Smart returns from small plot

Farmer braved odds to earn handsome money

Smart returns from small plot

He owns a small piece of land in a prime locality in Chennai. Most people would be tempted to sell it and make good money, especially if they were in dire straits financially. But, not N Vidhyadharan. He stands tall, especially the way he shaped his future when he was down in the dumps.

Till a few years ago,Vidhyadharan was happy with his family cultivating groundnuts and simultaneously doing social work to help children. In 2011, he landed in financial problem after his groundnut crop failed, leaving him in debt. He was forced to sell most of his properties to clear debt and meet the expenses of the family. He was left with only 1,000 sq feet prime ground area at Vangaivasal in Chennai. He had almost decided to sell the plot and was scouting for buyers. Then, he came across an initiative while browsing the internet. 

It appealed to him and the 48-year-old farmer decided to dedicate half of his land to “microgreens” farming. This made him the first urban agriculturist in Chennai. “It was an overnight decision to take up microgreens farming. Now, it yields me good money,” says a happy Vidhyadharan. 

Microgreens are young greens of familiar herbs and vegetables that are used to increase the flavour and colour of salads, or as “jewellery” for any main dish. The flavour of microgreens is typically more intense than the flavour of a mature plant. According to Vidhyadharan, microgreens are tiny edible plants that are older than a sprout, but younger than a fully grown plant. It is harvested after the first “true” leaves develop. They are the smallest of the salad greens and can be grown from almost any plant variety that would produce a mature plant, such as beetroot, radish or mustard.

Vidhyadharan was lucky since the new business worked well after urban consumers, especially hoteliers across the country started purchasing microgreens from local producers rather than shipping them far-off places. This has created new opportunities for small growers to start or expand their business. “Initially, I invested only Rs 7,500 to buy trays, wooden and iron racks and a old unused refrigerator,” the farmer, who starts his activities with his housewife J Jayarani at 6.30 am, said.

“We have dedicated about 600 sq feet space exclusively for cultivating tiny greens and made that area into a very small ground of square shape by setting up racks to keep trays,” Jayarani, who also encouraged her husband to take up this business, said. “Many relatives told us to sell the land to clear the debts. They discouraged us from taking up new venture. We took a chance. It clicked,” she said. 

The couple’s sincerity and hard work paid dividends early with returns coming within one month. “Though the work needs a lot of patience, the whole process is not that difficult and the Rs 25,000 earnings are guaranteed per month,” she claimed. “Often, microgreens are confused with sprouts. They are not sprouts. Sprouts are just germinated seeds grown in water that are eaten whole, with the seed, root and stem,” Vidhyadharan pointed out. They are commonly grown in soil. The microgreens are free from diseases and are harvested by cutting, without any roots.

Researchers have even found the nutritional value is much higher as well. Microgreens can be grown in soil, which is best suited for most small growers, as the initial costs are lower than other methods. Any high quality potting soil blend with organic fertiliser will work well for microgreens. The growing process involves spreading seeds on top of the soil in tray, tamping them in, and covering them with humidity dome. The seed trays can be kept in a dark place while germinating, as light is not required during germination.

Microgreens can be grown even in a basement or garage under lights. “The water for the plants should be free from chlorine and other chemicals, and a liquid fermented plant extract is added to the water to provide a micro-nutrient boost,” he said.The colourful varieties, such greenpea, pearl millet, fox-tail, cowpea and many more are popular with chefs, as their vivid purple and red colouring add a spicy splash of colour on the dinner or salad plate.

“New microgreen growers, especially in areas where the big restaurants and star hotels are located, are finding a ready market for their microgreen crops, which can be ready to harvest in under two weeks,” Dr Soundararajan P, Corporate Executive Chef of Mahindra Holidays and Resorts, said. Soundararajan is also a general secretary for Indian Federation of Culinary Association.

He says that microgreens can be cut and packaged and this allows chefs to serve a truly “fresh-picked” salad by just harvesting from the tray. Popular baby greens, including arugula, beet, mustard, mizuna, rainbow chard and tatsoi are also used. According to him, microgreens became popular only a couple of decades ago, when a few trendy US chefs started using them to add “blink” to their garnishes and salads. That popularity has continued to grow, with microgreens named as one of the hot new food trends.

S Venkatesh, a nutritionist, said that studies have shown that microgreens, often contain 10 times more nutrients than that of mature plants since it do not contain any chemical fertiliser. “Microgreens have consistently high levels of important nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, lutein and beta-carotene,” he said. Researchers have also found they are loaded with “phyto-nutrients” or natural chemicals found in foods that provide health benefits.  

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