Growing crops without soil: Here’s how hydroponics works

We head to HMA Greens Hydro Farm to understand how hydroponics works

August 05, 2019 04:04 pm | Updated 04:04 pm IST

The air in the polyhouse is thick with the fragrance of basil.

A variety of lettuce, baby spinach, arugula, mustard greens, kale, mint and the aforementioned basil thrive in little net pots, nestled in troughs with varying levels of water.

Workers are busy checking the roots and shoots of the plants before deciding whether to move them to the next stage. All one can hear is the gentle whirring of fans, constantly running to maintain a conducive temperature inside the polyhouse. It is hard to believe that bustling OMR is just 500 metres away from these lush surroundings.

Meeting market demand

At HMA Greens Hydro Farm there are over 14 varieties of greens being grown at any given point using hydroponics. Launched in early 2018 by 30-year-old Akil Murthi, the farm started with three varieties of lettuce before scaling up to its present stage.

“I first came across hydroponics when I was doing my MBA in Singapore. I wanted to replicate it since we didn’t have anything of the sort here then. Land is becoming premium and you can do so much more with hydroponics: better quality control, more yield in a smaller patch of land and lower water usage as well,” he says, adding, “It took about eight months to get the project moving.”

Akil explains how hydroponics allows one to tailor crops as per market demand. “There was a report by the World Economic Forum that stated that a lot of Southeast Asian countries grow crops that are not really required in the market at that point of time. This leads to wasted produce,” he says. He adds, “With hydroponics we can change that, since harvesting times are a lot shorter than in traditional farming.”

In hydroponics it takes an average of 45 days to harvest crops like lettuce, basil and baby spinach. The same would take around 90 days when grown the traditional way. Water consumed to grow these crops is 90% less. “A nutrient solution is mixed into the water in the control room. From here it is pumped into troughs which house the net pots with the crops. Since the water directly reaches the roots, it is absorbed much better and you need much less water as well since nothing is lost in soil absorption,” says Akil.

Less water, good yield

Typically, HMA Greens farm uses around 700-800 litres of water a day. In winter that consumption goes down to 500 litres. This is why his farm has managed to consistently produce good yield despite the water scarcity in the city this year.

No chemicals are used in the farm and only natural ingredients such as neem oil are used to keep away pests. “We also use sticky pads and a solar powered insect trap,” says Akil.

They also use the Nutrient Filled Technique (NFT) system, which Akil says is ideal to grow crops like salad greens. The polyhouse also uses the pad and fan technology — cooling pads line the wall on one side, while on the opposite wall are fans — to maintain temperature and humidity levels inside. “Since this was a pilot project we did not get into vertical farming. If we decide to, it’d mean changing our entire system and bringing in LED lights for the plants.”

On an average the HMA farm produces a total yield of 2,500 kilograms during summer and in the cooler months manages to churn out as much as 4,000 kilograms. Excess produce is turned into compost. HMA farm delivers to customers’ doorsteps for a fixed charge. Alternatively, customers can pick up their orders from the office at HMA Land, Thapar house, 37, Montieth Road, Egmore. 28553550.

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