Millennium Post

Fresh counter to ease drought

how a pioneering attempt at producing cherry tomatoes without soil in the drought prone lands of Telangana has succeeded with the application of a unique farming technique

Growing cherry tomatoes in the scorching summer heat of Telangana sounds a herculean task but growing this sweeter and smaller version of the garden variety without soil sounds nothing short of impossible. However, a young entrepreneur, Payal Raina Ghosh has met the challenge head on, setting up the largest integrated state-of-the-art cherry tomato farm in the country.

Apart from pioneering the unique farming technique in growing cherry tomatoes in India her company, Sparsh Bio has transformed the drought prone area and revitalised the economy of the neighbouring Salarpur village in Ranga Reddy district, about 75 km from Hyderabad.

Ghosh, a Kashmiri Pundit who was brought up in Hyderabad grows cherry tomatoes incorporating hydroponic method, that is without soil. The hydroponic method involves growing the cherry tomato vines in cocopits (coconut fibres) and watering them with nutrient rich water. Two years back, the closest to farming she had done was setting up a kitchen garden along with her mother-in-law. "And here I am trying to grow cherry tomatoes in 45 degree Celsius heat in the middle of a barren, drought prone area," said Ghosh.

Cherry tomatoes are little but sweeter in taste and are great for eating raw in salads. Filled with nutrients these little tomatoes are perfectly round shaped, red in colour and succulently fleshy, ideal for sauces, stews, soups and even toppings.

It was around 2013 that Payal Raina Ghosh started scouting land away from Hyderabad since nearer homeland prices were above her budget. She was able to buy 20 acres of land from farmers who were completely dependent on rain for cultivation. Afterwards another 5 acres was sold to her by a neighbouring farmer who did not have a water source in his plot. A lot of market research went into the type of crop to grow, farming method and also about market demand. "I thought of getting into food sector since I reckoned that no way I would go out of business with edibles. I decided upon cherry tomatoes because I wanted a high-value crop instead of the usual vegetables sold in mandis. I chose cherry tomatoes since they have a higher shelf life," she added.

There were mounting challenges as well. The biggest challenge was, of course, the weather. The summer temperature in Telangana rises to 42 degree Celsius and to survive, tomato vines require the temperature to be controlled at 35 degree Celsius. A near kin helped her to devise an innovative but simple greenhouse which allowed the temperature to be brought down through repeated fogging.

However, the tiny water droplets from fogging during excessive heat increased the humidity in the greenhouses. This was arrested through ducts which allowed the warm air to rush out and provide air circulation in the greenhouses. Although this method was followed in the first six in the next ten greenhouses the ducts were replaced by wind operated turbo ventilators which run for 24 hours and suck out the hot air creating a low-pressure area, where cooler air rushes in. The clay pitcher or matkas used for growing the tomato plants also contribute in keeping the root temperature low.

The hydroponic method of cultivation does not use soil and the nutrients required for plant growth are supplied through water. The water from the bore well are first purified by reverse osmosis to prevent bacteria or chemical contamination and then the nutrients are injected into the water which then flows into the cocopits holding the plants at regular intervals. Sustained and regulated supply of water and nutrients not only lead to the much better yields in terms of quality and quantity but also allow tremendous conservation of water in a drought-prone area like Telangana.

The absence of soil eliminates chances of pests which spreads mostly due to soil and also ensures the same nutritional level in each cherry tomato fruit throughout the year, thereby adhering to international standards as well. The sweetness of the ripe cherry tomatoes grown by the farm measures a reading of 8 on the Brix scale and weigh about 15 grams per piece.

Sparsh Hydroponic Farms with its innovations, particularly the poly houses have successfully converted a winter crop into a round-the-year crop. Since seasonal production of crops in our country leads to bumper production of fruits and vegetables only during specific time of the year, flooding the market with the same produce and resulting in plummeting prices it is imperative for farmers to find ways to grow crops in off seasons as well for better prices and this is where Sparsh Hydroponic Farms offers a lesson to those continuing with traditional farming methods.

Apart from revolutionising farming techniques Sparsh Hydroponic Farms truly has touched the lives of the people of Salarpur village. The farm engages nearly 50 people from the neighbourhood for various tasks on the farm. In addition, it sources the clay pitchers used for planting tomato vines from the local potters, offering them an opportunity for steady income. More importantly, land prices in one of the most backward regions and drought prone area have appreciated, soaring up almost four times ever since the farm came up.

"Now, even if I want to buy land for expansion I cannot afford the prices which have increased almost four times," said a smiling Mrs Ghosh.
With faraway mountains as a backdrop, the greenery all around the farm is like an oasis in the middle of nowhere, as you can only see miles and miles of rolling barren land with hardly any trees. The strong wind is a blessing as it helps in running turbo ventilators on the top of the greenhouses with zero energy. Apart from the greenhouses, there are quaint single storey structures dotting the landscape which include a family home as well as an office, packaging area, pump house and treatment plant, guest cottages as well as staff quarters.

Spread over 25 acres of land nearly 30,000 sqmts are dedicated to the specially designed poly houses for the cultivation of cherry tomatoes. A fully equipped pack house has 6000 sqft of available space along with cold store facilities. The harvest is packaged under the brand name of 'Swiss Miss' of Sparsh Bio. These are sold in packs of 225 gms in the leading supermarkets of Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Pune and Delhi and Mumbai in India. The farm also exports to the Gulf.

The company is looking forward to diversifying its products with pickles and food supplements that would provide aid in slimming and offer healthy nutritive meals. "We are also looking at producing honey with four major flavours including neem, sunflower, mixed fruit and so on which would be another pioneering project in our country," said the young entrepreneur.

In one of the most backward regions of the country, plagued by frequent long spells of drought, where farmers' suicides seem to be the order of the day, Sparch Bio offers a ray of hope to the farming community that agriculture may not entirely be initiative running at a loss. Now only if our policy makers would pay heed too.
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