Sustainable farming and fresh, zero-carbon food are the philosophy behind the city’s first urban hydroponic farm, located inside an industrial building campus. To know more, MetroPlus makes a visit
I grab a leaf of peppermint from a bed of mint leaves and taste the intense freshness. Next, I look at thyme and smell the powerful aroma. A little away, purple basil with a beautiful, coppery glow beckon. I crush a lemon balm leaf, and take in the uplifting, mild scent.
I am at Parna Farms, Coimbatore’s first urban hydroponic farm, located right in the heart of the city at an industrial building campus. Spread across 3,000 square feet, it grows 2,520 plants.
“Our fresh lemon balm leaves impart a subtle flavour and fragrance, making it especially nice for custards, jam and jellies, cakes and tea,” says Akhila Vijayaraghavan, owner of the farm. “The purple basil is used for colour in salads. Except maybe amaranthus and palak (spinach), you can eat all the greens we grow here raw,” says Akhila pointing to varieties of lettuce, basil, bok choy, and kale.
Asian water spinach (kang kong), red gongura, mustard leaves and methi (fenugreek) are some of the new additions. “We also grow dill leaves, which are used as garnish for fish and meat dishes and pastas. Fresh peppermint extracts are used in baking. We constantly try new crops based on demand, after rounds of trial-and-error.”
A graduate of Molecular Biology from the University of Glasgow, Akhila ran her own environmental consultancy for over 10 years before turning an urban farmer. “I worked with a lot of companies, from pharmaceuticals to FMCG, and learnt that supply of quality end-product is a difficult task. Agriculture has always been one of my passions; I was interested in food crops. A herb can be used in cooking, to extract oil, extract nutrients in dry form, and maybe in alternative medicine, perfumery… the possibilities are exciting,” adds Akhila.
She researched hydroponic methodology and educated herself on farming before diving into it. “Anyone can do it, it is not rocket science,” she says.
“Hydroponics combines both sustainability and technology. In indoor hydroponic cultivation, the control on nutrient supply ensures more quality produce, for example improved oil content in herbs, as well as better crop yield. A hydroponic mint has more methanol content than a soil-grown one. The system also uses 80% less water than conventional agriculture. The water is upcycled for reuse.”
At Parna Farms, greens are grown using the nutrient film technique (NFT), where a thin ‘film’ of nutrient-rich water with macronutrients like nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous and calcium nitrate, and micronutrients like manganese and zinc nourish the roots of the plants.
The farm has germination area that uses coco peat to sprout plants, and a nursery where net cups (small planters) are filled with clay pebbles. There is also the grow system, which involves metal stands and PVC pipes attached to a covered nutrient tank that pumps water to the plants. “We incubate the net cups in a plastic tray for a couple of weeks. Once the plant grows roots, it is transferred to the main system with higher nutrients in the water. This is where it is fully grown and harvested,” explains Akhila.
Hydroponic agriculture, she says, has existed for over 3,000 years, with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon being one of the often quoted examples of this technique. “It is one of the more accessible forms of modern agriculture, tackling the dual problems of water scarcity and shortage of farmland. It reduces soil-borne pests and diseases.”
Akhila says the objective is to ensure that customers get fresh, pesticide-free produce within three hours of harvest. “Though a palak bunch from here costs ₹130, they are willing to pay the premium to enjoy good health,” says Akhila, adding, “You are what you eat. In hydroponics farming, every day is a learning curve.”
Follow @parnafarms on Instagram to know more