Vijay Yelmalle teaches agriculturists – both urban and rural – how to apply technology to practise eco-friendly farming and increase yield
Farming without soil
Mumbai: Vijay Yelmalle had a steady career spanning 14 years in the chemical industry in Singapore. But there was something that kept tugging at him back home. “Whenever I read about farmer suicides, it depressed me. I wanted to do something for them, especially farmers from my home State, Maharashtra,” says Mr. Yelmalle.
In 2012, he ended his lucrative career and returned to India to establish the Center for Research in Alternative Farming Technologies (CRAFT). Mr. Yelmalle spent the first two years doing extensive research in technologies like hydroponics and aquaponics, which involve farming without soil. “These technologies make farming sustainable. The main reason for farmer suicide is unsustainable conventional farming,” says Mr. Yelmalle.
He began by growing vegetables on his terrace in Mumbai and giving them to his family and friends. After the success of this initiative, he began CRAFT in 2014 with four employees and a personal investment of ₹30 lakh.
The beginning was challenging. “I began CRAFT to become a leading service provider in alternative farming technologies. Despite being one of the leading companies in the field, business was not good, as not many people knew about these methods,” he says.
Mr. Yelmalle had to devote a good deal of time educating people and destroying misconceptions: most of their knowledge came from YouTube videos, and they would come to him asking how to produce 200-400 tonnes of vegetables in one acre, with no idea of the cost it entailed. Many others were not aware of the volatility of the agricultural produce market, while some thought hydroponics or aquaponics were forms of magic, and required no technical skills.
Today, CRAFT has a pan-India customer base. “We have sent supplies and do-it-yourself kits to hundreds of people which cost anywhere between ₹2,000 and ₹40,000. Till date, we have trained almost 1,500 people in hydroponics, aquaponics, urban farming, commercial aspects of the technologies etc,” says Mr. Yelmalle.
CRAFT helps its customers set up farms and provides consultation and training at Kharghar, Navi Mumbai. Mr. Yelmalle stays in touch with his clients on WhatsApp to help with problems they face.
In addition, CRAFT has developed two sustainable business models. One is focused on the health of urban dwellers. This model is about growing vegetables in urban spaces and supplying fresh, nutritious produce to subscribers from nearby areas at market prices. The other model, called ‘Rural Integrated and Digitalised Economical Aquaponics’ relates to the economic sustainability of marginal farmers using aquaponics. Mr. Yelmalle is also looking at establishing an institute to bring in more educated people into this sector. The government, he says, needs to subsidise protected cultivation to allow more farmers to adopt this technology. He plans to collaborate with National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development to impart these skills to farmers.
Traditional soil-based farming has many problems. Farmland is getting increasingly fragmented [as families expand, successive generations own less land per person]. Land is also getting infertile due to the heavy use of fertilizers, and climate change is having its own adverse effets. Soilless farming, on the other hand, uses just 10% of water as compared to the traditional method, says Mr. Yelmalle. There is no drainage of water or fertilizers into the ground, and all the nutrients are re-circulated within the system. Mr. Yelmalle says soilless farming gives a higher yield as all the parameters such as pH nutrient concentration and water temperature are controlled within the required levels. The produce in soilless farming is also more uniform.
As for the costs involved, he says, “Hydroponics [providing crops synthetic nutrients in the right quantity and combination for the highest yield] is very technical and scientific and requires a very high investment. It is more suitable for urban areas and rich farmers who can afford to employ skilled manpower. Aquaponics, where fish and vegetables are grown together, is a more organic method; after the initial training, a farmer can work it out on his own. The cost of inputs could be reduced drastically with innovation.” A kitchen garden made with recycled material works out to a few thousand rupees, while the cost of a commercial farm runs into a few lakhs.
Further, these technologies require minimal use of nutrients and no pesticides, thereby reducing input costs and giving pesticide-free produce, which has a premium in the market in terms of pricing as well as demand. The technologies also reduce the incidence of crop failures due to drought, thanks to the minimal use of water and inspect or pest attack due to the use of protected growing environment such as shade net, greenhouse, etc.
The greatest advantage of hydroponics or aquaponics is vertical farming — utilising scarce land in cities to get a greater higher yield per square feet. Although the cost of setting up a vertical farm is high, the selling of vegetables in retail makes the venture attractive. Urban farms also have a smaller carbon footprint as produce is grown locally, avoiding transportation.
Manas Kulkarni, a farmer from Vivare village in Jalgaon district said, “We are into traditional farming and grow bananas, cotton, onion, maze, gram, and wheat. Using hydrophonics, we can now grow all types of vegetables, like coloured peppers, tomatoes, exotic leafy vegetables, broccoli and Chinese cabbage.”
Mr. Kulkarni said he attended the CRAFT workshops with the understanding that with the growing population, availability of land for farming will be a challenge in the near future. He has opened a small hydroponics setup in his village and will soon start growing leafy vegetables.
Pravin Tulpule, an entrepreneur said, “I was looking to improve my kitchen gardening skills; something I love doing at home. The use of cocopeat [a natural fibre made of coconut husks] and clay pops, not soil, made it easy to manage.” The technology, he said, is “not rocket science”, and the advantage is that one can practise it at home or on a commercial scale. “The results of micronutrients were phenomenal. The best part was getting fresh vegetables to eat. It helped me understand the optimum use of resources, including space.”
In hydroponic farming, crops are given synthetic nutrients calculated to meet their requirement.
In aquaponics, fish and plants are grown together with the single input of fish feed. Fish are reared in tanks and the water is circulated to vegetable roots. All other nutrients required for plant growth are provided by the fish excreta
Vertical farming: Utilising scarce land in cities to get greater higher yield per sq ft.
Eco-friendly: Urban farms have a smaller carbon footprint as produce is grown locally.
Center for Research in Alternative Farming Technologies
Founder: Vijay Yelmalle