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Hydroponics makes it easy to become an urban farmer

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When Vijay Yelmalle shifted back to India in 2014 after a decade and a half in Singapore, he arrived with a memory—a farm that his family once owned when he was a kid. He wanted to do agriculture again but instead of land what he now had was only 300 square feet of open terrace adjoining his flat in Kharghar, Navi Mumbai. He got around the problem by going vertical and doing away with soil. In hydroponics, plants could be grown only using water and nutrients. Now Yelmalle, through his organisation called Center for Research in Alternative Farming Technologies trains others to do hydroponics and so far, more than 3000 have come to his workshops. 

“It is definitely possible to do it at home,” Yelmalle says. This is everything you need to know:

1.    To begin what you need is a hydroponics system and materials, including pipes, tubes, coco peat, nutrients and seeds. All of these can be
       bought online.

2.    The cost for a small set up can begin from Rs. 5,000 if you assemble it yourselves but more expensive systems, including assembly, can be
       many times that.

3.    When buying materials, it is important to ensure they are food safe. “Because most of the time people use recycled materials that might have
       chemicals. Sometimes they use PVC pipes that have lead in them. Selecting material is very important so you don't poison the food. It is
       better to buy from specialised suppliers,” he says.  

4.     For a hobby set up at home you will need space where sunlight is available. “You should preferably have open skies on all four
       sides, especially on the south because that's where the sun is normally the whole day,” he says.

5.    The crops that are easiest to grow are green leafy vegetables. Mainline fruits and vegetables require too much space for home set ups to grow

6.    How much time would you need to set aside? The first week, as you get your hydroponic system up and running, you might need to put in up
       to five or six hours a day. But once that is done, 30 minutes is all you need to keep it going. 

7.    The biggest advantage of hydroponics is that, because soil is not involved, what you grow will be free of pesticides. Crops also grow faster. If
       you grow more than what your family can consume, you could sell it friends or relatives who appreciate healthy produce, an increasing trend
       in the country.

8.    Stumbling blocks for many beginners are usually to do with inputs like nutrients and seeds not being of the right quality or proportion. “You
       need to know how to maintain the system, how much the nutrient concentration and PH levels of the solution should be. About two to three
       litres of water per day is enough. You don’t need a separate water connection for a small home set up,” he says. 

The hydroponics community is growing in India. Earlier, anyone wanting to do it lacked information except for anything Google provided. Now there are a number of experienced hydroponics farmers who conduct workshops. There are also sellers of hydroponic systems online and the materials required are easily available. If you have interest and skill, you could even scale up and get into business later on. Delhi-based Rohit Nagdewani got interested in hydroponics because he was always interested in cooking and eating. “I had been wondering about having a small kitchen garden of my own, essentially trying to grow my own produce. While doing research on that, I came across this word called hydroponics and realised that it makes a lot of sense,” he says. A serial entrepreneur, he now has a venture 

The crops that are easiest to grow are green leafy vegetables. Mainline fruits and vegetables require too much space for home set ups to grow them. Image Courtesy, Piya Sukchit, shutterstock.com

called Farming v2, where his commercial hydroponics farms supply vegetables to cities like Delhi and Mumbai. In Mumbai, from a 600 square feet space, they grow 6,000 plants a month.

Hard work, continuous learning and patience are a few things Yelmalle emphasises on for anyone to be successful in hydroponics. “There are seven to eight elements that a plant needs for proper growth and out of them we control only three or four. Like light. If it is on terrace-top, then you don’t need to even bother about it. Three other things that we control are nutrients, maintaining pH levels and oxygen to the roots. If you just take care that plants get these adequately, there is nothing to learn. It is as simple as that. The plants will grow,” he says. 

To get started with hydroponics, you will need the help of the experts. For more information, and assistance with setting up your own system, take a look at these following resources:

1.    Center for Research in Alternative Farming Technologies: CRAFT conducts training workshops in Navi Mumbai.

2.    Pindfresh: Online seller of all types of hydroponics systems, materials and accessories.

3.    City Greens: The Bangalore-based company holds training workshops across India besides also selling materials.

4.    Urban Kisaan: Based in Hyderabad, Urban Kisaan sells home kits. It also has its own farms.

5.    Ponic Greens: A Delhi based supplier of home kits, materials and accessories.

6.    Futurefarms: Based in Chennai, they are one of the larger companies in India with commercial farms in different states. They also sell home
       hydroponic systems and materials.

7.    Hydrilla: Bangalore based Hydrilla does training and consultancy in hydroponics while also selling home kits.

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