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College Reunion Inspires Farming Startup, Duo Grow 70kg Soilless Veggies Per Month

Si-Mar Vertical Farms started by Sindu Pandalai and Amarjeet Pardhi in Gurugram is a hydroponics farm that was born because of the need to eat good salads.

College Reunion Inspires Farming Startup, Duo Grow 70kg Soilless Veggies Per Month

“My husband and I were looking to eat food that was lighter on the stomach and salads seemed like a great choice,” Sindu Pandalai tells The Better India. She adds that she decided to shift to healthy eating because she was getting old.

She goes on, “However, the salad leaves that we got in the market were usually limp and without any texture or flavour. What I missed in my salad leaves was the crunch and no matter how much we looked, we were not able to find that.” Instead of lamenting about it, she decided to dive deep and find ways of growing her own salad leaves. Little did she think that a personal quest to find the right salad leaves would gently nudge her into entrepreneurship.

Why Hydroponics?

Doorstep delivery

Sindu explains, “Soil is nothing but a medium to hold the plant. The kind of soil a plant grows in determines how good the produce is. Given the kind of soil contamination we are seeing, your guess is as good as mine with regards to how good the produce will be. With hydroponics, the environment it is growing in is completely monitored and there is no scope of any contamination. Also, there is no soil used in this process.”

Want to start your own hydroponics business? Join this complete A-Z guide to build your venture from start. Launched by The Better Academy, this is an end-to-end course to equip you with the knowledge required to grow crops using the popular hi-tech method of urban farming – Hydroponics.

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The water that is used to grow the plants is nutrient rich and is recycled back into the plants constantly. There is also zero water wastage since there is recycling of water until an entire growth cycle is completed. “In using hydroponics to grow your food, the idea is to try and get the produce to the customer within four hours of harvest, while in soil-grown produce, one can never say when it was harvested and how long after that it reaches your home,” says Sindu.

Besides being absolutely fresh Sindu also adds that the longevity of these salad leaves in the fridge is also something that is an added bonus. “With just my husband and I at home, buying a bunch of leaves and putting them into the fridge meant they would wilt away rather soon. In the case of hydroponic-produced salad leaves, I can leave them in the fridge for longer without fear of them rotting. This produce I can safely keep in the fridge for up to three days and the leaves still retain a crunch.”

“Other than growing trees, pretty much everything else can be grown via this method of hydroponics,” says Sindu. Ginger, turmeric, peppers, strawberries, mint, coriander, spinach, cherry tomato, and English cucumber are some examples of what can be grown using hydroponics.

Start of Vertical Gardens

What would you pick?

While an idea was brewing within Sindu, it was a college reunion that gave the idea its shape and form. She says, “Amarjeet Pardhi (Amar) and I have been friends for long and his interest in growing his own food was far more well-researched than mine at that point. It was a casual evening meet up and we were at a restaurant where we ordered a salad. The minute we put it into our mouths we knew we were served inadequate food. This led to us talking about our desire to grow our own food, and before we knew it we were discussing the possibility of starting something on our own.”

While Amar comes from a family that has some ties to farming for Sindu it was a completely new field.

Armed with a lot of research and enthusiasm to grow their own food, the duo started their own venture called Si-Mar Vertical farms in Gurgaon. “In doing my research before we took the plunge, the notes I had made were as good as an entire book on the subject. That book became my ready reckoner and I would constantly go back to it,” says Sindu.

They learnt on the job and say that they spent a lot of time in a hydroponic farm in Bengaluru. “That was hands-on learning for us and whatever we picked up there is what we have built on in our own venture in Gurugram,” she says. In November 2019, the venture came into being. Other than getting help for the electric and plumbing work, the entire farm was set up by Sindu and Amar. “Only because we did it ourselves, we knew about every nut and bolt that had gone into the framework,” says Amar.

However, even though everything was set up and the duo was raring to go, COVID struck and just as the first harvest was ready, the 21-day lockdown was imposed. “We had close to 60 kg of produce with us and no clue as to what to do with it all. We were stuck, we had to harvest the produce because the more time they spend in the nutrient water, beyond the stipulated time frame, the bitter they become,” says Amar. Eventually, they got a pass for being under essential service and were able to deliver the produce.

After the initial few months where the produce was only given to customers for sampling, it was around mid-April 2020 that their commercial operations started on a full-fledged scale.

Learning on the Job

A fresh bowl of salad, anyone?

In order to be able to grow the food in a controlled environment the business started off with an indoor space. This required them to invest heavily into ‘grow lights’ and air conditioners to maintain the temperature. “The heat in Delhi is such that we felt we needed to make that investment. However, the electricity cost kept our finances constantly in the red and we were not able to make a profit,” says Amar. This pushed them to look for an outdoor space that would perhaps ease their financial burden.

In January 2021, the business was moved to an outdoor space where two polyhouses have been constructed to continue growing the salad leaves. “Even this setup was completely handled by us and we are now growing four to five varieties of lettuce, butterhead, baby spinach, arugula, bok choy, Italian basil and mixed microgreens,” says Sindu.

On an average 70 kg of produce is harvested month-on-month. In the 3500 sq ft area that they occupy, Sindu says that there are 1,500 pots growing various salad leaves and leafy greens.

One step at a time.

All the marketing so far has been via word-of-mouth and WhatsApp. “We have several WhatsApp groups across different apartment communities in Gurgaon. I usually put out a message with what produce we have harvested and those who wish to buy send me a message to confirm their order. All deliveries are done by us through the week,” says Sindu. Speaking about the cost for such produce, Sindu says, “There is a premium that one pays for hydroponic produce and that is because of how clean and fresh it is. One does not even have to wash the leaves before they bite into it, it is that fresh.”

Attesting to this is Sandhya Rajagopal from Gurgaon says, “While I wasn’t new to the world of hydroponics, what I have been buying from Sindu and Amar has been of top-notch quality. The crunch and flavour of the salad leaves is what sets it apart from all other produce in the market. Even in terms of costing, their produce is very reasonably priced and beautifully packaged as well.” She goes on to say that given how much she enjoys her salads she is a very discerning customer and the produce from the farm has always met that bar of expectation.

While one can set-up with an initial investment of Rs 5,000, it all depends on the size of the farm, the produce you are looking at harvesting and your allied costs like electricity. “The returns are good and while one cannot recover the initial investment immediately, there is good scope, if one is persistent. Just wait it out for the first one year,” says Sindu.

Tips To Set Up Your Hydroponic Farm:

A look at the farm

Want to start your own hydroponics business? Join this complete A-Z guide to build your venture from start. Launched by The Better Academy, this is an end-to-end course to equip you with the knowledge required to grow crops using the popular hi-tech method of urban farming – Hydroponics.

Unable to view the above button? Click here

1. “The only way to do this is to be hands-on,” says Sindu. She says setting up a farm is akin to tending to a baby. One needs to give it 100 per cent attention to make sure it grows well. Both Amar and Sindu visit the farm six days a week and ensure that they stay updated about every small development.

2. “Read up and make sure that you are on point with all the research that you can get done. The more information you are armed with, the better prepared you will be to face the challenges,” she adds. It is also important to understand what scale you wish to work on – is it for self-consumption or are you looking at it commercially?

3. “Along with all the material you gather, visiting farms and seeing first-hand how it works adds a completely new dimension,” says Sindu. Just relying on literature will not help in the long run. One needs to get their hands dirty as well. Talk to others and learn from their mistakes.

4. “The travel time for the produce from harvest to reaching the customer should ideally not exceed two hours. Finding a location that is conducive to this is very critical,” says Amar.

If you are a resident of Delhi/NCR and wish to place an order, click here.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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