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Meet Mr Stacky
Kevin Singh and his wife, Faariah Khan-Singh, are doing their part to reduce T&T’s high food import bill.
The couple, with professional backgrounds in process engineering, gave up that career path three years ago to go into agriculture. Not for them though were traditional farming methods requiring tilling of soil in sun and rain, neither was the horizontal hydroponic system which involves hours of tending to crops.
The Singhs did their research until they came across Mr Stacky, a vertical hydroponic systems. They were immediately drawn to vertical farming, a movement that is expanding rapidly worldwide, which not only exponentially increases production and yield, but also conserves water resources and nutrients.
Each stackable planter has drainage holes in the centre and the water disperses to hit all the roots on the way down. This is called a flow through design and it prevents root rot and disease.
That was how Green Age Farms in Freeport was started.
“Green symbolises sustainability and health while age symbolises innovative. This ties into the systems and service we supply,” Singh explained.
On the couple’s farm, located among rough skin lemon, soursop and governor plum trees, are towers of vegetables and herbs in stackable containers, some as tall as ten feet.
Kale, cherry tomatoes, parsley and even fully grown and bearing ochro trees germinate from planters filled with growing media—a combination of cocopeat and perlite—at Green Age Farms. These are connected to overhead irrigation hoses with fittings, dripper lines, hole punches, pumps, timers, TDS (total dissolved solids) pH meters, ground cover and nutrient solution.
The towers are automatically irrigated twice a day until just a few drips of nutrient solution fall into the base pots.
But how did it all begin?
“We wanted to start growing food. We looked until we found something that was innovative, sustainable and feasible.
“Initially, we experimented with different types of hydroponic systems such as the nutrient film technique (NFT), ebb and flood and an NFT A-Frame, which did not fit into our lifestyle as there was a lot more monitoring to be done and a bigger land requirement which was not available to us when we decided to go on a commercial scale. With a lot of research we found Mr Stacky Vertical Hydroponic systems,” Singh explained.
He said the company was founded on the desire to provide a sustainable, simple space and resource efficient method of agriculture. He and his wife were the first to introduce Mr Stacky planters to T&T.
Not only have they become successful farmers but are now regional distributors for the product as well.
“Our plan was to use these systems commercially to grow produce. When we realised this vertical farming concept using the Mr Stacky stackable planters was the first of its kind in T&T, along with the many advantages offered, we secured the regional distributorship and began supplying the systems along with the guidance and advice required to set up and operate them,” Singh said.
When the concept was first introduced locally, however, the public was sceptical.
“The major challenge was introducing a new concept into the market. Hydroponics has been around for quite a while in T&T. But the vertical systems were not well known. At first people were intrigued but a bit unsure whether to invest,” Singh said.
The couple worked to increase awareness of the product and soon young, old and professionals alike were embracing the idea, mostly as a means of earning extra income.
“We have customers from a wide range of age groups. Our systems facilitate commercial farming on a part-time basis due to the low maintenance and time required because of the automated nature of the systems.
“We have had a lot of people who were completely new to agriculture, and more specifically hydroponics, who started with a commercial system and were successful on their first attempt and many of them have already expanded their systems,” Singh said.
One customer now has a thriving business in Tobago supplying restaurants with an array of produce, including Swiss chard and collard greens.
According to Singh, people are also becoming increasingly health conscious and want to know how their food is being grown.
“But there’s no better way to do that than growing it yourself,” he advised.
Strawberries in the tropics
The couple tried growing strawberries in the system. The plants grew well and produced fruits with a sweet taste, though small.
“There was no tartness at all but the crop was probably not as high yielding as it should be. We are researching the types of strawberries and the ones which may be best suited for our climate to determine how we can best develop this crop and properly market it,” Khan-Singh said.
She said the cost factor must be considered, especially if grown on a larger scale.
“It may require setting up a green house, or implementing climate control methods, for this fruit to bear in abundance. These are the methods we need to examine because we tried it in an open area, not in the shade,” she explained.
There are several commercial applications for vertical hydroponic systems in T&T, in particular large scale food production, especially in urban areas.
“We are looking into using our systems for roof-top farming in cities and towns. Not only will this promote greens spaces and a fresher environment but the idea is to grow food where ever possible,” Khan-Singh said.
She added that Green Age Farms is also exploring linking with schools to incorporate the system as a learning tool to encourage young people in agriculture and to become self-sustainable.
Crops grown by Green Age Farms using the vertical hydroponic system include kale, (curly, dinosaur, red Russian, premier), lettuce (romaine, coloured varieties), pak choy, arugula, string beans, pimento, sweet pepper, ochro, local spinach, chives, celery, fine thyme, parsley, chadon beni, tomatoes (heatmaster, hybrid 61, brandywine, cherry, beefsteak better boy, sun gold), mustard greens, basil, mint and dill.
Suitable for home use is a starter kit which costs $2,750.
There are some additional items the customer has to source—common hardware material such as metal conduits, PVC fittings and a reservoir, with an average cost of $460 for the starter kit system.
The kit has a growing capacity for 80 sites for plants like kale, lettuce and 240 to 800 for smaller crops like parsley, chive, celery and fine thyme.
The systems are customised based on land area and number of plants and can be easily expanded to any size after that.
The growing medium
Cocopeat, a by-product of coconut husks, is an excellent hydroponic growing medium. It holds a lot of water and is able to store and release nutrients to plants over an extended period of time.
It can also be reused for up to four or five years which makes it a sustainable product. Some perlite is added to the cocopeat to help with drainage of the growing media.
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