Personal Finance

Farm without soil

Meera Siva | Updated on April 14, 2019 Published on April 14, 2019

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using mineral solutions in water

Urban farming has become a trend among Indians over the past few years.

You can now start growing food right at home, thanks to new methods such as hydroponics that efficiently utilise space and water.

The basics

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil in which plants get their nutrients from a mineral solution. In some cases, LED lights are used to mimic sunlight. The method has been gaining more acceptance in the last few years due to its low water usage — about 20 per cent of conventional method.

Data from Chennai-based non-profit organisation Green Acres Foundation say that around 50,000 acres are estimated to be under hydroponic production around the world. In India, things are still in the early stages. Some firms such as Triton Foodworks, based in Maharashtra, have over 150,000 sq ft of hydroponic farms.

Also read: Coimbatore agri engineer grows crops out of thin air — and very little water

You can use the produce for own consumption, or can also sell it. The method is suitable for growing greens and herbs as they don’t have deep roots. Tomatoes and strawberries are other popular items. It requires less labour, and yields are said to be much higher as plants grow faster (due to direct access to required nutrients) compared with regular farms.

The most efficient aspect of hydroponics is that you can get started even if you have very limited space; there are cases where 6,000 plants were grown in 80 sq ft space. This is by stacking plants vertically, as the method is not limited by the ground area.

Costs

However, the initial costs of setting up a hydroponic farm is very high. You will need a physical outer structure to grow the plants. This can be trays or tubes, which are typically made of food-grade plastic. The cost of this is typically ₹50,000-75,000 for 1,000 sq ft. If you build this yourself rather than order a kit, you can save some money, but do it only if you understand the system well.

There are costs for a plumbing system and automation such as sensors, controllers. You can include less or more, based on the level of sophistication needed. These can be quite expensive and can set you back by even ₹1 lakh. You also need to pay for an electrical system (for water pumps).

Another sizeable cost is the systems needed to maintain ambient temperature and moisture. So, if it is set up on your terrace, you will have to cover it like a green house. Depending on the type of enclosure, your costs can vary from ₹25,000 to ₹1.5 lakh. Additionally, if you want to maintain temperature, cooling, heating, LED lights (if there is no sunlight) and fan systems may be needed; these can push costs up even more.

One other cost is for water. Besides the plumbing system, you need to invest in the quality of water. If your water has dissolved minerals or is hard, purification devices will be needed to make it usable.

Hydroponics is viable at any scale and there are kits that start at low prices, too. But the odds can be upped with higher investment and a larger size.

There are also ongoing costs. There is power cost to circulate water, for LED lights and climate control. Plants also require nutrient feed which you can prepare or purchase from manufacturers.

Your profits will depend on what you grow. Herbs, for example, have a good selling price and can get better returns. Lettuce is another popular green among hydroponic farmers. In general, the produce is typically priced higher than conventional produce due to its freshness and it being pesticide-free.

Caveats

There are a few things you must evaluate to decide if setting up a hydroponic farm at home is suitable for you. One, if you are doing it as a hobby, start small and go with starter kits that are sold online. Two, if you are thinking of doing it on a larger scale, be sure to find out what products have a profitable market, and line up your demand. Also, check water availability and any restrictions on water usage in your housing society. For example, though hydroponics save over 80 per cent water due to recycling, you still need over 4 litres of water to grow 1 kg of tomato.

Three, ensuring there are no diseases and maintaining the nutritional balance of the output requires a good understanding of agriculture and sophisticated controls in the system. You can also consider working with consultants who can guide you, but it adds to your cost. You may want to consider if other methods such as a small terrace garden with soil may be more suitable as a start.

The writer is an independent financial consultant

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