Days Away from First Harvest, Sustainability is Lynchpin to Bay Area Aquaponic Startup
September 26, 2013 | Trish Popovitch
Beginning an Aquaponics business takes hard work, the right partnerships and a patient nature when it comes to organic pest control. Viridis Aquaponics is a burgeoning startup based in Watsonville in the San Francisco Bay area. The farming business has been quite a learning curve for co-owner and former construction businessman Jon Parr. A mutual friend introduced Parr to Drew Hopkins. Finding they had complimentary business skills, they began devising a business plan for a sustainable greenhouse-based farm. That plan found an investor and soon became the eight acres of grow space that now houses Viridis Aquaponics, Inc. The company is days away from its first harvest.
Jon Parr became interested in the concept of aquaponic farming when choosing a way to grow vegetables in his own backyard. Parr used to be in the construction business but after the economy turned sour he had to find a different way to make money. A lot of research and the right business partners were all it took.
Viridis Aquaponics is still developing its space. Currently, 25,000 square feet is devoted to the production of aquaponic based systems and 20,000 square feet are devoted to bioponic systems. Additional space will be cleared for expansion in the coming months. Both systems focus on utilizing natural waste to create food and fertilizer to support organic plant production. 12 harvests of leafy greens are anticipated annually with more crops to follow.
The aquaponic system and the integrated greenhouse structure is completely custom built based on Parr’s research and own experience. Co-owners Parr and Hopkins developed their system by thinking through their needs as commercial growers. “The system is designed to be inexpensive to build but we can actually make money here commercially without some subsidies or grants, fast to build … and very low maintenance. Once this thing gets up and operating we won’t have to have a huge workforce or labor force behind it,” concludes Parr.
Viridis Aquaponics strives to be different than its fish growing peers, taking the concepts of closed loop and pesticide free growing to the next level. “We as humans dump more nutrients down the sewer by far than we need to grow the next generation of agriculture. We want to take some of those outputs that are now considered waste streams and bring them in as inputs for our system,” states Parr.
Different from many sustainable farmers, the folks at Viridis Aquaponics have decided to enhance their worm composting techniques with black soldier flies. This non-native, non-pest fly species has a penchant for all things rotten and can consume kilograms of food waste in a single day. The flies produce grubs in the thousands and this larva is used to feed the fish in the aquaponic beds thus creating a closed loop system that relies on local waste to create local food.
“Ultimately, the fish aren’t the key to the food chain that the plants need. The fish are an intermediate tool. The fish food provides the nutrients for the plants,” explains Parr. Black soldier flies are only one of the methods pioneered at Viridis Aquaponics. Natural solutions to natural problems are a key concept of sustainable agriculture at the company.
“Another part of being sustainable is trying to keep native species in our area for fish. We have a white sturgeon growing right now and one called Sacramento perch. Those are two California native fish that are good to eat and good to grow,” shares Parr.
Having inherited a greenhouse that once housed thousands of poorly cultivated roses, Parr and Hopkins had to find a way to deal with the many aphids and white flies that had taken up residence in the soon to be aquaponic space. They are experimenting with the use of parasitic fungus and bacteria that attack the infesting insects during the larvae stage quickly reducing the pest population. The greenhouse is being cleaned in portions to allow for as many pests to be removed as possible before growing begins. As Parr explains, inheriting problems is one of the challenges of recycling old greenhouses.
One of the main challenges appears to be a lack of established Aquaponic culture, at least not enough to create the foundation of knowledge and experience that lies behind traditional farming methods. “Because it’s not farmers coming into this business, there’s not a lot of resources out there to pull from,” states Parr.
With a first crop harvest on the horizon, Parr looks back at the months of work leading up to this day. “Being new to agriculture is certainly creating challenges. Moving into a building that was already infested with pests has certainly been a challenge. Buying used equipment, while it’s a better way to get a lot for your money, you also know you will immediately have maintenance issues that you were not aware of,” shares Parr. The excitement, despite the setbacks, is apparent as Parr shares his vision for a greenhouse full of healthy fish and organic vegetables.
Leafy greens are one of the main components of the greenhouse setup due to the high demand for year round greens by the restaurant industry. Future plans include devoting large sections of the space for the production of tomatoes and cucumbers. Parr determined what items to grow based on their research with area restaurateurs and professional chefs. One day soon they hope to devote space to the production of custom beds catering to the specific needs of individual eateries. Live root harvest will lengthen the viability of each crop allowing chefs and domestic engineers alike the full benefit of local fresh produce.
Parr anticipates the company to pay off all construction and setup costs within five years. By reducing the amount of manual labor necessary to run the farm through careful construction and avid attention to maintenance details, Parr feels the more efficient the system, the more likely the profitable pay off.
“It has to make sense on paper before you get something off the ground,” explains Parr. “And it very much made sense on paper. I don’t think it’s ever been done like we’re doing it. I know it hasn’t been done quite like we’re doing it. So I hope that the other businesses that are out there that are making a living it helps to get a little more efficiency on top of those so we can do a little better than ‘making a living.’ We certainly plan on this to be a self-sustaining money project.”
Overall, Viridis Aquaponics has met with positive encouragement across the board. “Every single person we talk to is excited about the product, is excited to buy product, they’re excited to support this kind of agriculture,” shares Parr. As the company moves from research and design to crop production, it looks as though most of the hurdles are behind this sustainable pioneering startup.
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