At a time when farmers continue to decry dwindling yields as a result of poor seed varieties and diminishing soil fertility, one farmer in Molo is farming year round thanks to intercropping potatoes with gardens peas, a practice that has also boosted soil fertility in her farm.
Having traditionally relied on potato seeds from the previous harvest for planting, Ann Chepngeno couldn’t understand why her yields dwindled with each subsequent harvest.
Unknown to her, the potato seeds from the previous harvest carried with them diseases, and their yielding capacity decreased with every harvest. For example a tuber that produced six potatoes in one harvest, would produce three in the next.
Ann’s light bulb moment came after a training organized by the Ministry of Agriculture, that not only pointed her to the importance of planting seed varieties but to the extent with which good farm management practices can determine the yield results.
Ann is now a certified potato seed grower who has expanded her farming space from just 2 acres to over 15 acres. “The demand for seed potatoes is astronomical. There are rogue potato seed sellers who have infiltrated the market and selling sub standard seeds to farmers but we thank them. Because farmers who end up buying those seeds get little yields and the y come to us trying to correct the situation. Sometimes that is how farmers need to learn,” said Ann.
Ann gets her seeds from Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and other research institutions. Upon growing the potato seeds and before selling them to farmers, she takes some samples to the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate (KEPHIS) who tests the seeds for diseases. “It is very important that we get the seeds right. Diseases are the biggest headache for potato farmers and take a huge toll on yields. One of the farmers I am working with to help her salvage her farm, put an acre on potato farming. She harvested nothing. All the potatoes were attacked by Bacterial Wilt. She would have salvaged something if she had the certified seeds which at times can withstand the diseases, but she had bought seeds from rogue traders,” she said.
She grows different seed varieties including Kenya Karibu, Tigoni and Sangi varieties. Each variety does well in different climatic conditions and are ideal for various markets. “For example those exporting frozen chips prefer to grow the Tigoni variety because it is preferred by the export market and is easy to cook,” she said.
Sangi variety however has become the darling of many local buyers due to its ability to yield more and mature fast. It takes three months, and a tuber can produce up to 15 potatoes.
The huge demand for the potato seeds has seen Ann rent land to supplement his 10 acre piece.
But in a classic crop rotation model that is earning Ann more, she has also entered into garden pea farming which she farms for export under a contract farming arrangement with Finlays. The garden peas mature after three months, but the demand is so high that every week she has to deliver. She has divided her land to ensure continued supply. Every week she delivers on average 20 kilos with a kilo fetching Sh100.
The garden peas have assisted her potato farming. According to experts potatoes should not be planted continuously. If a farmer plants potato this season, that piece of land should not be under potato cultivation next season. This is to reduce the chances of disease and improve soil fertility. “So after harvesting my potatoes, I plant garden peas the next two seasons. Garden peas are also known to be good nitrogen fixing crops meaning by the time I am planting potatoes again, the soil is fertilized. I use very little fertilizer on the farm,” said Ann.
With potato being the second most important crop in Kenya after maize in terms of consumption, being grown by approximately 500,000 small scale on 120,000 hectares and with an average yield of 7.7 tonnes per hectare it is little wonder that farmers from across the country flock Ann’s farmer for the right seeds and advice. “Even hotels are now growing their own potatoes and are keen on investing in healthy potato seeds. A healthy and certified seed makes all the difference in terms of yields. If you are growing to get yields stay away from planting seeds from the previous season. It won’t work,” Ann added.