Soil-less agriculture could be the solution to increasing the yield and quality of turmeric cultivation in India, says this Bengaluru-based expert
For CV Prakash — a former naval officer who is also recognised as an expert in soil-less agriculture — making turmeric (Curcuma longa) more profitable for the ordinary farmer has become a passion during lockdown.
His ongoing Mission Turmeric 2021 aims to begin an “orange revolution”, he says, by teaching people to cultivate the spice in grow bags (large porous containers made of high density polyethelene) packed with coco-peat (made from the pith of the coconut husk) instead of soil, in shade houses.
Introduced to soil-less agriculture after he migrated to Australia in 2000, Prakash brought his interest back to his homeland in 2008. He has trained over 10,000 people in cultivating different crops using hydroponics and other soil-free alternatives at his CV Hydro training centre, which functions under the auspices of Aggragannya Skills, Bengaluru.
With the lockdown bringing things to a standstill last year, and being unable to travel to Australia as usual, Prakash finally had the time to research the cultivation of turmeric.
“My friend had sent around eight kilograms of seed rhizomes of Tiger Claw Salem variety turmeric (grown in Erode) last February. I planted 60 grams of seed each in 100 grow bags, substituting coco-peat for soil. The results were amazing,” says Prakash.
Analysis of the crop in its sixth month by the Eurofins Lab, known for its work in bio-analytical testing, showed a curcumin content of 5.91% — nearly double of what it would be in a nine-month growing cycle. “Normally Salem turmeric does not give more than 3% curcumin content, so this was an eye-opener,” says Prakash.
Curcumin is a bright yellow phenolic compound that has been in the news for its potential to fight cancer. As a result, the demand from pharmaceutical companies for high curcumin turmeric has risen to 58% of the global market share in recent years, according to research cited by the Trade Promotion Council of India. .
The increased yield was another breakthrough. “In the sixth month when we harvested the crop prematurely, we got 4.45 kilograms of turmeric from one single grow bag. At the end of the seventh month, we had 6.44 kilograms, and in the final harvest, we got 8.17 kilograms of turmeric from a single plant,” says Prakash.
As a bonus, no traces of heavy metals were found, making the crop a saleable product from the get-go. “Erode farmers usually get 500-600 grams of turmeric per plant in conventional farming. Our method gives a bigger yield, and its high curcumin rate makes it a valuable cash crop for farmers,” says Prakash.
“When you grow turmeric on a field, in a harvest of around seven tonnes, at least four tonnes are wasted due to poor quality or pestilence. In our method, not even a milligram of turmeric went bad. This has got to do with many factors, because soil-less agriculture is a very deep science. But I’m still not happy; the yield can definitely be 10-11 kilograms per grow bag,” says Prakash.
A spicy curative
- Turmeric is a staple of the Indian kitchen shelf.
- This perennial herbaceous plant of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) has many uses in South Asia, in both fresh and powdered form.
- When it is not lending its nutty aroma to food as a spice, turmeric (also known as haldi or manjal) is a skincare ingredient and a key additive in traditional medicines for a diverse range of ailments.
- During COVID-19 pandemic, its reputation as a panacea has gained credence, especially since turmeric-infused milk was recently listed as an immunity boosting food by the Indian Government.
- India is the world’s biggest producer of turmeric, (centred in the states of Telangana, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Arunachal Pradesh and Orissa ). At least 30 varieties of cultivars are grown in the country.
- Approximately one million metric tonnes of turmeric was produced in 2020, with COVID-19 and unseasonable rains hitting the export market and pushing up prices locally.
Launched in January 2021, Mission Turmeric 2021 currently has a growing area of 1,28,000 square feet. Around 15 pilot projects featuring eight varieties of turmeric are underway in stretches of 500 and 1,000 square feet growing areas, while three ventures based on one acre each, are looking at commercial cultivation.
“We have trained 18 people in Mission Turmeric 2021 through webinars, and have started a ‘watch and learn’ programme for people who could not make it to this year’s growing season (which began in May). I will be mentoring the applicants, besides sharing video lesson on all aspects, from pre-seeding to harvest,” says Prakash.
Growers from different parts of India who are part of the project have to observe and report parameters like leaf length and width, stem diameter and height of the plant daily to Prakash. “All the monitoring is done by pure observation. I am a very conservative farmer; I believe you cannot remove the human from the equation in agriculture,” says Prakash.
To encourage farmers, CV Hydro has been offering to buy back the turmeric, with rates ranging from ₹18 per kilogram of finger wet rhizomes up to ₹100 per kilogram for dry polished mother rhizomes.
“If the cost of production is ₹12 per kilogram, and the wet turmeric finger rhizome is sold at ₹20, then the gross profit is ₹8 per kilogram in India. But international pricing of this miracle plant ranges from ₹500 to ₹5,000 per kilogram. The farmers can really earn well if they cultivate turmeric through soil-less agriculture,” says Prakash.
Chennai resident R Srinivasan, who got interested in soil-less cultivation after trips to the US, attended a two-day course at CV Hydro to learn the technique. He has been using the method to grow tomatoes, cucumber and other greens for the past three years.
“Soil-less agriculture helps the grower to maintain a healthy root zone. The full potential of the plant can be achieved with careful monitoring because it is easier to manage diseases during the cultivation,” he says.
Niharika Deora of Mumbai decided to try soil-less agriculture after college studies and trained under Prakash. “I have already cultivated exotic flowers and vegetables on an 800-square feet plot on a building’s terrace. Soil-less agriculture isn’t labour-intensive, and can be a good business opportunity if done with the right skills and knowledge,” she says.
Farmers agree though, that soil-less agriculture cannot be treated as a magic solution. Besides the high initial investment, the method requires practice in order to succeed. “Growers need to manage the various parameters more meticulously as compared to soil-based cultivation. And despite the good results, there is no premium pricing for the produce from hydroponics,” says Srinivasan.
Having taught innumerable home growers about soil-less agriculture, Prakash says the results of Mission Turmeric showed him the importance of reaching out to the nation’s farming community. “More farmers should take up soil-less agriculture, because it can help them to grow healthier crops in the long run. This is the difference between lab and applied science,” he says.