Post update: Watch a video interview with the Sbarras on our YouTube channel.
Volcano Veggies is growing organic produce and fish right in the heart of Bend. Using aquaponics, the combination of acquaculture and hydroponics, the company is working to provide local fresh, nutritious food year-round to the people of Central Oregon and, eventually, to other communities in cold weather climates.
Competing at the Bend Venture Conference, Volcano Veggies is aiming to win the Concept Stage category and use the $10,000 cash prize from BendBroadband to develop a new type of aquaponics system that will be twice as productive as its current prototype.
Founders Shannon and Jimmy Sbarra share their vision and plans for the company with BendBroadband:
Q: What was the big idea or experience that led you to found your company/product?
A: Our story is one of a hardship becoming a blessing. When Jimmy’s mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, we researched alternatives to chemotherapy and radiation and learned that all experts agree about one simple thing: we all need to eat more veggies. Organic vegetables have the power to prevent and cure disease, and as a way of supporting Jimmy’s mom’s journey in fighting cancer, we committed to eating more vegetables.
At the time, however, we were living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and fresh organic vegetables were difficult to buy during the long winter months. So we learned how to grow our own vegetables indoors and when we moved back to Bend, we started Volcano Veggies. By providing fresh, organic, nutritious produce that tastes great, our goal is to create a healthier, more sustainable community food system.
Q: What is the problem that you will solve?
A: Growing all year is impossible for most communities all over the world. This leads to food having to travel long distances to get to the end consumer. The USDA states that the average head of lettuce travels over 1,200 miles. This is problematic because the FDA has shown that produce loses 40 percent of its nutrients just four days after being harvested. That means that the veggies you are buying in the grocery store have very little nutritional value.
Q: Tell us more about your products.
A: Our aquaponic modules can grow 1,500 plants and 400 fish at once in an 8×10 foot area. We currently grow organic lettuce, herbs and tilapia fish. While our farm sells the produce and fish, the real heart and soul of our business is the proprietary modular aquaponic system. Our system can be built for a fraction of the cost compared to the competition. In the future, we plan to take our modules to other ski towns. Our produce is local so it lasts four times as long than what is at the store.
Q: What success have you had to date?
A: We have received incredible support from the Central Oregon community. We have been featured in many local media outlets, and were named one of the freshest businesses in Bend by the national magazine, Better Home & Gardens.
Mt. Bachelor recently awarded us a “Protect Your Playground” grant, and we are contenders for The Environmental Center’s 2014 Sustainability Award.
We are sold out of everything that we can grow in our current system and have customers lined up to purchase our produce as soon as we can build more modules. Newport Market doubled their order after selling out the very first day that they carried our lettuce, and Croutons was impressed by the fact that our basil lasts twice as long as the basil from their other supplier.
All of this success comes down to one thing: our produce tastes better! So not only will eating our lettuce contribute to better health and prevent disease, our customers love our produce because it is delicious.
We also are very proud of the modular aquaponic system that we have developed. It is more efficient that any of the commercial aquaponic systems, and far cheaper to build. A similar operation has earmarked over $3,000,000 to produce the same yields we can produce for only $100,000 of start-up capital.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face?
A: Our biggest challenge has been to survive the first two years of R&D without deep pockets. But we are now in a position to move forward with our business plan and increase our capacity by building more aquaponic modules. We are exploring options to raise capital- each module requires $10,000 of materials and supplies to build.
Q: If you win at BVC how will you use the $10,000 Concept Stage prize from BendBroadband?
A: Winning the BVC Concept Stage prize would be a huge honor. It also would have a very real impact on the success of Volcano Veggies. We are at a crossroad right now, and we NEED this prize money in order to build a second aquaponic module. We have taken this business as far as we can with our own finances, and we need support from the Central Oregon community to keep the momentum going and grow more delicious vegetables.
By building a second module, Volcano Veggies will become profitable and we will be able to continue to help our community meet goals of food security, environmental sustainability and health.