What would you do if you’re cruising at 30,000 feet in the air daily and are suddenly grounded for months? Well, these pilots started a hydroponics business on their terrace. A long-held ‘project’ in the mind of Mumbai-based domestic airline pilot Harsh Parekh, the Covid-19 lockdown paved the way to bring this idea into reality.
In 2017, Harsh witnessed a lady harvesting coriander leaves opposite the Kurla local train station in Mumbai.
“The coriander and other greens were being picked up along the railway lines of the station. The visuals lingered in my mind making me think about where our food comes from,” says Harsh Parekh, a pilot.
When he learned about Hydroponics, the idea intrigued him. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil. The nutrients are mainly introduced with the water, while the plant is rooted in coco peat, vermiculture or rock wool. Harsh then started researching on the topic and accessing all the details required to be such a farmer.
From pilot to farmer
But it was only during the Covid-19 lockdown around March when he shared the idea with his friend, also a captain with another private airline, Ishan Modi.
“I discussed the idea with my wife Garima, and after feeling confident, shared the same with Ishan. He along with his wife Soumya agreed to come on board,” Harsh said.
The pilot said the duo worked for the entire month of April to plan and set up the startup. Living in Matunga, Harsh agreed to take the operational tasks under him, while Ishan from Borivali took up the responsibility of accounts and packaging.
“We did not have space and had to hunt one down. Luckily, a childhood friend in Chembur offered his terrace for setting up the farm,” Harsh said.
The pilot added they purposefully chose to take up outdoor farming. With the foundation in place and around Rs 10 lakh invested, the startup FarmJet officially opened in May.
“There are many indoor hydroponic farms, but that requires air conditioning and LED lights. We wanted to cut down on our carbon footprint and grow plants in a natural environment,” Harsh said, adding the farm got installed with A-structured UPVC pipes. The PVC pipes have lead in them, thus harmful to their health.
The duo decided to grow a range of vegetables like Pak Choi, Lettuce, Red Basil, Italian Basil, Kale, Iceberg, Baby Spinach and rocket arugula.
To provide nutrients for the plants, the water runs across the UPVC pipes for 10 minutes with nutrients like magnesium, calcium and potassium dissolved – every two minutes.
Freshness is the key
Ishan says the only selling point of the company is guaranteed freshness. “We harvest the vegetables ordered in the morning and deliver it by noon. There are no harvests without orders and storing of the vegetables,” he adds.
The hydroponics grown do not get sprayed with insecticide or pesticides. “As the greens grow without soil, the need for such products does not arise. They are completely natural through the process,” he adds.
Ishan said the freshness is guaranteed at all time. “We often send videos of the harvest to the customers. One customer even did a litmus test on our produce for chemicals which turned out negative,” he adds.
The co-founder said initial days were quite challenging for the duo. “We started around monsoon when the sunlight is not adequate at all times. The plants could grow better in other seasons,” Ishan said.
Speaking to The Better India, Ishan added that with no workforce permitted due to Covid-19 lockdown, the entire responsibility of setting up, maintaining and cleaning the facility was upon them.
“Moreover, the market is not so open to exotic vegetables. It is only in recent times that people are aware of such vegetables and want to try them. The taste buds are yet to develop for a majority of the people,” Ishan says.
More potential to tap
Almost six months since its inception, the company is attending about 25-30 customers a week. “Our followers are growing by 200 a week and customers by 25 per cent. However, we are still in a nascent stage to take commercial produce and build capacity,” Harsh says adding the company is catering to orders based in Mumbai for now.
However, the resuming of flights the pilots are back in the skies. Ishan said that with their wives as stakeholders of the company, they ensure that operations do not get affected.
“We plan the operations to see that at least one of the four members are present for the operations,” Ishan added.
Harsh adds the duo want to expand in Navi Mumbai and Thane soon. “We are also open to assisting residential societies in setting up a facility on their terrace. The terrace only gets used on New Year parties and remains vacant for the other 364 days of the year,” he said.
When asked if they plan to quit their airline job, Harsh says, “We might think it in future, but surely not for now.”
Harsh, however, adds, “The prospect is good and gives joy. The thought that the lettuce in my burger is grown in a toxin-free environment and harvested by me has an entirely different kind of satisfaction.”
Reciprocating the thoughts, Ishan says soon they plan for customers to visit the farm, harvest their produce and experience and enjoy a fresh green salad beside the farm.
FarmJet accepts orders at +91 9867677779.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)