Hydroponic farming: Why soil-free agriculture might be the way forward

Research has put the market value of hydroponics at $8.08 bn in 2019, prompting entrepreneurs to believe that soil-free agriculture might be the way forward. We talk to some of them

Agiculture, Farming, Artificial Intelligence, PM Modi
The govt has started using Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the agriculture sector.

Think farming and cultivation and even your mind pictures flat expanses of open land pulsating with life — fresh harvest of rice, wheat, paddy or vegetables.

Thick canopy of branches with birds fluttering from one bough to the other on a sun-kissed morning, away from cities’ bustle and haze of smoke, completes the idea of idyllic surroundings. But talk urban farming, and the picture is quite different.

Farms can be set up in a space as small as a cubicle-sized room fitted with a tech support system that creates an artificial environment conducive for growth. These hi-tech, sustainable farms, operate on the science and principles of hydroponic farming — a soil-free farming technique.

In hydroponic farming, plants grow naturally, drawing nutrients out of reservoirs filled with nutrient-rich and water-based solutions, under optimal positioning of lights and regulated temperature conditions. While the technique became an instant hit in the West, where people initially used hydroponics and its farming variants to grow marijuana, it did not take too long to catch the fancy of scientists, entrepreneurs and practitioners of agriculture across the globe. In India, hydroponic farms are omnipresent — found in the arid tracts of Jaipur, landlocked Delhi-NCR, in humid weather conditions of Goa and various places in the southern parts of the country.

“It is a process of fast multiplication of high-quality planting material producing about 35-60 mini-tubers per tissue culture plantlet. Mini-tubers are progeny tubers produced on plantlets and developed artificially. Through this technology, it is possible to produce seven-10 times more mini-tubers from in-vitro plantlets (produced in a test tube or culture dish), as compared to cultivation under net house conditions with multiple mini-tubers of desired size. The technology can also be exploited for other important crops like tomato, strawberry, brinjal, chilli, spinach,” says Tanuja Buckseth, scientist (vegetable science) at Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Central Potato Research Institute (ICAR-CPRI), Shimla.

Somveer Singh Anand, co-founder and CEO of Pindfresh

Under hydroponics, terrestrial plants can be grown in multiple ways. The most common ways involve exposing roots to nutritious liquid, or in some cases, the roots can be physically supported by an inert medium such as perlite or gravel. Hydroponic DIY kits are available aplenty online. These devices enable people to set up equipment within the confines of houses and grow vegetation. The two most commonly deployed systems in hydroponics are Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) and Deep Water Culture (DWC). In NFT, a shallow stream of water containing dissolved nutrients is re-circulated through bare roots in a watertight thick tube, which forms a mat-like layer from which the roots absorb nutrients. An abundant supply of oxygen is provided to the roots through the process.

Under DWC, roots are left suspended in nutrient-rich, oxygenated water. The solution is saturated with oxygen infused by an air pump in the presence of porous stones. The method is touted to be more suitable for plants’ faster growth, given the high level of oxygen that roots receive.

The great traction that the advanced farming technique has received over the years has Dublin-based market research company Research And Markets put the global market value of hydroponic systems at a whopping $8.08 billion in 2019. Going ahead, the market is projected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 12.1% to reach $16.03 billion by 2025. The value of crops produced globally through hydroponics is expected to touch $32.13 billion this year at an anticipated growth rate of 5.1% from 2019 to 2025.

Influx of players
There has been a conspicuous rise in the number of “urban farmers”. These are basically entrepreneurs, who didn’t take long to recognise immense growth opportunities lying untapped in the hydroponic farming space. A majority of them did not enter the space with the intention of making profit as hydroponic farming is cost-intensive.

These individuals’ wish to venture into the space stemmed from their eagerness to explore and identify alternative means of agriculture, given unavailability of fertile and mineral-rich soil. “We were inspired by the large number of people around us vying for greenery in their houses and surroundings. But they didn’t know how to go about it, given that the weather conditions aren’t always favourable,” says Somveer Singh Anand, co-founder and chief executive officer of Pindfresh, a Chandigarh-based start-up that makes, uses and sells semi-commercial hydroponic equipment in the form of DIY kits.

“Another issue that struck a chord with us was that in a place like Mumbai, where nearly 30% of the population doesn’t have access to toilets, the muck goes into the soil. Now, if we’re growing fruits and vegetables in the same soil, it is obviously going to be contaminated with toxic substances,” he adds. Started in April 2017 by Anand and his team, Pindfresh has grown in leaps and bounds since inception, even as the hydroponic equipment the firm sells cost anywhere between Rs 50,000 and Rs 3.5 lakh. There are cheaper alternatives available in the form of grow bags and pipes with compartments containing nutrient-rich solution, which boost growth, that cost anywhere between Rs 1,200 and Rs 2,500. The start-up also conducts workshops free of cost to impart knowledge and training on hydroponic farming. “We turned profitable within months of inception and are growing at a consistently lucrative growth rate, generating about Rs 5-6 lakh in revenue per month,” Anand adds.

Delhi-based Triton Foodworks, which started as an experiment in urban farming by four friends — Deepak Kukreja, Dhruv Khanna, Ullas Samrat, and Devanshu Shivnani — in September 2014 deploys NFT, DWC, and media-based hydroponic systems to grow fruits and vegetables. Media-based systems involve the use of mediums like rockwool, coco coir, expanded clay, perlite, gravel and vermiculite for growth of plants. The company has grown seven varieties of lettuce, basils, pok choy, swiss chard, spinach, cherry tomatoes, snack cucumbers, bell peppers, sweet peppers and mint as of now. They plan to add radishes and turnips to their basket very soon.

Goa-based Letcetra Agritech is another market player that grows organic vegetables using hydroponics and sells them across hotel chains, supermarkets and farmers’ markets. Set up in 2016, the firm helps set up commercial hydroponic farms for large-scale growers as well.

“We supply to most restaurants that serve salad greens in north Goa. We also have tie-ups with a few super markets and retail consumers. We started by growing only lettuce and today we grow around 15 different varieties of vegetables. Most of the start-ups in this domain are focusing on consultation and sale of hydroponics units. Our focus is on growing good quality, nutrient-rich, pesticide-free vegetables and making these accessible and affordable to everyone,” says CEO Ajay Naik. Letcetra Agritech plans to replace at least 30% of the traditional farms in India to urban farms in the next five years.

Gurgram-based Barton Breeze is focused on setting up hydroponic farms with a major chunk of investment from the clients. “We grow 28 varieties of crops and manufacture components for hydroponics setups. However, about 65-70% contribution to our topline figure comes from development of new farms that we undertake for our clients,” says Shivendra Singh, who co-founded the start-up in 2016 with the aim of restoring the nutritional value of our produce. The company’s topline grew at a compounded annual growth rate of 300% in FY19 from FY18, signalling the high demand for hydroponic setups in our country.

Comparisons with traditional agriculture
While the modern farming practice is a boon at a time when rampant soil contamination and massive influx of harmful pesticides and insecticides into agricultural fields is increasingly becoming a cause of great health concerns, hydroponic farming suffers from two major setbacks. One, it involves a complex setup and the running and maintenance costs are huge. The technique requires some amount of expertise to be practised from scratch. For instance, the ICAR-CPRI in Shimla has been following aeroponic seed production system since 2011. This is hydroponics in a lot of ways, except that the process doesn’t need a medium like sand, gravel or water. It produces disease-free, quality plantation material to boost yield of potato varieties in the country.

Buckseth says the initial cost to set up an installation for producing one million mini-tubers (area:1500 sqm) was Rs 100 lakh. The expense can certainly not be borne by a traditional farmer, and the technique can hence be only utilised by entrepreneurs and government agencies with ample investment. “Aeroponic technology, standardised by the institute, is being commercialised under an MoU signed between the parties after royalty payments. The technology is essentially for progressive farmers/ firms/ FPO etc. But since the initial cost of setting up the whole process is very high, a number of surveys have to be conducted and prior market knowledge is a must,” Buckseth says. Besides, all the start-ups and agencies involved in hydroponics currently have the backing of an agriculture scientist or expert in the field. This kind of expertise is certainly not commonplace, making the technique cumbersome.

On the flip side, there are multiple pros that hydroponic farming has in comparison to traditional agriculture. For one, it reduces the water requirements of plants by a marked extent, since the medium in which they grow is solvent-based. Secondly, monoculture is not an issue with hydroponic farming and the practice is readily possible in areas where climatic or geographical conditions pose a barrier. “Hydroponics has four big advantages over traditional methods, which made the technology so popular. It uses 80-90% less water, 80-95% less land, harmful pesticides can be avoided and vegetables can be grown all year round,” says Naik.

The yield of hydroponic farming is also substantially higher than that of traditional agriculture. “Yields are almost 2.5 times more than it is through the traditional means. People can claim more, but it is almost 2.5 times in real. That’s primarily because one can grow more number of plants compared to ground agriculture, and the plants grow at a faster pace,” Singh says.

Road ahead
While hydroponics farming does hold the promise of changing the face of urban farming, entrepreneurs fear that lack of knowledge and expertise can play spoilsport in its growth rate. “Every hydroponic expert would say that the minimum investment in a hydroponic farm would be `30 lakh, while the maximum would go up to as high as Rs 4 crore. Who has that kind of money? I sell hydroponic setups for Rs 50,000, and I manage to sell just three in a month. That’s the only negative. People usually don’t have any expertise, and are just wanting to sell,” says Anand. He cautions not without reason. Hydroponic set-ups do entail massive investment and if not treated with care and knowledge, the money can certainly go waste.

In such a scenario, Anand suggests getting the basics right. Go back to the textbooks, get ample knowledge on the subject and then invest in relatively cheaper hydroponic set-ups to produce first for home, and then for the rest. Singh had adopted a similar strategy before he set up Barton Breeze. “We started as a small pilot project in Dubai, where we learned first, did all the R&D, testings and trials at our own cost and then presented the idea to our investors,” he recalls. “Even in India, when we started out, we set up the first farm at our own cost, since we were still experimenting. We didn’t want our clients to incur any expense for us,” he adds.

Buckseth suggests getting trained officials on board before venturing any further into the new technology. “The initial cost in this practice is high, which once invested can only be recovered by the quality produce, which otherwise will be more than the traditional system. Therefore, trained officials may be hired for proper functioning,” she says.

Rest assured, looks like greener pastures and clean produce are finally home.

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First published on: 14-07-2019 at 00:39 IST