It’s been a wild week for the folks at Volcano Veggies, an indoor aquaponic farming operation in Bend. Co-founders Jim and Shannon Sbarra won the $10,000 BendBroadband prize at Friday’s Bend Venture Conference as well as a the $1,500 Palo Alto LivePlan Software award.
There’s a lot going on with this 100% organic startup: Plants growing up walls. Happy helper fish. Dreams to expand into other ski towns. And an inspiring back story that will have you craving kale. We recently interviewed co-founder Jim Sbarra to learn more.
Startup spotlight: Volcano Veggies
Started: Dec. 2013
Founders: Jim and Shannon Sbarra
Employees: 3 plus 300 Tilapia
What does Volcano Veggies do? We grow greens, herbs and fish indoors using a technique called aquaponics. We sell our produce through a CSA-style program to individuals and we also just starting providing restaurants and a few grocery stores with our greens. You can find us at Newport Market and C.E. Lovejoys.
So what is aquaponics? It’s a system for producing food that combines aquaculture with hydroponics. However, there’s a couple big differences between what we do and hydroponics. The main one is that we embrace good bacteria and they help us out. Our garden module has the plants growing up top, and there’s Tilapia in the tank below. The fish waste settles on the bottom and we collect it in barrels. Bacteria then helps break down the ammonia into nitrates, and we sprinkle that nitrate-rich water on our plants. We use 98% less water than traditional farming. We use grow lights and some natural light as well. We don’t use any pesticides, and in fact, we can’t even use tap water because it’s bad for the fish. With this system, you’re really getting the best, most purely organic produce out there.
What are you growing? Right now it’s mostly mixed lettuces and some herbs such as basil. We’re getting ready to add strawberries. Eventually we’ll sell the fish too, but we need to get a permit from the city to do that.
What inspired the idea? Shannon and I met in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and while we were living there my mom was diagnosed with cancer. We went to help her. She was really worried about the chemotherapy and the effect it would have on her body. She did a lot of research and discovered a lot of people who were having success in battling disease using nutrition and a plant-based diet. So she changed how she was eating and we did too. She ended up doing just one month of chemo. But we all felt so great while we were eating all these greens that the diet stuck. When we came back to Jackson we realized how hard it was to get greens most of the year, and how far our food had to travel.
Did you have experience farming? I’m actually a designer by trade. In fact, Shannon and I have a marketing/design business called Skyfire Studio. We wanted to make a change because we were burned out from being in front of computers all the time. I began studying aquaponics and learned more about it during some time we spent in Hawaii. The last 18 months have basically been R&D to get our first module up and running.
What was the hardest thing about learning to farm indoors? So far it’s been figuring out the grow lights. A lot of them are made for hobbyists, and we’re trying to take that to an industrial level. We’ve had some great help from a Sisters-based company called Smart Grow Technologies. It’s also stressful when you’re dealing with live inventory: you can kill it or it can go bad. Everything has to be just right.
How have customers responded? It’s been overwhelming. We started as a CSA and now we’re selling to grocery stores and restaurants. Newport Market tripled their order on the spot after selling out of our salad greens the first day. We’d like to do more with restaurants, but we need to be able to produce more. We’re currently harvesting about 60 pounds per week.
How are you funded? We have been self-funded up until recently. We just had two investors sign on, and we’d be open to more.
What’s next? We’d like to build out several more modules. We have one now and with the BVC award we’ve already started on the second. Ultimately we’d like to expand into other ski towns and create modules that other people can buy and use themselves.
Next week in #50startups … We’ll introduce you Agency Revolution, a Bend-based SaaS company that provides marketing automation software for insurance agents and brokers.
You can reach Kelly by email at [email protected].