Shannon Sbarra, Farming in the Pink
Celebrating Oregon Agriculture Entrepreneurs
Words: Laura Stewart
Bend is known for the piles of fresh snow during the winter months and plentiful hours of sunlight in the summer. Most farms in Central Oregon find the balance between the extreme weather conditions to be challenging.
For Volcano Veggies, a warehouse protects their plants from the frigid air and searing heat. Shannon Sbarra, with her husband Jimmy, co-owners of Volcano Veggies, took a uniquely innovative approach to farming called aquaponics, a system using the waste from farmed fish to provide nutrients for the plants. After plants are watered, the drained moisture is filtered to aerate the fish tanks.
“We’re creating our own ecosystem,” says Jimmy. “It’s not a magical growing solution. Just like typical farming it’s hard, difficult and challenging. You’re trying to keep three things very happy that don’t necessarily want to go together.”
Volcano Veggies’ process allows plants to be grown organically and pesticide free. Inside the warehouse, nutrient-rich water from large fish tanks feeds the roots of the plants. After the water seeps through the soil, this organic hydroponic solution is directed back to aerate the fish tanks. Grow lights allow for the consistent “daylight.” Everything has a purpose in this closed environment.
“[I’m] solving the world’s problems in my hometown,” says Shannon. “You don’t have to go across the world to make the world a better place. We found a way to follow our dreams, do something that was meaningful and have a significant impact, while creating a sustainable business model and supporting our community.”
This husband-wife dynamo has worked together since they were first married. Their first business focused on programming and graphic design. Jimmy’s skills as a programmer and Shannon’s administration and accounting talents came together to create a thriving business. Although they found success in their first business, they wanted to make a more tangible difference in the environment by providing quality, holistically produced food.
“At the end of the day, when we turned the computer screen off, our hard work was gone. We just wanted something more physical and real,” says Jimmy. “In here, it’s very real. We’re making food for people.”
The Sbarras applied their knowledge of computer software and artistic minds to monitor their growing process. Jimmy’s unique skill as a programmer allowed him to create software to control the temperature of the warehouse, lighting and harvesting time to create the best produce possible.
Shannon works full-time for Volcano Veggies and helps raise two kids at home. She knows their business is making her family stronger and growing them closer.
“It’s something we believe in, trying to make the world a better place and set a good example for our kids,” says Shannon. “By working together, we’ve carved out a way to be on the same team and be involved in each other’s lives and operate as a family unit.”
Shannon was on track after college to venture into climate change policies, but she wanted to concentrate on making a difference in her hometown. Her knowledge about climate change gives her an educated voice in Volcano Veggies’ business practices.
“There is a lot of emphasis on environmental sustainability and not business sustainability,” says Shannon.
Despite the challenges of being parents, paying fair wages to their employees, and growing organic vegetables indoors, the Sbarras find their work satisfying and essential. They know their produce is making a difference in their family and in the lives of their customers.
“We have parents who say their kids won’t eat any other lettuce but ours,” says Jimmy. “That’s just awesome! If we’re getting kids to eat it, then we’re doing something right.”
They first began delivering their produce to the local Newport Avenue Market. Customers could taste the difference from traditionally grown produce and began asking for more. Since they began in 2013, Volcano Veggies has expanded sales into Whole Foods, Safeway, Market of Choice, and other local retailers. Their innovative growing technique took the stage at the Bend Venture Conference in 2014 and won the Bend Broadband prize of $10,000 and the $1,500 Palo Alto LivePlan Software award. The next step for the Sbarras is to bring Volcano Veggies to other locations with cold climates.
“We hope to take aquaponics to skiing towns,” says Jimmy. “We want to bring fresh vegetables to places that wouldn’t get fresh produce for over half of the year. We’re growing predictable food in unpredictable places.”