Mr. Kalaskar cultivates strawberry using hydroponics technique. About the advantages of hydroponics technique and it usage in growing strawberries.
Atul Kalaskar is a hydroponics and controlled environment entrepreneur. He is based out of Pune and is a software architect by qualification. Mr. Kalaskar cultivates strawberry using hydroponics technique. In an interview to Agriculture & Industry Survey Mr. Kalaskar speaks about the advantages of hydroponics technique and it usage in growing strawberries.
Hydrophonics (HP) is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil. Further explaining the concept, Mr. Kalaskar says, “Using HP we try to overcome the obstacles placed by nature as well as by man. For example, soil may not be good naturally or polluted by men. So go soil-less. Climate, rains, it is the same story. So HP allows us to grow plants by overcoming the challenges thrown by mother nature and mankind.” He add, “Strawberry, or for that matter any fruit /vegetable, can be grown in any place on the earth using this technique. I can grow strawberry profitably in any part of India where climate is not humid.”
Advantages of Growing HP Strawberries
Using HP, strawberries can be grown all year round or just during the season (to cut cost). “The main advantages are very high quality yield, high labor efficiency, efficiency in use of water and nutrients,” maintains Mr. Kalaskar.
He suggests using a mixture of natural salts which are available locally, as nutrients. “Recycling is always the right thing to do and this allows us to save on water usage and fertilizers which otherwise run to waste and eventually pollute the ground and water table. Every plant has their specific nutrient requirement for various growth stages in their life cycle. One can certainly create a PPM based formula and create it by using the natural salts. There may be commercial off the shelf product available but they tend to be expensive and may not always be the right choice. The best is understand your crop, its needs and provide the right nutrients,” he advices.
Viability to Small Farmers
Commenting on the viability of hydroponics for small and marginal farmers, Mr. Kalaskar says, “In future the life of these farmers is going to very challenging. Their productivity will be lower and their bargaining power will go down. The only way out is a co-operative model, where 100’s of them come together, create a land bank, employ new technologies such as hydroponics, which in turn makes them large producers and thus get more bargaining power for pricing. Also they will be able to then hire M.Sc agro graduates to manage such farms,” adding, “But as of today the small farmer will not be able do hydroponics but he can start on smaller steps such as using poly-houses, drip irrigation or going soil-less, advancing one step at a time.”
Steps to Popularize HP
Relating his experience in popularizing HP, Mr. Kalaskar says, “When I first took this idea to agro experts and investors, nobody believed that this will work. So I have spent the last 1 year in creating a proof of concept which proved that hydroponics does work. Now lots of people in Maharashtra suddenly have woken up to this idea. But this is a small beginning.”
He feels this topic needs to be introduced in agro education. The government needs to promote this technology on a large scale basis, and just like floriculture parks, the government should create special agro zones to popularize this idea.
Economics of HP
Speaking about the economics involved, Mr. Kalaskar says, “For my strawberry planting it costs Rs. 1.5 crores just in the form of capital investment per acre which is just next to impossible for a farmer who owns even 100 acre land. So we have a model which we are putting the finishing touches and we will unveil in a year or two. We will ask farmers to create a land bank of 100+ acres, we will bring in the required technology and knowhow, private investors /government /banks will fund the project. The entire project is owned and operated by these 3 entities, farmers, us and investors.
This brings out the best of everybody’s strengths. Another approach would be to create solution based schemes which even small farmer can implement.”
Process of Growing HP Strawberries
Explaining the process of growing HP strawberries, Mr. Kalaskar says, “Once you understand the needs of strawberry plants, you will realize it has different needs during early growth, vegetative growth and fruiting. To the best of my knowledge, no off the shelf product is available which can cater to the needs. So it is best to mix your own. If not you can always use traditional 19:19:19 and mix others. Remember to use fully water soluble fertilizers. I prefer using bio controls instead of pesticides. Control environment as such ensures there are no pests. But if you have an outbreak then you should use chemical pesticides rather than losing your crop. As far as process of strawberry goes, it remains exactly same like traditional farming.”
He adds, “I prefer using certified original imported plants compared to the locally grown plants which are very young and are prone to disease. We also add a touch with use of vedic agriculture by using classical music therapy and agnihotra. Indian classical music is proved conclusively by Dr. J. Bose to affect the plant growth, vigor and yield.”
This HP process which depends on managing temperature year round mainly depends on fan pad system. Fan pad system needs dry climate.
So in India except in coastal or humid areas, strawberries can be grown anywhere, even in coastal areas but there one would require air conditioners to cool the air which may not be economical.
“One of the biggest precautions one needs to take is to set up a generator back up because even 30 minutes in hot sun in a green house without power is like a pressure cooker and all plants will die due to extreme heat build up. Water is the most critical component. Plants need pure water with ph of 6. “We use RO filtered water for our strawberries plants. Since this makes water very expensive for us, we go that extra mile to recycle it. Water is captured and stored after irrigating.
It is then passed through slow sand filter and then UV filtered to kill any spores. This water then added back to main water line.” Aver Mr. Kalaskar.
Further speaking about the precautions to be taken, he says, “Precautions are to be taken starting from right cultivar to the right age of plants, proper media, proper nutrient, and its management. Even harvesting also requires careful use of disinfected scissors to cut the fruits. Post harvest treatment and packaging, and so the list is very long and basically it starts much before the planting stage and goes all the way to the last day.”
Speaking about the income generated, Mr. Kalaskar says, “At the beginning of the season, strawberry fetches Rs. 300+ per kg. There are no off season producers but off season prices can go as high as Rs. 600 per kg. We even have a plan to introduce a special type of strawberry which will be sold for Rs. 90 per fruit.”
He adds, “Traditional farmer plants on an average 25,000 plants in an acre which yields around 8-10 tons of Strawberry. His mix is 25% class 1, 40% class 2 and rest as industrial berry. He gets the price between 120 kg at the beginning to almost 25 per kg during peak In hydroponics, we plant 80,000 plants in an acre which produces 60-80 tons of strawberry. 60% of this strawberry is sold during off season which safely means prices above Rs. 120 per kg. So even though the capital investment is high, one can expect to touch Rs. 1 crore per acre the sales from hydroponic strawberry.”
Shelf Life of Fruits
Shelf life is one of the major problems of strawberry growers. Strawberry fruit once removed from the plant actually starts deteriorating. Suggesting ways to improve shelf life, Mr. Kalaskar says, “As soon as fruit is cut, field heat needs to be removed in pre cooling chamber, and after that it must be maintained at 2C all the way. You also must ensure that the fruit is handled minimally as it gets bruised quickly. It should never be allowed to get wet or sweat. Ensuring the above can make strawberry stay fresh for 7-10 days. In the absence of the above, 4th day is the day you need to throw it away.”
In future Mr. Kalaskar wants to provide consulting services in HP for farmers. “We are looking at creating a brand under which all growers will grow various fruits and vegetables. Just like Amul, this brand will guide, consult and work with farmers for producing world class fruits and vegetables. That’s the dream.”
He insists any crop can be grown with HP but his only concern is profitability. “We do have certain plants in mind, especially high value crops, medicinal plants and then general crop. The list is endless and it will take many folks like me to come up with an idea to produce them smartly,” he avers.
Source : Agriculture & Industry Survey [/hidepost]