Farming is a science that involves elements of chemistry, geography, weather and timing. Reaping the best yield out of farms requires a perfect blend of these elements with high precision and timing. Farm Again, a Tamil Nadu based startup is helping farmers achieve exactly that.
Benjamin Raja started the company in 2012 from Tirunalveli, his hometown, after quitting a high paying corporate job. Life changed for Benjamin when he visited a school friend in 2010.
“My friend, John Augustun, a farmer from Salem, was not happy with the yield and earning less than expected. I realised the need to bring timely interventions in farming, to solve such issues,” Benjamin says.
“John was using 1,000 litres of water for irrigation, where the requirement was only 100 litres. This was the same reason why the yield was low, which is calculated in the proportion of 1:10,” Benjamin recounts.
“I thought what if the average yield in the country is increased five to ten times, allowing farmers to have a great life? There was a simple solution,” Benjamin narrates adding, “I certainly could help them.”
There has been no looking back since.
Rajaratnam Kanakarajan is another farmer from Thungavi, who wanted to give away his 14-acre farmland for industrial or commercial use. “It was getting difficult to manage the farm and I considered chopping down the coconut trees under cultivation,” he says.
Rajaratnam said Benjamin offered his precision farm technique for six months for free. “Benjamin said that if his technique succeeds, I would have to start paying him,” he adds.
“Farming requires timely and correct interventions. The watering, the use of fertiliser and the quantity needs to be adequate. Trusting the workforce did not help as effective monitoring of the coconut trees did not happen,” Benjamin said, recalling his efforts. And they did pay off indeed.
Rajaratnam said 99 per cent of his problems were solved when he installed the system in 2018, and he expects the coconut yield to increase from 80 nuts per tree to 160 nuts.
The farm management technique worked so well for Rajaratnam that he invested in the company and became the director.
Small innovation big impact
After initial successes, Benjamin says the farmers started facing a new challenge. “The farmers are enthusiastic about using the technique during the first season. However, the productivity dropped with the second and third season,” he adds.
Benjamin says that farmers tend to be less careful and pay less attention compared to the initial seasons.
“We were already using semi-automated techniques to attend the crops. We did feel the need for fully automated technology, but the sensors and valves were exorbitantly expensive. Moreover, despite the automation features, it still required manual interventions,” Benjamin added.
Benjamin decided to invest in research and developed indigenous equipment himself.
“These sensors monitor the moisture level of the soil, the water quantity needed, the amount of fertiliser to be used and other vital parameters,” he added.
Explaining further, Benjamin said the sensors detect and inject the necessary inputs in the soil and for the plant to maintain the optimum conditions for growth. “The series of inputs through the growth period helps get the best outcome possible,” he adds.
The system also works on a solar-powered backup which helps the system running round the clock. A mobile application allows all the parameters to be monitored and accept any inputs if needed from the user.
“The entire exercise helps to prevent over-irrigation and saves water, and injects the least amount of fertiliser needed to maximise the nutrition intake of plants, leading to high productivity,” Benjamin says.
Scalable and cost-effective
Benjamin says that a land area of half an acre, up to 30 km from the hub (or farmer’s home), can be covered in his technology.
About 3,500 farmers across Tamil Nadu, covering over 4,000 acres of land, are benefitting with the technology at present, the founder of the startup says.
Speaking about the cost factor, Benjamin says automating an acre of the area with imported technology costs around Rs 25 Lakh. But, with indigenous equipment produced in India, the investment cost drops to Rs 2.5 Lakh.
“The interventions come at one-tenth of the price compared to foreign-made products,” Benjamin says.
Saving resources through optimum utilisation
Dayalan, a traditional farmer from Pollachi village about 40 km from Coimbatore, said the precision farming helped his farm in the Western Ghats to save a lot of resources.
“I am getting 30 per cent more yield and saving a lot of water. Despite peak summers, the irrigation system works only for 2-3 hours a day,” he adds.
Some farmers have also started taking barren land under cultivation.
“I have about 22 acres of land. But some 18 acres are left barren while the remaining has coconut, areca nut and nutmeg plantations. With the same availability of water, I have decided to undertake vegetable cultivation on the other land area,” says Aravind from Udumalpet village, Tiruppur district.
Aravind says the move will help increase his income for a lower price – precisely what Benjamin intended all along.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)