Life took a new turn for Ratlam-based farmer, Arvind Dhakad, in 2015 after a visit to Israel through a private agro-tour comprising farmers. He was stunned to see native farmers growing traditional crops without soil, through a technique called hydroponics.
On interactions with farmers, he learned about its benefits, including less space, water, maintenance and high returns.
However, what impressed him the most was the absence of chemicals or pesticides.
The 38-year-old, in a way, felt guilty about growing chemical-infused food back home that gave mediocre returns. Today, five years later, Dhakad has replicated the model on his farm to grow strawberries. He set up the hydroponic model that is now giving him a high yield, almost 50 per cent faster growth, and his profits have increased up to 70 per cent.
While he is growing about a thousand kilos of strawberry per cycle on 3,000 sq ft, Dhakad says that it can be grown at home as well.
“The minimum space one needs is 2×3 square feet. If you do vertical hydroponics, then 30 pots can thrive, and cost about Rs 3,000 to set up. All you need is sunlight, water, and oxygen to kickstart your edible garden in the balcony, on the rooftop, windowsills, or even backyard,” Dhakad informs The Better India.
What is Hydroponic Farming & Why Dhakad Promotes It
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a soil-free base. The roots are immersed in water and nutrients, instead of soil.
It is a system where water runs in cycles in a fixed quantity. The water needs to be changed every 15 days, a feature that eliminates the need to water the plants every day. Thus, both efforts and water resources are saved in the process.
“There are multiple methods of hydroponic systems, but the main aim is to pump the right amount of nutrients and water directly to the roots. Compared to conventional farming, one can cut down almost 90 per cent of water usage due to water recirculation in hydroponics,” says Dhakad.
Controlled farming, feeding, and watering increase the yield significantly than what is grown in soil in the same area. Macro and micronutrients in the water are directly fed to the plant, helping it to grow faster.
One of the most significant advantages of hydroponics, says Dhakad, is the elimination of chemicals. Since the plants are grown without soil, any soil-borne diseases are prevented, “If there are any bugs or pests, they can be controlled through organic fertilisers like neem oil.”
Dhakad’s Success Story of Strawberries
Even though Dhakad belongs to a farming family, he studied BCom to pursue a stable job in Multinational companies.
“Agriculture in India has its share of challenges, including low yield, crop damages, extensive use of chemicals, low income, and so on. So, the initial plan was to find a stable job,” adds Dhakad.
Since farming and gardening run in his blood, he couldn’t stay away from it long. So, after graduation, he joined his family on their eight-acre land. From fruits to various vegetables, Dhakad took forward his father’s legacy. Even today, a majority of the vegetables are grown via traditional farming.
However, knowing the advantages of hydroponics, Dhakad dedicated small patches of land to soilless farming.
After returning from Israel, Dhakad set up a small pilot project at an investment of Rs 22,000. For this, he got ready-made strawberry plants from a local nursery, cocopeat, PVC pipe, net pots, nutrient solution, water tanker, and a motor pump.
In a 15×20 sq ft of area, he grew 600 strawberry pots on his self-built tabletop hydroponic system in a couple of months. It has multiple layers of the pipe.
He drilled 3-inch holes on 110 mm PVC pipes, drilled 10 inches apart, and then added the strawberry saplings and cocopeat in the pots, “Nutrient-rich matter like coco peat or pebbles act as a medium to hold the plants in place.”
In the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), the motor pump delivers water from the water tank to the first layer of the PVC pipe. With the help of gravity, water flows to the other layers. Meanwhile, the nutrient solution flows in a thin film over the roots. This ensures the roots are fed in proportion without being soaked.
The water flows in rotation, “I change 10 litres of water every 15 days, thus cutting down my water needs by 90 per cent!”
There is very little maintenance in this method. However, if the nutrient or water requirement is not balanced, plants can die quickly. Dhakad suggests patience in the initial period, but once you get to know your plants, their temperature and so on, it becomes easier.
Once he achieved the desired results, Dhakad scaled his strawberry production and started procuring the mother plants from California.
Emphasising the advantages of limited space, Dhakad says, “In vertical hydroponics farming, one bhiga land (5-8 acre) can accommodate around 70,000 strawberry plants, as against 10,000 in the conventional method.”
Apart from strawberries, Dhakad also grows other veggies like spinach, tomatoes, brinjals, lettuce, capsicum, and ornamental flowers through hydroponics.
When Dhakad started, he had very little guidance. He had to research and draw his own conclusions after numerous trials and errors.
To make things easier for others and help his peers, he launched a training programme. He soon realised that apart from farmers, urban dwellers were keen on replicating the model at their homes. So, he tweaked his lessons.
“From college students, housewives, startup owners to people who wanted to pursue gardening as a hobby, most of my students are from urban areas. This, I believe, is a drastic mindset change in growing and consuming chemical-free food,” he shares.
In his workshops, Dhakad teaches how to set up a hydroponic system in low-budget, appropriate nutrition for the water and making a plant nursery. At the end of the workshop, he provides attendees with a certificate.
Dhakad claims to have taught 5,000 people so far.
One of his students, Surat-based Dipesh Asani, who attended the training programme twice now grows multiple organic veggies on his terrace.
Sharing the experience, he tells The Better India:
“I wanted to take farming as a hobby last year when I came across Dhakad’s YouTube channel. Hydroponics is a vast subject, so I underwent training. His presentation and teaching methods are simple and straightforward. The best part is that he doesn’t mind solving doubts post the training. Around 300 organic edible plants are now flourishing on my 800 sq ft terrace. I had some initial roadblocks, but once I understood the ecosystem, none of my plants died. It was a one-time investment that is now giving me natural food at home. So far, I was pursuing it as a hobby, but now, I plan to scale it up commercially.”
When the world is witnessing severe climate change, the hydroponic farming technique could be a long-term solution–for urban dwellers who can grow organic food at home with limited water and no soil, and farmers in drought-prone areas who can profit from it.
To know more, get in touch with Arvind Dhakad on WhatsApp at 98263 50889. You can also check out his YouTube channel.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)