Las Vegas Sun

May 24, 2019

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Tomatoes, tilapia farmed in circle-of-life Nevada greenhouse

tilapia

Gary C. Klein / The Post-Crescent via AP

In this June 29, 2017, file photo, tilapia peer in a fish tank in the Town of Mosel near Haven, Wis. Tilapia and tomatoes are being farmed in partnership in a sprawling greenhouse in the Northern Nevada desert.

RENO — In a sprawling greenhouse in the Northern Nevada desert, tilapia and tomatoes are being farmed in a circle-of-life partnership.

The Reno Gazette-Journal reports that Dayton Valley Aquaponics uses a supermarket-sized building on land where cattle used to graze to grow tomatoes using fish waste nutrients while leaving cleansed water to recycle back to tilapia tanks.

"There's more dissolved oxygen when there's more water clarity, and that equals more (beneficial) omega-3 fatty acids in the fish," said Trevor Birba, company founder and business manager. "It's part of managing the livestock well and humanely."

The company is the only one of its kind in Nevada blending aquaculture, or raising fish, with hydroponics, or growing plants in water, the newspaper said.

Pairing tilapia and tomatoes might seem offbeat, even bizarre, in a place with low rainfall, scouring winds, roasting summers and winter snows that can persist into June.

But Birba called the environment ideal.

"We get over 300 days a year of good strong sun," Birba said. "Even in the controlled environment of the greenhouse, 90 percent of the light still comes from the sun directly. Nothing does the job as well as the sun."

Birba, who is in his early 30s, started experimenting with aquaponics about a decade ago while studying agricultural economics at the University of Nevada, Reno.

He met an investor in 2014 with some agricultural land southeast of Virginia City, and Dayton Valley Aquaponics opened in 2015.

Beyond the tilapia tanks, several varieties of cherry tomato and slicing tomatoes grow in beds of local gravel "that mimic the characteristics of high quality soil," said Mark Warrell, company production manager.

The plants shimmy up nylon trellises, reaching 7 feet high. Chilis, cucumbers and greens fill spaces in between.

Thousands of Egyptian-breed tilapia, fill a dozen tanks graded by size from newly introduced fry to fish ready for harvest at 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms).

The Egyptian variety is native to an arid climate like the high desert of Nevada and has firm flesh, said David Holman, executive chef at Campo restaurant in Reno.

"It has real flavor," Holman said. "It's not like all the tilapia that has given the fish a bad reputation."

Special energy-efficient lights manufactured in Reno emit light from red and blue ends of the spectrum that plants use in photosynthesis. When the lights glow blue, they ward off soft-bodied pests like aphids and white flies.

The greenhouse shields the plants from harsh weather and is powered by solar panels and biofuel boilers using recycled wood pellets.

Warrell said the growing cycle uses less water than traditional farms to produce about 100,000 pounds of tomatoes, 30,000 pounds of tilapia and 20,000 pounds of produce like chilis and cucumbers.

The produce is sold locally to restaurants and in natural foods stores and farmers markets.

The bulk of the tilapia is sold live to Asian markets in Northern California and to Sierra Gold Seafood in Sparks.