When Joshua and Sakina decided to quit their well-paying jobs and switch to farming, everyone, including their parents, thought they were wasting their time and efforts with a dead project.
“Who in their right frame of mind decides to leave a comfortable job in a city like Mumbai and get their hands dirty with farming?” naysayers asked.
Today, amid the chaos of the city, the duo is successfully running, what they call, Mumbai’s first hyperlocal farm!
In a room less than 1,000 sq ft, with over 1,000 plants, they grow seven varieties of lettuce (lollo rosso, oakleaf, French romaine, summer crisp, butterhead), three varieties of Swiss chard (red, yellow and white), two types of rocket (wild and cultivated) and four varieties of kale.
All using hydroponic farming!
Operating from a warehouse in an old industrial estate that they transformed into an indoor farm in the Andheri suburb of Mumbai, the duo is growing pesticide-free, healthy and flavourful leafy greens, and delivering them at the doorsteps of their customers mere hours after harvest.
The Better India got in touch with the urban farmer duo to document their journey.
This journey towards growing their own food has its roots in a trip they took to Auroville in June 2017.
“Our jobs were good. The money was flowing in, but there was no greater meaning to what we were doing. We wanted to do more with our time. We had goals, but didn’t know what to start with,” confesses Joshua.
He continues, “Besides, it felt like each day was passing by in a monotonous routine. It was a never-ending loop where we were neither living to the fullest nor giving enough. And so, on a whim, we decided to pack our backs and travel to Auroville in Puducherry. We spent three months there working at a natural farm and getting our hands dirty.”
This is the same Solitude Farm run by musician and organic farmer Krishna McKenzie, who moved to Auroville from the UK 25 years ago. Over 140 varieties of plants, ranging from wild greens, flowers, fruits, vegetables, oilseeds, cereals, grains, grams, and pulses, are grown across six acres of land. Read more about it here.
“The farm had a beautiful concept where the lunch for a particular day would be prepared using veggies harvested the same morning and served at the cafe. We would work at the farm in the morning and relish a heavy lunch cooked with the fresh veggies we harvested ourselves,” says Joshua.
Not only were these veggies at their maximum level of nutrition when consumed fresh but they gave them the energy to continue working in the farm without getting tired.
“We realised how food back home in Mumbai was sedative, doused with pesticides. Besides, the vegetables we consumed were off the shelf and at the very least, a week old, considering the harvest-to-transportation time,” says Sakina.
“When I ate lunch at the office, I felt sleepy at my work desk. Back in Auroville, we could work tirelessly even after lunch. This highlighted the crucial need for fresh food,” Joshua agrees.
After their return to Mumbai, the duo could hardly find anyone around them who grew and delivered fresh leafy green veggies.
And so, they decided to start growing their own leafy greens.
Joshua continues, “We are big-time lovers of salads. But we could hardly find any suppliers of clean, pesticide-free, leafy greens which could be consumed raw. Even the ones we consumed lacked flavour, often alternating between bland and bitter. And so, we decided to test hydroponic farming on Sakina’s terrace.”
The idea behind hydroponics was to avoid moving to the outskirts in search of land suitable for organic farming.
The goal was set. They wanted to grow fresh leafy greens in the middle of the chaotic city and consume them fresh.
The classic trial-and-error method ensued for months. Whoever they sought guidance from had nothing more to share apart from the basic principles of hydroponics.
But the duo did not give up. They conducted extensive researched and kept trying. This was coupled with the pressure from home about trudging down an unconventional road.
Once they succeeded in growing three varieties, they invited their parents for a tasting session. Although their labour was appreciated, the parental units were unsure how the youth would be consistent.
But they decided to support the youngsters and gave them initial capital to kickstart their indoor commercial farm in Andheri East.
“I still remember how we made a 16-slide presentation to convince them to invest in our project. I don’t think they were convinced, but they had no option than to agree,” she laughs.
“With the customer base we have gathered and the farm that we have set up, they are now convinced we did not make the wrong choice,” says Joshua.
Christened Herbivore Farms, the concept behind the initiative is to make freshly harvested leafy greens available to their customers.
How is it beneficial?
The climate within the greenhouse is artificially controlled, so the crops are protected against the weather outside.
Hydroponics is soil-less farming, where macro and micronutrients dissolved within a water solution directly facilitate plant growth. The system uses 75-85 per cent less water than conventional farming!
Growing plants in a vertical system allows them to grow five times more. The only challenge currently is that since the food is delivered within hours of harvest, the locations they cater to are limited.
When I ask them how their venture stands apart from their competitors, Sakina quips, “We consider our USP to be that our produce is delivered to the customer’s home a few hours post-harvest. So it is always at its peak of freshness, nutrition, and flavour. Our indoor farm enables a clean, sterile environment, which has zero pesticides, so it’s 100 per cent safe. We use 80 per cent less water to grow our produce with a recirculating irrigation system.”
To market their produce, the duo also gave away free samples which received an amazing response.
Every week, they harvest 350 plant heads which cater to 150 customers who have a monthly subscription.
A Herbivore Harvest Box (Monthly Subscription) costs Rs 1,500 (with extra delivery charges for South Mumbai) for one month. The deliveries are staggered over four weeks–one per week on a decided day–depending on the location of the subscriber.
Every week, this subscriber gets one box containing two to three varieties of leafy greens harvested the same morning.
“Most people who tried our produce conveyed how fresh and flavourful the leafy greens were, how different their texture was. Many of them subscribed to us soon after. It helped change their age-old perception of leafy veggies being ‘bitter’ or ‘bland’. And that was certainly morale-boosting for us. To be honest, I myself wasn’t such a big fan of greens until we started growing them ourselves,” signs off Sakina.
To all the aspiring urban farmers who want to grow their own food, but often find excuses not to, Joshua has a message.
“Every time you wake up in the morning, you often have things on your bucket-list that you want to achieve before you die. You might often overthink about how much time you’d be wasting in pursuing those goals. In the process, you do not land up doing anything about them. So our message simply is–if you are passionate about what you want to do and know that you will enjoy it, just do it. The universe will conspire to remove all the obstacles in your path and everything will fall in place.”
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)
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