Pune based expert who can help you get started in hydroponics
Mr.Neelkanth More, completed his Ph D in Zoology and worked for a good 20 years as a pathologist. It is only later that he felt passionate about agriculture. His story is one of wonder because he sought to tread a whole new different path in the agricultural space and finally stumbled upon a horizon where technology met amicably with cultivation. The answer was Hydroponics.
Having gained considerable experience in aquaculture and hydroponics, Mr. Neelkanth Moreis now an expert and has garnered expertise and devised methodologies by which hydroponic farms can be set in the most economical way possible.
What is hydroponics and what is its relevance in India?
Hydroponics is a cultivation methodology, wherein plants are grown using nutrient-rich sand, gravel, or liquid; but, without soil. There are many methods by which hydroponics can be executed.
One thing is that India is highly populated, which means plenty of food is a need always and we have plenty of land, which is not put to use yet. Furthermore, excessive use of pesticides and fungicides for fertilization has adversely affected the agricultural industry. Hybridization also led to increase in production. The adverse effects we get to see are obesity, diabetes, etc.
This is where the relevance of hydroponics comes to picture. Through this method, we can cultivate crops with nil pesticides, fungicides, etc. because this method employs cultivating plants in a controlled environment. Also, we do not need soil, so we don’t have to worry if the soil is contaminated or not.
What is the advantage of hydroponics in India? The reason I ask is because we have got plenty of soil here. So, how does growing without soil help in India?
Basically, nutrients from the soil are sufficient. However, with hybridization it has been noticed that crops are not absorbing major nutrients from the soil. Whereas, in hydroponics we are supplying the crop with appropriate and optimal amount of nutrients because of which the output of a crop keeps increasing.
If through conventional agriculture we get 2-3 harvests per year, then using hydroponics, we can expect at least 10 harvests a year.
You mentioned that conventional methods came to imbibe usage of lot of chemicals, which in turn began harming the crops and the soil. Are you saying that here we need the same nutrients like before but without the soil? Also, I hear about greenhouses and hydroponics – are both the same?
Yes, the nutrients are the same, but fertilizers like urea and all are very harmful for us and the plants. Here, we won’t be employing harmful chemicals. Here, plants are provided with nutrients without the harmful effects of chemicals, in a greenhouse set up.
To answer your question on greenhouses, they may not necessarily mean that hydroponics is used. Greenhouses can be employed for farming without employing hydroponics as well.
How did you come into this hydroponics space? What activities are you involved in currently?
I am 47 years old now. 3 years ago I took the decision to transform to the agricultural sector. I hold a PHD in Zoology and worked as a pathologist for 20 years. I I gained experience in aquaculture at Maharashtra for 3 years. This sector got me very interested and that’s how I arrived at running a consultancy to provide hydroponics’ support.
These methods employ cultivation of crops without fertilizers. We feed the plants with water from aquaponics through hydroponics. The more I understood, the more I wanted to dive deeper into hydroponics. I got in touch with scientists from the US, Canada and many others places and got answers to all my questions.
Finally, I decided to open my centre in India.
Are you working on projects independently or are you tied to a company?
Yes, I got my consultancy registered in May 2017.
This year, I completed a project for a company in Dubai. We built 1000, 6×4 sq. foot greenhouses, in Pune and sent them to Dubai. This was in association with a company called Growell Hydroponics.
Growell Hydroponics, contacted me after checking our website – we got into an agreement to support their hydroponics and aquaponics initiative. As of now, we have signed 2-3 contracts and the first is already successfully completed.
So, what are these small greenhouses for? Is it for people to keep in their gardens?
Yes, people in Dubai hardly have any land. But, there is a growing demand for growing their own vegetables and fruits. So, using these green houses, they can now cultivate their own crops in the minimal land they have in front of their villas, that too without soil.
For this project, did you provide the hydroponics technology as well?
No, I just built the green houses and sent it across. Growell will provide the technology assistance because they have a showroom in Dubai. We have provided all units with a pot of organic mix. This mix was made out a double organic formula.
So, where are you based out of Mr.Neelkanth More?
Yes, I am located at Pune, in Chakan. I have a 1000 sq. foot workshop here. We are working on hydroponics systems here. There are many other companies from whom we get a lot of help.
We get orders for tray systems, vertical systems, pipe vertical system and NFT and DWC systems. We build all of these here and sell them to our customers in Pune and adjoining areas; even South India.
Where in India is your customer base? Where do you get more calls from?
I choose to answer that question slightly differently. In India, the engineering sector is quite saturated. 95% of my customers are people with an engineering background who are looking forward to doing something different.
You mean the IT folks?
No, not just from the IT sector. I get calls from people from the production, automobile, electronic sectors etc. Some of these people have jobs right now – they may be people who are doubtful about the sustainability of their current job, some are not satisfied with what they are doing now. Also, to top it some say that their earnings are not enough to run their various expenses. So, they end up exploring other fields and this is one among them. In short, most of my customers are engineers.
Interesting! But, they don’t have any agricultural background right?
No, they don’t. But, they understand technology very well. Problem is they do not know how to implement the technology in India economically. My rates are considerably low.
One of my core unique selling points is my flexi-pricing system. My biggest satisfaction is that I am sharing knowledge and helping people who are devoid of jobs. I even get to train freshers and/or people thinking of starting something new.
I work on 1300 sq. meter greenhouses for Rs. 5500/- per sq. meter, which is just fraction of the cost.
es, and I make a profit as well. The reason I get to give it away at that price is because I work on it quite differently. My principle is to run this among various people at various locations.
My dream is to build a network of hydroponic farms, linked to each other through my consultancy. Then, we can find customers for the vegetables cultivated in these farms, together.
So, if an engineer comes to you saying that he/she is interested in developing a farm like this, how would you go about it?
First, I have to teach them about the biological aspect behind this. Once they get satisfied with the explanations and once all their questions get answered, we try to gain clarity on what they picture cultivating in those hydroponic farms, after which we start discussion on the technical part.
They will usually get technical part fairly quicker because of their engineering background. Per our agreement, I will remain a life-long consultant for the biological aspect of their farm. So the bond is on-going and so is the commitment.
By the biological part, did you mean that you would suggest what plant to grow and how to grow it – when should the nutrients be supplied to the plants, etc.?
Yes – exactly. They being engineers, they may not know the biological side of things. On the other hand, they would understand about the technology fairly quicker. So, my guidance, at the first stage, will be more in terms of the biological aspects. Also, I would take the responsibility of the biological aspects of the farm for a lifetime.
Now, after a particular stage, usually after the first cycle, he/she will usually grow independent. Overtime, he will gain the expertise. However, after the harvest of the crops, he will need a network to sell these crops.
Yes, I was about to ask you about this.
The investor sell about 50% of the produce on his own social network. For the balance 50%, he will need support. To tackle this, I am approaching supply chains like ask me, i etc. to aid us in selling the produce. I can personally do the marketing bit for all the crops.
One of our farms in Ratnagiri sells its produce to the McDonald’s chain. Another company in Mumbai has recently approached Big Basket for distribution of their produce. This will take another 1 and half months to shape up. I am still training them on the biological part of the project. Once it is done, they will sell via Big Basket. They have struck a deal with Big Basket for 1 year. From 5 November we will load Big Basket with a stock of 50kg.
So, what is a typical unit? What is the investment one should be looking at? What are the prerequisites? For instance, should they have land available? What is your process?
We should ensure that the land or the greenhouse we set up should be near to the city. Proximity to the city is an important piece.
Another important factor is that their unit should have 24 hours of power supply. This factor is so important that they should also have a backup power supply because electricity is crucial to this method of cultivation. They should have at least 3 days of surplus power as backup. The thing is that even in the worst case power failure scenario, the unit must be backed up with power supply. These two are the basic needs for this project.
The conventional agriculturists don’t understand this demand for electricity and proximity to cities.
Suppose a person comes to you, who meets both these requirements, how much land should he have in possession, at a minimum?
He should have at least 2,000 sq. ft land. Or, a maximum of 10,000 sq. ft. Per calculations, you can easily generate a revenue of Rs 80,000/- per month from a 2,000 sq. ft vertical hydroponics unit. In a vertical space you can cultivate equivalent of what you cultivate in 1 acre plot of land.
We are now going to set up a unit in Chennai. The project is in its initial stages only. We are working on a 10,000 sq. ft hydroponics farm for cultivating zucchini – a variety of cucumber. We are planning on cultivating one single crop there using the vertical Dutch bucket system, which is a 5 tier system. This 10,000 sq. ft unit will produce crops equivalent to the produce in a 30,000 sq. ft plot of land. This will obviously have a positive impact on their income.
What should his investment be?
We have published our rates on the online store section of your website – agricultureinformation.com.
If I get an enquiry from someone through agricultureinformation.com, depending on how interested they are to go ahead with this technology and the size of their order, I will offer a 10-20% discount on the published rates.
What will be the main cost involved in this? The setting up of the greenhouse will obviously, attract a cost. What are the other cost-attracting things in this project?
The minimum rate per sq. ft of greenhouse would come up to Rs 850/sq. ft. This can go up to a maximum of Rs 1,250/- per sq. ft.
Will this cost involve all the equipment for running a hydroponics farm?
This cost will make sure the structure is complete.
In hydroponics, the humidity, temperature and all climatic conditions are set. We do a comprehensive training for the investor. We will set up all the systems connected to the controlled system. Although slight temperature may tend to happen, there is automated steaming set to controls the temperature in the greenhouse, during such conditions. This program is tried and tested for good results. After the unit is functional, you don’t have to start or stop anything. Just leave it the way it is. It is automated to monitor itself through sensors.
So, if the cost is, for instance, Rs1,500/- per sq. feet for a 2,000 sq. ft unit – it comes to about 30 lakhs, correct?
Does this cost cover everything – are there any other costs?
This is for the greenhouse alone. The hydroponics system has a different charge.
How much does the hydroponics system cost?
That will range from Rs 650/- – Rs 1,250/- per sq. ft, depending on which hydroponic method you would opt for
So this means this amounts to roughly a Rs. 30 lakhs for the greenhouse and another similar amount for the hydroponics unit. Right?
Not exactly because the hydroponics cost depends not just on the plot size. The room for battery backup and all will vary. So it will not be a proportionate double the cost.
Any other cost involved – any one-time costs, for instance?
Besides this, the owner should invest in the consumables. We will supply a set of seeds but we won’t give the net pot, foam for supporting the plants, etc. Such consumable items must be purchased by the consumer – the nutrients, the RO machine for RO water and PH maintenance, battery backup is to be brought by the owner. Also you have to study your market and accordingly we will supply seeds.
Also, we need to know what kind of crops to grow in our area right?
In my opinion, there are so many herbs in demand. So many organic companies, hotel industries or pharmaceutical companies are creating a demand for such herbs. For the hotel industry, we target on decorative plants.
For such crops you can even demand a premium price because conventional farmers cannot cultivate it in India, right?
That is true. They can be cultivated only using hydroponics in India.
Also, I would suggest that you don’t grow regular vegetables using hydroponics. It is a better ROI when we consider the investment, to grow exotic crops and sell them at a premium price. The rate at which you make an ROI will be much faster. Within one and half years you can recover your investment costs.
How long does this investment last? I mean how long before you need to perform maintenance works on the greenhouse?
The internal system is very long lasting. It lasts up to 20 years. But in 10 years it is better that you upgrade it at a lesser cost. So, 10 years of maximum warranty is what we give away for the poly houses and for the internal systems. After 10 years, we need to do techno scanning. For 10-15 years, there is no question of any trouble.
What about consultation fees? Don’t you levy charges for setting these structures up, consultation services etc.?
My consultation fees is10% of the amount spent on the green house and the hydroponic system. For example, if the initial investment goes up to Rs 50,00,000/-, I will charge 10% of 50,00,000 as my consultancy fees. But, this is payable only after the first harvest. That way the investor has full faith that I will, indeed, take full responsibility to grow the crops, run the farm and market the produce. I will be in contact with the farm owner even after the first harvest.
Do you charge consultation fees after each harvest?
No. By the end of the first cycle, the investor will be able to take over almost independently. So the required intervention from my side, in future cycles, will be nil or almost nil.
So far which are your successfully completed projects? Do you have any completed projects in and around Bangalore or anywhere in South India?
There are 2 full-fledged hydroponic farms at Ratnagiri.
There are unfortunately no completed farms in Bangalore. I have had 2-3 people approach me from there but they are yet to decide whether to go ahead with the project. I also had a call from Ooty who expressed interest in growing strawberries. Those discussions are still in the initial phase.
There is a client from Vishakapatnam whose idea was to gather a group of 25 farmers and grow organic crops using the hydroponics technology. I have visited some organic farms to understand how to convert them into hydroponic farms. I decided on the best economical system for their hydroponic set up and the farmers are also in agreement to this. This is for 35 polyhouses.
Who are your competitors? And, what are the challenges you face in this industry?
3 years ago when I zeroed in on this industry, I realized that there is no competitor in this field because the working time and style of this is very unique. Also, convincing people to get into this mode of farming is an extremely difficult task.
Each time I get tied up with a client, I consider it a huge victory and it gives me 100% satisfaction. Our work is huge and it has a huge potential. We take 1 and half months to set up an internal system. There is a lot of sincerity and dedication to make sure that no mistakes happen.
Why do you think most people show this resistance?
For example, I have two IITians who have approached me. They were two people who are well-settled in their business. Even after having extended discussions on this venture, they asked me if there is any subsidy from the government for this venture. Sadly, this is the mentality that most Indians have even if they have lots of money and even there is an assurance for earnings 10 times more than what they invest.
People think that where there is a farmer, there is a subsidy. This is a mindset which I find impossible to crack.
Perhaps they worried about the marketing part?
They admit that they have sufficient money. But still they want some money from the government or the horticulture department. I have visited 2-3 areas in Maharashtra and contacted a horticulture department in Haryana, they said they don’t have the facility to train on hydroponics. So there is no form of support I get from the government.
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