It started with a casual conversation. Sriram Gopal, the founder-chief executive of Chennai’s hydroponics tech firm Future Farms, was at the house of a friend who had just become a father. “I had gone to congratulate him," recalls Gopal, 38, who ran an IT company then. They got talking about food and its impact on health. “I felt strongly about this (food quality) too," says Gopal, adding that the friend, who worked in the food industry, introduced him to a documentary on hydroponics.
The film piqued Gopal’s interest, and he began reading about the method to grow plants without soil. “We started working with hydroponics as a project in 2012. At that time, we didn’t know much about the plight of farmers and how a technology like this could add value," he says. The idea was to create awareness among the right audience and sell “through prototypes and hobby kits."
Two years later, Future Farms was born. It went on to set up its first commercial hydroponic lettuce farm in the Nilgiris for a multinational quick service restaurant chain, the first of its kind in the country. Over the next six years, the company established varisized projects across India, even a few outside it. Hydroponics can make farming more sustainable, says Gopal. “We think of hydroponics as a tool for change."
The start journey
Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants in a nutrient-rich solution, skipping the soil. “It has been practised for centuries, so it is not a new technology," points out Akhila Vijayaraghavan, the founder-director of Coimbatore’s Parna Farms, adding the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are believed to have been hydroponically grown. “The Aztecs created vast hydroponic systems using rafts called chinampas," she says.
The first modern book discussing growing plants without soil seems to be Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum: Or A Natural History In Ten Centuries, published in 1627. Over the next few centuries, experiments involving plants grown in nutrient solutions took place mostly in lab settings. However, modern hydroponics evolved in the 1930s thanks to William Frederick Gericke of UC Berkeley. A March 1937 article, published in Time magazine, documents the christening of the technology. “Last week a new science was given a new name, Hydroponics, by its foremost U.S. practitioner, Dr William Frederick Gericke," says the article, going on to describe the experiment station in Berkeley: shallow tanks made of wood, concrete or metal, sprouting lush crops of tomato, potato, begonia and tobacco. “The roots of the plants are not in soil but in chemically treated water," states the article.
By most records, hydroponic farming transmuted from being an exciting lab experiment to a new way to grow food during World War II, when Pan American Airways decided to establish a hydroponic farm on Wake Island. “In the 90s NASA used hydroponics to experiment with growing food in space," says Vijayaraghavan.
Today, hydroponics is thriving worldwide. Research shows the global hydroponics market is expected to reach $17.9 billion by 2026. Although the technology is still in a nascent stage in India, there are signs it is on the upswing. A February report by DataM Intelligence, a Hyderabad-based market research and business intelligence firm, predicts the Indian hydroponics market is likely to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 13.53% between 2020 and 2027.
The covid-19 crisis seems to have catalysed the interest in hydroponics. Syed Nadeem, proprietor of Chennai-based Shaaz Agriculture Solutions, confirms this. “There has been a sudden increase in enquiries about hydroponics after the pandemic hit," says Nadeem, adding that many people now want to grow their own vegetables organically. “Anyone passionate about farming or gardening can do it," he says.
Let’s talk sustainability
Rahul Dhoka, the founder of Acqua Farms, headquartered in Chennai, turned to hydroponics after Cyclone Vardah flattened his organic farm in 2016. “I began looking for more sustainable practices," says Dhoka, 33, who has a background in biotechnology. He began growing vegetables on his Egmore home’s terrace hydroponically, reserving the produce for his personal consumption or offering it to extended family.
Soon, people began reaching out to him, asking for help in establishing their own farms. Dhoka launched his company in 2019, creating and offering different sorts of hydroponic systems. “There are six major systems," he says, running through the list: Wick System, Water Culture, Ebb and Flow, Drip, NFT (Nutrient Film Technology) and Aeroponic System. NFT is excellent for growing small plants and greens, he says. “Also, it is easy to scale up vertically."
Pointing to several NFT systems stacked in the corner of his office, he explains how they work. A reservoir tank containing a water and nutrient solution has a submersible pump leading up a tube that branches into a network of smaller tubes or channels. Grow trays containing plants are placed in these tubes, their roots dangling into the nutrient solution. Used water flows back into the tank, so there is no wastage of water. “Hydroponics uses up to 90% less water than traditional farming," Dhoka adds.
Sustainability has always been a word bandied about by hydroponic farmers: the promise that what you do today will not endanger future generations. “Hydroponics addresses several issues within the food system—water scarcity and land shortages predominantly," says Vijayaraghavan. Additionally, the crop, untouched by pests and weather vagaries and offered controlled nutrition, ends up being high-yielding. “Urban hydroponic farms reduce the carbon footprint of food and ensure a supply of fresh food throughout the year," she adds. “It puts food producers closer to a customer base and shortens the supply chain."
Liselle Simcock, an HR professional, is a recent entrant into the hydroponics world. She began subscribing to Freshlings, a Future Farm venture, that offers vegetables grown this way. “It stays fresh, does not have a bitter taste and doesn’t feel like anything is added to it," she says.
Hydroponically grown food has the potential to be more nutritious than soil-grown. Future Farm’s Gopal offers an example to explain. Amaranth, a short-lived perennial plant, is eaten for its high levels of essential micronutrient, selenium. But its selenium levels depend on the amount present in the soil. If grown using hydroponic technology, you will get amaranth filled with the right micronutrients, he claims. “Hydroponics could be a great way to address lifestyle disorders."
Despite the many benefits of hydroponics, one thing that hampers its growth is capital cost. “There is a significant capital expenditure involved," says Inder Raheja, 33, technical lead at Talegaon-based Stemwater Farms. Setting up a three-acre farm could add up to a couple of crores. What’s more, the target audience for salad vegetables is somewhat limited, often restricted to younger, health-conscious people. “The average Indian household isn’t going to be excited about hydroponics," he says, pointing out that lettuce is not a staple item for many Indians.
Vijayaraghavan, too, agrees cost is a prohibitive factor that will not change soon. “Set-up costs are high and depending on how the farm is run, operational costs are high too," she says, adding that “a hydroponic product is an artisanal product at the end of the day." She, however, believes the market will only grow as “more and more people become aware of its benefits. It is still a very new way of growing food, and just like anything else, it takes time to build awareness."
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