Fortified coco-peat growing medium helps farmers to focus on soil-less agriculture

Ramlal, Bharat Kumar and Raju Kumar have been farming in Goyla Dairy, an outer suburb of New Delhi, for several decades. And until June 2018, the condition of these three men was like that of most small-scale farmers in this urbanised village. Their produce — cauliflower, brinjal, okra, tomato, spinach, fenugreek, and gourds — was not getting a good price in the market. Worse, as farmers who do not own the land they till, they were not eligible for the subsidies and relief schemes announced by the Government. Despite it being the source of income for over 80% of India’s rural population, and contributing 16% to 18% of the Gross Domestic Product, the country’s agrarian economy is plagued by high initial investment and low crop yield, compounded further by inadequate irrigation resources.

But since June 2018, Project Aahar, run by 18 students from Netaji Subhash University of Technology (NSUT) in Dwarka has been trying to help 14 small-scale farmers in Goyla Dairy and East Delhi Yamuna-Khadar regions by focussing their attention on sustainable and soil-less agriculture. The project is part of the social entrepreneurship programme for students under the aegis of the global non-profit Enactus.

A viable alternative

The ‘hero’ in this story is a nutrient-rich growing medium called CVP. Featuring coco-peat (coconut pith fibre) combined with vermiculite (a hydrous phyllosilicate mineral which expands when heated), and perlite (an amorphous volcanic glass that has a relatively high water content), CVP has emerged as an alternative to conventional farming soil.

“We realised that the main problem faced by farmers is the lack of a productive crop cycle. Irrigation, fertilisers, and pesticides cost a lot, but the crop quality remains poor. So we started promoting the use of CVP on soil (at a ratio of 3:1), because it needs only one-twentieth the amount of water compared to conventional soil, and is resistant to pest attacks. There was an increase of 1 to 1.5 times in the yield after farmers started using CVP,” says Ritvik Nagpal, director of Project Aahar and a second- year student of Computer Engineering at NSUT.

The initial stage of the CVP trials are paid for by the project’s student team. They source dried coco-peat in five kilogram bricks (approximately ₹120 per piece) from a local farming supplies store, and rehydrate it before preparing the growing medium. “When moistened, the volume of coco-peat expands five-fold. So actually we are paying ₹120 for 25 kilograms of coco-peat, which makes it cost-effective,” says Sarthak Gupta, a second-year Instrumentation and Control Engineering student of NSUT, who is also associated with Project Aahar.

Farmer Bharat Kumar, who grows 10 vegetables through the year, says CVP has worked wonders on his yield. “For a single ‘kyaari’ (a plot of arable land), I was harvesting 40 kilograms of methi (fenugreek) in the old method of farming. Now I am getting 55 to 60 kilograms from the same plot,” says the 29-year-old.

A farmer working under Project Aahar gets his crop ready for sale. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU

A farmer working under Project Aahar gets his crop ready for sale. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU

The students have also set up an initiative called Farm to Fork, which helps their farmers to sell their crops at residential complexes in the vicinity. “As awareness about nutritious food is growing, we realised that it is important for farmers to get connected directly to their consumers. We have got permission from resident welfare associations of gated communities in Dwarka and Goyla Dairy to allow these farmers to set up stalls within the compounds. This automatically does away with the middleman, and the farmers get a better price for their produce,” says Sarthak. Besides this, Project Aahar also sells nutrient film technique (NFT) hydroponic gardening kits to raise funds for farming supplies.

Treasure from waste

Reusing the waste generated by agriculture has become key to reducing pollution and finding eco-friendly alternatives to traditional farming, says R Selvakumar, the scientist from Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), Delhi, who has been guiding Project Aahar’s students. “As recently as 25 years ago, as in most of southern India, coir pith used to be discarded on the roadside at my hometown Singampunari in Sivaganga district. But it has since been repurposed as an agricultural innovation,” he says. However, the CVP-based module of growing is best done in a protected environment, says Selvakumar. “Our farmers cannot afford to give up conventional farming completely; it’s best to have a combination of technologies to balance the growth.”

A major advantage of CPV is its low cost. Once the planting is successful, the medium can be used for three years, without changing. In conventional agriculture, new inputs have to be added from year to year, to maintain the soil quality, says the scientist.

Besides IARI, Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) and agricultural startups BonFarmo, Hydroagro and Khetify are also associated with Project Aahar.

Future plans

Buoyed by the initial success, the NSUT-Enactus team is planning to expand the scope of the project to more farmers across Delhi and, if need be, in other cities once the lockdown is lifted. “Our research and development wing is working on deep water culture hydroponics, where we suspend plant roots in a solution of nutrient-rich oxygenated water. We hope to reach out to other student organisations to deal with the bigger numbers of farmers,” says Ritvik.

Farmers participating in Project Aahar have started using their extra income to diversify into animal husbandry and ancillary agricultural activities. But there’s a more invaluable outcome, says Ritvik. “All our farmers have a smile on their faces when we meet them these days. That’s the most satisfying part of this project.”

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