MADE IN NEVADA: Dayton Valley Aquaponics

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DAYTON, Nev. (KOLO) -- A University of Nevada graduate named Trevor Birba is pioneering new and creative ways to grow vegetables year-round at Dayton Valley Aquaponics.

Dayton Valley Aquaponics Production Manager, Mark Warrell, is pulling fresh tilapia from the water for inspection.

"There isn't a playbook for this. Working on these innovative technologies has left us having to do a lot of it ourselves," Trevor said.

During his freshman year at the University of Nevada in 2008, he planted a garden with three of his friends because they wanted to be healthy. This piqued his interest in aquaponics, which is a system to grow fish and vegetables in a greenhouse environment.

This simple garden literally changed his life. He switched his degree from International Business Administration to Agricultural Business Economics. Trevor's three friends eventually found other jobs in agriculture, but he stuck with the business.

Eleven years and millions of dollars from investors resulted in Dayton Valley Aquaponics.

The facility is 3/4 of an acre, with at least 5,000 plants, 10,000 fish, 12 employees, and four interns. It's at 175 River Road in Dayton. The Dayton Valley Aquaponics process increases the growing season from roughly 90 to more than 300 days a year.

Dayton Valley Aquaponics produces 2,200 pounds of vegetables each week. The bounty includes slicing tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, purple tomatoes, jalapenos, tasmanian habaneros, thai chilis, purple onions and an edible flower called the nasturtium. The food is delivered to homes, restaurants, and local stores.

Mark Warrell is the production manager. He says,"We raise our fish in very clean and pristine waters. We feed them a wild-like diet that mimics what they would eat in the wild naturally."

The fish and plants rely on each other. All the fish swim in twelve tanks. Each one is filled with 5,000 gallons of water and that brings us to the reason this aquaponics stands out from all the others in the world.

Dayton Valley Aquaponics workers have innovated a way to recirculate the water over and over through the system. It moves in one continuous loop, which uses between 85 and 90 percent less water than traditional farming techniques, Mark says.

The start of this cycle begins with automatic fish feeders. They dispenses food four times in a 24-hour cycle, which gives the fish about 2-percent of their body weight to eat each day.

Tanks pump oxygen into the water to give the tilapia five times the amount they would get in the wild. This boosts their immune systems so antibiotics are not needed and it helps grow them larger and faster. Many of them will eventually be sold to Asian fish markets in the Bay Area when they grow large enough.

Water is constantly flowing into the tank from a large pipe situated above the water line. The centrifugal force separates the fish waste from the water. The waste is piped to a worm bin where it's treated with red wiggler earth worms and bacteria. This process breaks the fish waste into a food to nourish the plants.

The micro-nutrient-rich fish water is also transported to the plants. It gives them an abundant supply of food to grow, as Mark says, delicious and nutritious vegetables. The enriched water is transported to the plants through underground pipes to each row of growing vegetables and the water is constantly moving.

As Mark pointed to the compound at the base of the plants he said, "Our bio-filters are filled with a locally-mined aggregate. A lava rock and that's where all the bacteria live that help cultivate the ammonia nitrogen into the nitrate nitrogen which is a usable form for the plant."

The water leaves the plants and travels through a central drainage canal where it will go to four 10,000-gallon underground storage tanks.

All it needs before going back to the fish tanks is to be degassed of the CO2 (carbon dioxide) and filtered one more time. About 120 gallons of water is pumped through the system every minute, Mark says.

LED lights are used to help the plants grow. They use 70 percent less energy. The mixed spectrum light is ideal to help the plants achieve their optimal photosynthetic production.

With the press of a remote control, Dayton Valley Aquaponics workers can put out blue light. It help rid the plants of soft-bodied insects including aphids, white flies, and thrips. This step eliminates the need for pesticides.

The three most popular vegetables are slicing tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. The Northern Nevada business also produces purple tomatoes, jalapenos, Tasmanian habaneros, thai chilis, purple onions, and nasturtium (an edible flower).

Outside solar panels stand in the freezing conditions to feed electricity to the operation, while the inside is kept at a steady 75 degrees and remains humid. The air smells like a fresh spring day.

A wood pellet stove heats the system. Trevor says it sends a clear message to his customers. "When you support our farm you're not destroying the environment by supporting our year-round production."

It's a message he directing to customers of Great Full Gardens restaurants in Reno.

A popular dish is the caprese made with Dayton Valley Aquaponics tomatoes topped with Sand Hill Dairy cheese made in Fallon. "Very flavorful. Texture is wonderful. It's not too soft," said Great Full Gardens customer Heather Scheridan.

You'll also find Dayton Valley Aquaponics cucumbers and tomatoes in the salads.

The most popular Great Full Gardens item is the grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup. The sandwich is made with slices of the locally-grown tomatoes. Founder and CEO Gino Scala says this meal is one of his favorites, "A beautiful aquaponics tomato and pesto aioli and dipped in tomato soup. It's just warm and comforting."