Dayton Valley Aquaponics | Securing the future of food

Greenhouse with rows of tomatoes.

Somewhere off a dirt road in the middle of Dayton Valley, a large facility lights up the night sky with a pink glow. It’s not anything alien or a scientific experiment gone wrong, it is the home of Dayton Valley Aquaponics (DVA), a unique farming facility that marries aquaculture with hydroponics and technology with Mother Nature.

The 31,000-square-foot facility is located on 250 acres in Dayton, Nev., where tilapia is raised and vegetables are grown using sustainable and environmental farming practices. The facility has been in production for the last two years under the watchful eyes of production manager Mark Warrell and business manager Trevor Birba, both of whom are passionate about the future of food.

I drove out to Dayton to tour the facility and met with Warrell. We entered the greenhouse. I felt the cool air on my skin (60 percent humidity in the greenhouse) and smelled the rich scent of earth and plants. The first view was of rows and rows of tomato plants, lettuce and peppers growing upward in different stages of ripeness. A misting system overhead sprays water every few minutes. Large blue tanks house two types of tilapia live. Sierra Blue or Black tilapia and Pearl tilapia swam around in tanks of clean, clear water. The fish can grow up to 5 to 7 pounds but generally are harvested at about 1.75 pounds.

Closeup of cherry tomato plants.

“The high-moving, high-quality water makes for happy and healthy fish. Nothing compares to the flavor of fish that we grow. They have better texture and thickness and a high omega 3 content,” said Warrell. “As expansion opportunities come to light, we will look to raise Pacific salmon.”

Everything is interdependent here. A wood pellet, silo system heats the greenhouse and 99.9 percent of the water is recycled and the rest evaporates. The fish are fed a custom-blend wildlife diet specifically prepared for the farm.

“It all starts with the feed,” said Warrell, explaining that the fish are fed six times a day. They excrete waste, the water gets filtered to feed the plants, the water gets re-filtered and goes back to the fish.

We walk along the rows of vegetables. Warrell scoops a handful of locally mined gravel the vegetables grow in.

“All the magic happens in the gravel,” he says as I pop a cherry tomato into my mouth; it was juicy and full of flavor.

“We use 85 percent less water than field crops and five times more production per square foot. And while a vine tomato plant only lives 10 to 11 months, ours live 500 days.” According to Warrell, they currently grow cherry tomatoes, slicing tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, microgreens, edible flowers, pumpkins, zucchini, garlic, sweet corn and both sweet and hot peppers.

Beds of lettuce.

No toxins or pesticides are used in production, instead an integrated pest management system is employed. If aphids get in the greenhouse then predatory wasps are released. LED lights, which disrupt the pathway of insects, are also used to ward off pests. A combination of technology and Mother Nature is used for pest management.

“Seventy-five percent of water usage [in the U.S.] goes to farming,” Birba explains. “There are 350 million people in America to feed. One head of lettuce grown in Watsonville takes 50 gallons of water in the field. One head of lettuce in our greenhouse takes 1 gallon of water. The average American eats 25 pounds of lettuce. That’s 6 billion pounds of lettuce.”

DVA is looking to the future by adding facilities, a bigger campus, research and development crop trials, and agricultural tourism by fostering a community hub. They grow 365 days a year.

“It’s all about symbiosis and balance and integrating the aquaponic element into the field, said Birba. “When we look and see that conventional agriculture has a drastic impact on our landscape, exacerbated by climate change and water use, we are confident of our trajectory and where we are heading. I’m excited.”

Mark Warrell and Priya Hutner checking out tomato plants.

Reducing water usage is imperative to our future and our ability to feed ourselves. Creating sustainable, environmental and symbiotic methods is the way of the future and Dayton Valley Aquaponics is on the cutting edge.

Their products can be found at Tahoe Food Hub in Truckee, New Moon Natural Foods in Truckee and Tahoe City, Grass Roots Natural Foods in South Lake Tahoe, Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno, Nev., Sierra Gold Seafood in Sparks, Nev., and at the Incline Valley Farmers Market on Thursdays. | dvaquaponics.com