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A New Wave 

Volcanic wonders in Central Oregon

Central Oregon isn't known for being well-hydrated. So intrepid farmers have to find creative ways to ensure their crops get enough water and weather extreme changes in temperature. That's why local company Volcano Veggies is embracing aquaponics, a method that builds on hydroponics by growing plants in water that is naturally fertilized by aquatic creatures.

And that tenacity recently won the Bend company a $25,000 Grand Prize in the Wells Fargo Works Project contest, which recognized Volcano Veggies as one of five top winners out of more than 40,000 entries from small businesses across the country.

"It's an incredible honor to have been selected as Grand Prize winners for this contest," said Shannon Sbarra, who co-owns the company with her husband James, in a release last month. "We are thrilled that our passion for healthy, sustainable food has been recognized, and can't wait to get started working with the Wells Fargo business mentors."

That cash prize and business mentoring will be put to bold use, as Volcano Veggies plans to double its production, optimize operations, and expand to new locations.

"We plan to build indoor vertical farms in communities across the country, providing freshly harvested, organic produce all year-round," Sbarra explained. "With a proprietary aquaponic system, we use 99 percent less water than traditional farms and there is zero water pollution. Our organic veggies taste delicious, last longer, and are healthier than commodity or hydroponic produce."

So what exactly does all that mean? In laymen's terms, aquaponics starts with fish (in this case tilapia) living in a tank together and fed organic food. The fish produce natural waste products (yes, pee and poo), which are then pumped from the tanks to the soil-free beds of the plants and enrich them with the bacteria. Then the beds filter the soiled water, which is returned to the fish tanks. It's a symbiotic ecosystem that sustains itself with minimal outside support. The fish and the plants rely on each other for survival, and each one could not thrive independently without the other in an aquaponics system.

On a recent tour of the Volcano Veggies warehouse, the Sbarras describe it as a "work in progress." At present, they use their warehouse space primarily for their growing operation, which includes mixed greens like lettuce, mint, and basil, all of which can be purchased either from local retail grocers, or subscription-style directly via their website on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. The cost is approximately $5.99 for a box, which can be picked up in person, or delivered to a Bend residence for $2 extra. In the future they also plan on selling their tilapia, and growing and selling strawberries and tomatoes.

Currently there are only a handful of certified organic aquaponics growing operations in the entire world. This is cutting edge stuff, but even within this rarified field, Volcano Veggies is blazing trails. For starters, they have crafted a system of aquaponics that is unique to the their industry, and they hope to create a model that can roll out as a nationwide standard in aquaponics farming.

"It's a modular and agile approach to indoor farming," Shannon explains. "Our system can be applied as a family-size home unit, or scaled up to create a large commercial farm. This allows us to adapt to rapidly changing technology and improve our system each time we build a new one."

Other plans for the future include remodeling their warehouse to be used for so much more. They have envisioned a space that can be used as a quasi-retail offering for "ready-made" produce to pickup. So instead of only being able to buy from a grocer, you could buy directly from their shop. They are also aiming for "space sharing" with some other businesses, to create a sort of "business ecosystem" that encourages resource sharing and building synergy within a community space.

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