshly harvested organic vegetables all year long,” Jimmy explained.
They signed the lease to start their farm while Shannon was still in the hospital after having their first child in 2013. “When we had our son, we wanted to provide him with an example for making the world a better place.” Now, their son is in kindergarten and their two-year-old daughter “helps” at the farm while they tend to the veggies and fish.
Although it’s been a wild roller coaster to start a business while also starting their family, they say that the reward comes in almost every day when customers call or email to tell them how much they love Volcano Veggies. “We hear from families whose children will only eat lettuce if it is Volcano Veggies lettuce. It’s amazing to know that we are helping those children to develop healthy habits. And we get lots of feedback from adults too! I get calls from wives who are happy that their husbands will finally eat salad, and older adults who say it reminds them of the way that lettuce used to taste.
“What’s sad,” Shannon continues, “is that our society has gotten so used to industrial agriculture and vegetables that are grown far away. I think a lot of people actually don’t know that vegetables can taste so good!”
Although they don’t offer tours to the general public, they often host groups of school kids to learn about the science of aquaponics. They also helped Pilot Butte Middle School start an aquaponics club.
“Aquaponics is pretty exciting — it can be used to teach about everything from the nitrogen cycle to the microbiome to environmental sustainability and healthy food,” Jimmy explains. “But a couple words of warning to anyone who wants to start their own aquaponic system — don’t believe anything you read online! And get ready to spend
a lot of money.” All joking aside — if you want to learn more, feel free to contact Volcano Veggies with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
photo by Jill Rosell Photography