Electrical linemen descend from helicopters, balancing on steel girders 90 feet high on transmission towers in the mountains of central Puerto Rico, far from any road.
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His unique way to watch stuff grow
Ronald Chan is a 27-year-old electrical engineer with a love for planting and says he was divinely inspired to create a unique way to grow crops on a commercial scale without working long, hard hours under the scorching sun. He has 1,200 tomato plants growing under a plastic cover without soil and without rain and which are fed artificially.
He boasts they are among the biggest and the best tomatoes and his yield is greater than that from outdoor farms.
“I belive God inspired the idea and guided me in this direction. Farming was the first profession of God.
“Doctors, judges, everyone needs the farmer. Everyone needs to eat. The farmer does not necessarily need them.” he says.
Chan plants his crops in a greenhouse on one lot of land and uses a combination of sharp sand hydroponics and greenhouse technology. He has, ironically, named his farm Straight From the Garden.
A former Malabar Composite student, Chan, of Wallerfield, pursued engineering studies at the University of T&T and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering and a Masters in Industrial Innovation, Entrepreneurship Management.
But the youngest of six children of a poultry farmer, whose family is also into cultivation, said he always loved “watching stuff grow” but did not like the labour intensive process, hot sun and the risks of planting outdoors. Chan still works with his family on their ten-acre farm.
But he has decided to use his engineering education to make farming easier and more attractive to the youth. One of the youngest directors on the board of the Agricultural Society, Chan believes he is well positioned to promote his new technique of planting.
“I always felt I should use my education to give back to agriculture and the community,” he says
Explaining how it works, he said: “I did the thesis for my Masters in hybrid technology. Four years ago, I decided to combine sharp sand hydroponics with greenhouse technology to grow crops and automated the entire system.”
Chan said he was the first person in T&T to come up with this way of growing crops.
“It’s basically, growing vegetables in the absence of soil. The sharp sand provide a base on a concrete floor for the roots of the plant.
“All the nutrients the plants needs are fed to them in liquid form through a system of pipes with holes near each plant. I turn on the pumps and the nutrients feed each plant.
“It’s a misconception that the whole plant needs to be wet. You just need to wet the roots,” he adds.
The plants do get sunlight coming through the plastic cover, he said. “The greenhouse is not fully enclosed. There is a fish net around half.”
Chan said he compared his crops with those on his family’s farm and had concluded his way produced better results.
“My tomatoes have a longer shelf life. “In the outdoor farm we pick tomatoes every two months. I pick every week for six months in my greenhouse and get more tomatoes. There was never a time I did not get a good harvest,” he added.
Chan said while his unique way of cultivation had a higher start-up cost, in the long run the operational costs were cheaper than that of an outdoor farm.
“You don’t have to prepare the land. You just start again and you can plant all year round,” he added. He works one hour a day five days a week on his tomatoes. “When it’s time to harvest I will work like two hours. In the greenhouse we mostly spray, prune and harvest.”
He has one person working for him and wholesales his produce at the Macoya market and to mini marts and supermarkets.
Chan’s novel way of growing crops has so impressed the Ministry of Agriculture, it brought students to his greenhouse to see how it’s done. In addition to planting two gardens, he also has another 3D modelling and design business. “For this, I usually work at night from behind a computer,” he said.
Chan said one of his favourite motivational quotes is: “In order to have the things others don’t have tomorrow, you must be willing to do the things others are not willing to do today.
“There is only one thing someone needs to accomplish anything he wants, the will to do it,” he said.