How did you get into hydroponics/agriculture after being with the navy for so long?
When I was around 35 years old, I decided to retire from the navy because if I had waited until natural retirement it would have been too late to do anything productive in another career. Hence, I opted for premature retirement in 1997.
I was in Dubai, UAE for around 3 years. I then decided to migrate to Australia with my family. When in Australia, I started a one-man consulting firm, which aimed at business collaborations between India, Australia and the Middle East.
One of the first calls I got was from one of the biggest companies who imported coco peat from Sri Lanka to Australia and, in turn, supply it to horticulturists.
When I went to meet with the Managing Director at his office, I saw two beautiful green houses that he had at his place. I got curious seeing the capsicum and cucumber growing in them because it didn’t look like it was growing in soil.
They explained that they used coco peat instead of soil. My questions to them increased and I found the agriculture process phenomenal and beautiful. This way, I got excited about hydroponics and decided I wanted to learn this mode of agriculture. If I learned it, I could, at some point, take it back to my country.
And so, for 8 years, I worked with a lot of growers in Australia, consultants and people who are well known in this field. After gaining 8 years of practical experience, I decided it was time to launch it in India. So to start off, I wanted to know how people can use this technology to grow plants in their homes, for their own sustainability.
I then came across Ms Peggy Bradley, my guru in simplified hydroponics. She helped me set up simplified hydroponics in India, in 2008. That is how my journey began.
My first project, in India, was at an orphanage which was attached to a poor Christian school (Sandra Rickets Public School) in Hennur, Bangalore. This orphanage housed children aged 5-15 and most of them looked undernourished. I set up a 250 sq.ft. garden for them. I taught those children how to grow plants, and made their teachers supervise these activities. From there on, I began training people and I have trained almost 10,000 students in the last 11 years.
The last 11 years has not been easy for me because a new concept is always met with ridicule. But I kept treading forward and today a lot of students have learned the technique. Now, we have more commercial hydroponics happening in India. I have come to realise that the technology exists but the skill is lacking.
So, other than the 1-day workshops I have been conducting, I have also started a residential 3-month programme since August last year. In that workshop, my students are taken through approximately 40 different kinds of vegetable crops and herbs. They learn everything from seeding to harvest. Some of my students have gone ahead and secured jobs in the industry and there are others who have started small on a pilot scale.
Skill is the utmost important thing in hydroponics. You can have all the technology and it can be useless if you do not have the required skill. I am aware that there are lot of failures in this industry. People have lost a lot of money thinking it is a very simple thing and not understanding it in depth. On the contrary, horticulture is one of the hardest things because you are working with live plants and so you need to care for them like your own children.
This year I have started the Hydro Yatra 2019. I do 44 workshops in approximately 13 cities of India. I do one day workshops so that people get some perspective about hydroponics. Many of the students who attend my workshop, at the end of the day, can take a decision if this is something that is meant for them or not. I do not show them the rosy side of things alone. The internet is there for that. I expose them to the hard realities of hydroponics too, which is highly appreciated.
Some of them, like I mentioned earlier, do pilot scale activities on their roof tops etc. I continue supporting these students. After every workshop, we create a WhatsApp group and all these individuals become a team. This way I can clear any doubts they may have.
I do this so that I can give back something to the next generation. Food insecurity is not something in the future – the need is already here. I am happy that I keep getting more students who imbibe this culture.
Would these workshops benefit someone who is looking forward to a commercial-scale operation?
My advice to the greenhorn, or newbies, of this industry, is never start on a large scale even if you have the money, land and every other resource at your disposal. Even for people who have been farmers for a long time, they must understand that this is a very different way of growing plants and that it is extremely scientific. For any kind of action in your green house, there has to be a scientific reason behind doing it – even if it is to just observe.
I do commercial consulting as well. I have seen a lot of people who suddenly go and splurge into hectares of greenhouses thinking it is very easy. Many people are of the idea that it is all about the special nutrients that we use. They think humidity, temperature and light have no meaning for these plants. The thing is one has to have an astute amount of skill to grow plants using this technology. While hydroponics is a good technology, it is the most unforgiving science and gives you very little margin for error. The plants completely depend on you.
To cite an example, if a plant is growing in a grow bag, the plant has no way to get up and go find its water because of its restricted environment. You have to; hence, take care of it like it’s an infant. I am not discouraging people. But I always try telling them that they must start by developing skill and understand about growing plants at a foundation level. After that is in place, you can have automation, etc. and use it to your advantage.
My only suggestion to people who consider getting into this field is to hone their skills well and start a small pilot project even if hectares of land is at their disposal.
My students come in for three months. They go back and start their pilot, practice without me around. Once they are confident about understanding and growing plants, then they gradually expand their hydroponic farm. Even in foreign countries, nobody plunges into 10 hectares of green houses at one shot. Everyone starts small, learns hard and scales up gradually. That is the right way to go about it.
How is the hydroponics market?
Before even going in for a crop, we should note that everybody belongs to a certain location. If you are in Kerala, for instance, and decide to grow broccoli, obviously it may not sell in Kerala because people don’t eat broccoli there. You may, hence, have to do a market survey to find out the demand of the local market. Based on that, you can take a decision on what crops you can opt for.
As far as Indians are concerned, anything that looks red is a tomato. Whereas, in a developed nation, people ask for specialty tomatoes like Roma, Bisque, Heirloom, etc. They come asking for tomatoes in variety. So, to check if a project is viable or not is directly related to what you grow for that particular market.
For example, I grow cherry tomatoes and I am at some place which is very far away from the market. Then, I should source budgets for logistics as well. You then need a cold chain. Will all that expense make sense to you? So, there are a lot of things to be considered before you even decide which crop you are going to grow. In Australia, they say, don’t grow what you like, grow what you can sell.
Do you also provide consulting for people who want to look at this at a commercial scale?
Yes, I train people. I normally do not offer consultations for people whom I am convinced has no skill in this field. I get calls from lots of people in India, who say they have the money and the land and they seek consultancy only to run the farm by outsourcing it to people in the industry. Their idea would be to get some MSc horticulture people etc. If things were so simple, we would have not had any agriculture issues in our country. I normally don’t take up such projects because they are setting themselves up for failure.
For example, I am doing a 3-acre project for 2 of my students in Hyderabad. By three acres, I mean – 3 green houses covering an acre each. One dedicated to leafy vegetables, the second for cherry tomatoes and the last for cucumbers. I am ready to do consultation services for them because I know they have the skill. Even though they are in Hyderabad I can instruct them from here, remotely. They would understand what I am telling them.
But, if someone has no skill, it is like trying to fly an aircraft using remote control. It doesn’t quite work that way. Imagine, God forbid, the pilot and co-pilot both die and the plane is on auto pilot. Can an unskilled passenger control the vehicle with ground service instructions? It is fictional to think that it is possible.
I have seen so many disaster cases, wherein people come seeking for damage control services. But, by then it is all over, so much of money lost! I also see people offering consultancy services when they themselves haven’t grown anything.
My ethics is to ground people who are super excited. I strive to show them the reality and the right path because I have no interest in people losing money. It is easier for me to do it the other way but I do not want to push someone into failure and make money out of it.
Who are your students?
I had a student recently who has to his credit a BSc Horticulture degree. He came for my 3-month training programme from Madhya Pradesh, honed his skills and got a job even before he completed his 3-month training.
He has earned a job at the Canadian Cravo Retractable Green House, Hyderabad. Another student secured a job at Noida with the Dharampal-Satyapal group at Nature’s Miracles. That is huge glass house set up imported from Holland.
There are other students who are not keen on taking up jobs. They want to start their own ventures. I have a student in Ambur and another in Mangalore who are working on small 2000-3000 sq. ft. plots. They are continually learning.
The people who come to me are not the conventional soil farmers, usually. They are from many industries other than agriculture. I had a retired Commander and his wife who spent three months learning hydroponics. They intend to go to Canada to be with their son and start farming there.
The people who come to me are a mixed lot. Many want to make a career in farming, some want to establish something themselves. Everybody may not have the money to set up a one-acre or a half acre. So, there are all kinds of people coming in as my students from different backgrounds, aiming at different things.
Can someone, who is not from an agricultural background, think of venturing into this?
Of course, if a person like me, who has been a submariner all his life, can do it – anybody can. The only thing is you have to do it with passion. You have to have empathy for plants. If you nurture a very synthetic relationship with your plants, it is very hard to get the plants to their potential.
The work here is not about simply spraying some pesticides and walking back home. You have got to look at your plants through the eyes of a mother. The work is that intensive. If you are up for that, regardless of your background, you can do it!
Even in progressive nations like Israel and Holland, with all the technology at their disposal, they put in 10-12 hours a day to build beautiful farms. So, it calls for a lot of lifestyle changes when you venture into something like this. You cannot remote control it or leave it to other people. The importance of being skilled can’t be stressed more. There is no place for semi or less skilled people. Core farming is not for them. They can do stuff that needs to be done outside the green house.
Inside the green house, there are times when instant decisions that need to be taken. Challenges need to be addressed with very little loss of time.
If someone wants to start farming on their terrace, what are the requirements?
As far as materials are concerned, you will need nutrients, grow bags to grow the plants, seedling trays to raise a nursery, foliar sprays to spray the plants, friendly microbes and some media like coco peat or anything locally available along with good quality seeds. In hydroponics, there are 4 main pillars. You cannot compromise on the quality of the
3. nutrients, and
If you take care of these 4 factors, you are pretty much on the right track.
Then, comes the green house hygiene management. In India, hygiene management is close to being unheard. 80% of your success rate depends on your hygiene. All these things put together contributes to a good garden. It will do a lot of good for people who want to take it up as a hobby to attend my 1-day workshop wherein I give them the right perspective and make them understand what plants they can grow.
Is this all about hobby and skill or is it also about commercial aspects of farming?
I did not say that I don’t engage with people in the agricultural field. I said that I do not give consultation services for a person who wants to get into commercial hydroponics if I am convinced that he doesn’t have the required skills to handle it.
If you consider global statistics, most people who indulge in hydroponics are not the conventional soil farmers. Very few conventional farmers expand their comfort level into this zone. The thing is, it is very hard to convince soil farmers to take up farming without soil.
When I was in Australia, most people who ran hydroponic greenhouses etc. are people from every other industry – they are lawyers, chartered accountants, retired airline pilots, etc. This is not just in India. It is very hard to change the mindset of soil farmers to trust this technology in any part of the world.
Would this be an answer to India’s agricultural and food security issues?
You can have a 500-100 acre of hydroponics farm also, if you like – not at all a problem! The thing is you need to have skilled people who know what they are doing.
When you move from a roof-top garden to a one acre green house, the dynamics are not linear. Again the dynamics change when you move from an acre to a hectare set up. The requirement of the plants are always the same; but, nevertheless the dynamics change.
We have to understand that taking baby steps to growth is absolutely necessary. Momentum should be gained with confidence and with traction of more market share. That is the path you need to take.
There is an Australian company called Costa, for instance. They grow tomatoes – all kinds of tomatoes, using this technology in 55 hectares of glass houses. They never started with 55 hectares overnight. They started small and kept expanding.
That is the way and the only way you build large hydroponic farms, successfully.
What is the end output difference between a crop of tomatoes produced using the hydroponics technology and tomatoes produced traditionally?
If you were to grow the crop the right way using the right steps the difference is recognisable. For instance, I never used any chemical pesticides when I was a grower and I do not allow my students to use them too. That, in itself, gives it an attraction in today’s demand for pesticide-free food.
The good news is that we hydroponic growers can have our product tested in a laboratory, analysed for heavy metal traces, excessive residual nutrients, nutritive value against the National Institute of Nutrition Standards, Hyderabad or even European Union Standards. You can get it tested for chemical pesticide residue and microbiological contamination and ensure that it is well within acceptable limits because that never can be at a zero level.
I have a student who is now a grower and a consultant. He grows spinach in Bangalore. I made him get all these tests done at Eurofin, a laboratory in Whitefield.
We then took the sample lettuce, packed it, stood on the road at Indranagar and sold about 200 lettuce plants from 10 in the morning to about 4 in the evening. We had to educate the market and make them understand the difference between our crop and the ones they get regularly. Another thing is because all the treatments are administered including irrigation, and supplied equally to every plant in the green house, it is more like vegetables coming out of an assembly line. They come with the same texture, colour and taste. This allows someone getting into this market to be able to brand the product before sales.
Today in India, the biggest problem is that we don’t have branded vegetables. That challenge brings in the greatest opportunity. People are willing to buy anything branded – anything! Why wouldn’t they buy branded tomatoes if they come with the same consistency and quality throughout the year?
We have to step up our game and try matching up with the developed nations. People are willing to pay good money for good food. You get to see imported lettuce, which possibly reaches the market after 15 days of harvest, for which they charge Rs 1400 per kg. That is ridiculous when you can grow it in India for hardly Rs 10-12 per kilo.
If we talk about yield, in conventional farming, even very good farmers may get about 25 tons per acre per year. In hydroponics you can reach as high as 250 to 300 tons per acre per year in a green house. That is a huge leap. The beauty is that we are with the crop right from when we seed to harvest.
This space is not for people who believe in remote control and managerial stuff. It is for hands-on people. You need passion, perseverance and patience. You can’t make a plant grow faster than it does. It has to go through its genetic journey. It is not rocket science, that anybody can learn it. But, it is scientific and that understanding shouldn’t be slighted.
Can we grow any non-seasonal plants using this method?
Hydroponics is only a technique. We have to choose the right variety of seeds which can be employed through all seasons. We need to thus understand what off season crop we are trying to grow. Find something that grows less and transport it to market when it is hardly available. That is how you make money!
Aggragannya Skills Private Limited
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