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The future is farm fresh

Why not make every rooftop a mini farm and every resident an urban farmer? This is the question on Sriram Gopal’s mind, who started off as a regular hobbyist, and is now a commercial farmer. His concern Future Farms, constantly gets inquiries on hydroponics — growing plants without soil and using automated watering systems.

Within minutes of my arrival at their set-up at Kottivakkam, I sample dry basil, cinnamon basil, large leaf Italian basil and curry leaf, and their flavours and fragrances linger for a long time. Chinese kale grows in nutrient-rich water and spinach sprout in sponge substrate. Edible fish as well as ornamental species like Japanese Koi and Pacu are harvested in tanks with circulating water.

Sriram’s entrepreneur father, Gopalakrishnan, pioneered indigenous photographic printing and film processing technology in Chennai in the 1970s. In later years, he had a debilitating spinal cord injury. By 2011, Sriram was running a product development company and eager to get his father tinkering around again, he continually proposed projects.

One day, friend and chef, Muhammad Ali, unhappy with the use of pesticides in agriculture, shared with them a video on hydroponics. Soon after, Sriram and and his father went and bought a variety of materials. “They started building systems all over our home,” says Sriram’s wife Preeta, who encouraged them to pursue it further. Gopalakrishnan started a greenhouse in his old factory in Kottivakkam, which soon turned into a full-time facility.

Gopalakrishnan had once made the smallest film processor and also set up his own lab, where he produced quality prints, proving that his product was just as good as Fuji or Kodak. History repeats itself at the 20,000 sq.ft. facility of Future Farms. While they import scientific instrumentation, the actual systems are built in-house with local materials, and the product lines are developed by Gopalakrishnan.

The 2,000 sq.ft. shade house is a vibrant showroom. The ‘mother-ship’ is their flagship hydro-vertical farm system of 1,500 plants on 1,000 sq.ft., using a nutrient film technique. Driponics runs on a hybrid deep water culture technology — no water pump is needed to circulate the water, just air.

Employing aquaponics, fish are harvested and the waste is used to feed plants to grow. Plant accessories include tiny to large net pots, coco peat for base and clay pellets termed ‘leca’. “Soon, we hope to water 100 plants with just 300 watt power — that’s the amount of energy a tube light needs,” says Sriram.

His passion for innovation, energy conservation and being outdoors, is what led him all along. The quick growth seen in the year-and-a-half since its inception was unexpected, says Preeta. They have on board a free-thinking core team of 16 people from various backgrounds. They have projects in Bhutan and Karnataka and receive calls from as far as South Africa and UAE.

They are working with the Horticultural Department of Tamil Nadu; in aquaponics, they are involved with the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for aquaculture, with its Tilapia fish centre in Vijayawada.

Future Farm products are on par with EU standards. Hydroponics requires special nutrients, which they import from France. Systems are lightweight and earth-free, thereby reducing pesticides.

Compared to a regular terrace garden, hydroponics uses 80 per cent less water. Preeta says, “It is a good option for residential projects and for people who like trying new things and working with their hands, even if you start with a 100 sq.ft. space.” As of now, Future Farms facilitates people to build their own farms and terrace gardens. “By putting a poly-house on the roof, there is a 20 per cent increase in cooling efficiency and you get extra oxygen from the plants”, says Sriram. Products range from Rs. 2, 000 onwards and hydroponics can be a wonderful hobby for seniors, as it does not require bending or handling of heavy machinery.

Attending expos has given Sriram a greater insight into future markets. More than anything, he finds that working around plants benefits health and gives an increased sense of well-being. “People do not buy our products. They buy into the vision.”

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The writer is a city-based writer and visualiser. She studied furniture design at NID and is a graduate of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 7:37:52 AM |

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