Nestled at the foothills of Nainital is the small village of Naudha that lies on the periphery of Corbett National Park. One can find Red Otter Farms (ROF), an aquaponic farm that spreads over 12,000 sq ft, here.
With more than 20 varieties of greens including eight types of lettuce, six varieties of kale, Swiss chard, beets, arugula, rocket, cherry and salad tomatoes and another 15 varieties of microgreens, this farm, that Anubhav Das and Shrishti Mandaar run, harvests 70 kgs of chemical-free greens every week.
From delivering fresh chemical-free greens to resorts and even at the doorsteps of customers in South Delhi and Gurugram, Red Otter Farms is one of India’s earliest and fastest-growing aquaponic farms.
This is the story of how ROF started.
In a photography and media communications career spanning two decades majorly with non-profit organisations, Anubhav Das travelled into the interiors of rural India. Despite his work in the non-profit sector, Das felt a persistent need to do something bigger and different.
His travels to the lesser-explored nooks and corners of India introduced him to the world of farming. By 2014, he had completely immersed himself in understanding what ailed farmers in India and what eco-friendly methods could be adapted to make farming profitable.
In an exclusive interview with The Better India (TBI), the co-founder of ROF recalls, “Despite being an agrarian economy where 65 per cent of our population practices farming, I realised the productivity and final returns were minimal. One of the major factors that contributed to it was the increasing dependence of Indian farmers on natural resources like rain.”
He goes on to explain that on the other end of agriculture, the consumers were clueless about where the food on their plate came from and how it was grown. Anubhav felt that the consumers were bereft of choices that they ought to have while consuming the food they do.
More than six years ago, when Das decided to become a farmer, a year into ploughing a field made him aware of the ground challenges of traditional farming. He started searching for alternative methods of agriculture. And that was how he stumbled upon Aquaponics.
Thus began Das’ journey along with Shrishti Mandaar, who co-founded ROF.
“We had to look for a concept that would only reduce our dependence on natural resources but also help increase the yield manifold. We chose Aquaponics over organic farming due to the elongated growth period, and over hydroponics which had a high dependence on chemical nutrients.”
Back then the method of farming that combines aquaculture and farming in a controlled environment was relatively new in India. Not much information was available on aquaponic infrastructure or systems that could be adapted to the Indian context.
It took them two years of in-depth research about the process and custom-building their system before Red Otter Farms fully kicked off in 2016.
“The period of study, though long, was full of learning. For, eg, we learned that the pipe-based NFT system used in hydroponics works well in situations where the temperature variation is not much. But if you did not have an enclosed environment where the temperature had high fluctuations, the stress level on the plants is immense.”
The duo also decided to not start with a backyard trial space of 20 sq ft. Instead they scaled it up from the very start. Why? Because in a more extensive system, if the germination didn’t happen efficiently, it would only impact only 10 per cent of the crops.
Today, the farm sprawls over 12,000 sq ft and harvests a range of salad greens, micro-greens and is even experimenting with the growing cherry and salad tomatoes year-long.
“We have now narrowed down to fewer varieties due to space constraints. When we started, we experimented with close to 15 varieties of lettuce, six varieties of kale, eight varieties of tomatoes and even seven varieties of hot peppers/chillies,” informs Das.
While the team harvests close to 70 kg of greens per week, they plan to increase this to 300-400 kg per week in the next four months after they build another 20,000 sq ft facility.
“The new system that we are in the process of building will help us utilise space better, and ensure our production systems are more aligned.”
At the moment the two are focussing on producing salad products, but the varieties will increase once the expansion happens.
Apart from delivering greens to a few hotels locally and even biggies like Taj resorts and spas at Ramnagar, ROF also sells their produce to retail outlets. The latest facility they have launched to cater to a new base of customers is the Fresh Box. This is a weekly-subscription plan that delivers an assortment of two lettuce or green salad mixes, micro-greens and fresh herbs at the doorstep of their consumers in South Delhi and Gurugram.
“It is a wholesome box which caters to the needs of a family of three to four, which can use it through the week for salads, sandwiches, soups, etc. We’ve had lovely feedback from customers until now. Though we are catering to only 25 households currently, we aim to expand this pool of customers once our production increases.”
People often think of lettuce and microgreens as only salad ingredients, so ROF slips in recipes with every Freshbox to allow consumers to explore newer recipes with the ingredients available in the box.
“We aim to make access to clean and chemical-free food as easy as possible for people. What better method than Aquaponics to ensure that?” beams Das.
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When I ask him to list out the benefits of the method, he explains:
- First and foremost, when compared to traditional soil-based farming, it reduces your dependence on an extensive area of land. Aquaponics, even in a small space, allows you to go vertical and increase yield manifold.
- Aquaponics does not use any chemical additives, fertilisers or pesticides to promote plant growth. It relies on fish ammonia for its nutrients. So, it is a robust natural ecosystem in itself that also allows you to follow multi-cropping.
- Since it combines aquaculture and soil-less farming, a grower cannot even think of, let alone resort to, the use of any chemicals or pesticides because the use of chemicals can affect the survival of the fish and in turn the crops. So, to keep the system running, the grower is forced to stay away from all kinds of chemicals.
- Unlike hydroponics, it is a zero-discharge system where water is re-circulated continuously. This reduces water requirement by over 90 per cent as compared to conventional soil-based agriculture and by 40 per cent when compared to hydroponics!
“The consumer’s trust stays with you till you fulfil your promise to deliver chemical-free and fresh produce diligently. Through our work in the last three years, we have been steadily growing and increasing this trust-base. Going forward, we see ourselves expanding to a bigger system that allows us to increase the varieties as well as quantity of our produce so we can bring chemical-free food to as many people as many times in the day as they eat. That’s the end goal,” he signs off.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)