In Kerala, restaurant menus now hinge on in-house hydroponic farms

Kochi-based agritech company sets up hydroponic farms for restaurants and resorts

Kochi-based agritech company sets up hydroponic farms for restaurants and resorts

Tonico Cafe in Kakkanad, Kochi, sources fresh basil, kale and cilantro from a garden on its own walls. Popular for its pastas and soups, the cafe switched to hydroponics a few months ago to produce its own supplies. “We need a lot of basil for our signature pesto sauce. Good quality basil is hard to come by in the state and we decided to grow it ourselves,” said Tony Jose, founder and CEO of Tonico. Tony now gets a steady supply of basil from his vertical garden.

Hydroponics, the increasingly popular technique for soilless farming, is finding enthusiasts across the country. Requiring very little space and water, the system is catching on with those living in urban apartments, especially during the lockdown months.

Subsistence restaurants

“Between successive lockdowns, restaurants and resorts have had an extremely difficult time finding good quality vegetables. Now there is a growing interest among restaurant owners who want to set up their own hydroponic farms to become self-sufficient,” said Ashwin Ramachandran, founder and CEO PlantMe Agro Solutions, a Kochi-based agritech startup, which provides hydroponic vegetable and fruit gardens for commercial establishments in the United States. stands.

Green peppers grown with a hydroponic system

Green peppers grown using a hydroponic system | Photo credit: special arrangement

Started by Ashwin, Nithin Kumar, Parvathy Sasikumar and Akhila Ramdas a year and a half ago, PlantMe aims to educate and encourage more companies to grow their own vegetables. “The idea is to make people aware of the importance of clean, sustainable food,” Ashwin says.

Elixir Hills, a resort in Munnar, recently set up a hydroponic farming poly house on 2,000 sqm, yielding great wealth of cherry tomatoes, cucumber, peppers and strawberries, which provide for most of the kitchen needs. Although these fruits and vegetables grow Munnar, which is cooler than other parts of Kerala, the yield is usually sensitive to the vagaries of the weather. “By establishing a protected environment and not using pesticides, we are looking at a long-term goal of achieving food security,” said Luke Stephen, Elixir’s general manager.

Cherry tomatoes at the poly house at the PlantMe office in Aluva

Cherry tomatoes at the poly house at the PlantMe office in Aluva | Photo credit: special arrangement

A vertical harvest

Ashwin argues that traditional farming practices are becoming increasingly challenging in Kerala, which has been dealing with recurring flooding since 2018, and says hydroponic systems can be installed vertically, eliminating the need for large space. “And since the exotic vegetables are grown in a controlled environment, the farmer can be sure of a high yield,” he adds.

PlantMe’s Aluva office has a polyhouse, which grows yellow peppers, aubergines, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, bok choy, basil and a variety of herbs. The temperature in the poly house is at 12.30 pm at a pleasant 27 degrees C, while outside it is about 33 degrees. Evaporative cooling pads installed in the poly house regulate the temperature and humidity necessary for growing these vegetables.

The company sets up such polyhouses for commercial farmers and businesses and provides training and assistance until the first harvest. A poly house needs a minimum area of ​​500 sq.m and costs Rs 2.5 lakh upwards depending on the type of vegetables the grower wants to grow and the location of the land.

The challenges

However, the system is not immune to challenges. Temperature control systems must be strict to ensure maximum yield. And growers need to learn the basics of plant science, hydroponics and agritech.

So far, PlantMe has served more than 200 urban farmers in Kerala – both individually and commercially using a nutrient film technique (NFT), where water is pumped into a growing tank using a pump. The water nutrient solution is recycled through a food grade drained tube, creating an ideal environment to grow lettuce, amaranthus, mint and kale.

Cucumber grown in a hydroponic system

Cucumber grown in a hydroponic system | Photo credit: special arrangement

The company is currently building large indoor refrigerator-like vertical units that can install restaurants (and individual homes) where vegetables are grown under grow lights. From sorrel to parsley, oregano and lavender, microgreens can then be picked from the very own farm. Making a fresh salad has never been so easy.


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