Hydroponics - The New Mantra for Sustainable
Farming in Goa
Iris C F Gomes
Ajay Naik meets the eye as an unassuming man with an innate humility that is disarming, and so he is, as a conversation with him revealed. His farm, which is located at the Thivim Industrial Estate, occupies far less space than you would imagine of a conventional farm. This is because Ajay has taken on an unusual method of farming called hydroponics. Hydroponics is literally ‘working water’: ‘hydro’ meaning ‘water’ and ‘ponics’ meaning ‘to work’.
Ajay’s transition from information technology (IT) to farming has been a novel one. Having put in over ten years in the IT industry, this alumnus of Atria Institute of Technology, Bangalore had his own IT company L & A Tech Pvt Ltd, co-founded with Lucio Mesquita, that produced apps such as Smartpray for mobile phones. This Karwar native has ancestral roots in agriculture, although the last two generations before him veered away from this occupation. He expresses an intrinsic love for farming with the desire to reach out to other farmers across the state.
Ajay, who believes in giving his hundred percent to anything that he takes up, has now given himself wholeheartedly to farming. Letcetra Agritech Private Limited started in November of 2016 after two months of research into hydroponics. When deliberating on a new sustainable method of farming to be used, Ajay looked into aeroponics and aquaponics as alternative techniques. The slightly more complex systems and lack of experts in India put him off and he opted for hydroponics. He says, ‘I decided that hydroponics was the best thing because it requires the knowledge of engineering and science rather than pure agricultural knowledge.’
The nutrient film technique (NFT) is used in Ajay’s farm, where the necessary nutrients required for a plants growth are added to a tank that runs a shallow stream of water through channels. In this circular system, the water then returns to the tank and nutrients are again added. Ajay says, ‘No water is wasted in this system. We save up to 80 to 90 percent of water as compared to traditional farming. If they use 10,000 litres of water, we hardly use 2000 litres of water.’
The plants are separated by small compartments and anchored by coco peat. The ph and oxygen levels of the water are monitored and maintained. The quantity of nutrients added is far less than normal agriculture because the original amount of nutrients added to the soil does not permeate in totality to the plant in the latter form of farming. ‘Sometimes the plant will absorb a little more fertiliser (in traditional farming). Since fertilisers are chemical based, it can be harmful for us,’ says Ajay. As of now chemical nutrients are being added to the water but bio-nutrients are being tested for future use. ‘Because we use chemical nutrients, we do not package the greens as organic. We just say pesticide free. Once we start with the bio-nutrients we will call them organic,’ says Ajay.
Hydroponics is also called urban farming owing to the limited space usage involved which allows farming to take place even within congested urban areas. Transportation costs are negligible as plants are not moved from rural farms to urban areas and the produce that reaches the customer is fresh. The controlled environment in which the plants thrive ensures the plants remain pest free. Hence there is no need of pesticides.
The plants have a cycle of 30 days with seeds being planted every four days. Letcetra Agritech Private Limited has tied up with supermarkets like Magsons, Delphinos, etc. The greens are at a marginally higher price because the process of farming them is expensive. But it is worth the cost, and customers have already commented on the difference in the taste and texture of the plants. Ajay says, ‘Our plants taste fresh and do not have holes and an uneven texture. Even the leaves of our plants are a rich green colour as opposed to the dull green colour of other plants.’ At present, he is growing lettuce, mainly romaine, lollo, red and rocket. Ajay has plans to grow cherry tomatoes, jalapenos, four seasons lettuce and mustard greens. He hopes to introduce Indian tomatoes and more mainstream vegetables to his farm too. ‘Production costs are higher because of the plants being grown indoors. We grow only exotic vegetables here because they are higher priced and we can recover the costs. When we try out the Indian tomato, we will do it in a polyhouse,’ he says.
Although demonetisation affected the profits of the farm as it was the peak season for lettuce in November and December, things have stabilised now with production increasing.
‘People who are in traditional agriculture now are reluctant to accept technology,’ says Ajay, ‘and we cannot increase our production without adopting technology. Those old times have gone when old methods were used to grow food. They use pesticides when you could avoid it by using technology.’ It is interesting to note the significant number of engineers who have quit their well-paying jobs to get into the field of agriculture. Having a technology inclined mind helps these engineer turned farmers because they are accustomed to learning new information on a constant basis. Ajay corroborates, ‘Recently, I read about two engineers who left their jobs and built a drone which flies over a traditional farm and takes a thermal image. It then analyses the thermal image and tells you which part of your crop will go bad, so you can take care of only that part. You can catch the disease before it spreads. Also, you won’t need to use as much pesticide since it will be limited to the affected area only.’
Ajay believes that traditional farmers will catch up with technology. Ever since coming under the radar of positive news agencies such as The Better India and others, people have been approaching him for advice on hydroponics. He provides consultancy services now to set up farms founded on hydroponics. Ajay is working with ATMA (Agricultural Technology Management Agency), set up by the Agricultural Zonal Office in Old Goa, to create subsidies for farmers because of the initial high cost of setting up a hydroponics farm.