The Pelican had just begun to take off when Cyclone Fani struck the eastern coast of India in 2019. Haraprasad Mohapatra, a retired master mariner from Teisipur in Odisha, had started Pelican Aeroponic Farms just a year ago to grow exotic vegetables such as lettuce, kale, basil, cherry tomatoes and jalapenos.
Gusty winds and rains breached Pelican’s ‘poly houses’ (a type of greenhouse with specialised polythene sheet covering), and the ‘grow towers’ were left in a complete disarray. Mohapatra’s farm measures just 700 square metres, but it can hold nearly 4,000 plants and grow up to 100 kg of vegetables a day. Small landholding had prompted the one-time seafarer to try aeroponics—with ‘grow towers’ that enabled him to grow the crop vertically.
“The cyclone wiped out the entire farm. I am trying to set it up again… We have started growing different varieties of lettuces, cherry tomatoes and jalapenos,” says Mohapatra.
Pelican Aeroponic is among two dozen farm startups that have come up over the past few years, with a promise of growing “better-than-organic” or “beyond-organic” fruits and vegetables in India. All these companies — starting from large players such as Barton Breeze to others like Letcetra Agritech, UrbanKisaan and FutureFarms — adopt modern farming methods like hydroponics and aeroponics, which involve soil-less cultivation in a controlled environment.
But what is hydroponics and aeroponics? Neither growth methods use soil. In hydroponics, the sapling is usually placed on a ‘substrate’ (like rock wool, volcanic ash, peat moss, coco coir or clay pebbles), which is dosed with nutrient-rich water periodically. Many a time, hydroponic farmers do not use a substrate; they simply place the plants along a channel that has flowing water. Aeroponic plants are never placed on a substrate or in water; here plants are grown in a controlled air environment. The exposed roots are periodically sprayed with nutrient solutions for the plants to grow.
“Both these methods are ideal if the available land is not fertile or suitable for cultivation,” says Praveen Sharma, an agriculture engineer and founder of the Pune-based Flora Consult, which has set up farms using these techniques at Lonavala, Surat, Bhubaneswar and Chennai and in Gulf countries and Africa.
“Using these methods, and more specifically with aeroponics, one can set up vertical farms on grow towers. This is done to increase yield, even if the available land is less or not suitable for cultivation. You can have 75 to 100 plants per square metre using these techniques,” he adds.
According to farm owners, hydroponics and aeroponics are ideal for short crops such as lettuces, strawberries, zucchini and other exotic vegetables, greens and even flowers (such as roses). Almost all of these farm owners and agritech startups sell their produce as “beyond-organic” vegetables.