Tiampati ole Kool, a farmer in Tipis, Mau Narok, has been a barley grower since the 1980s.
Last year, however, when the price of wheat soared to Sh4,000 per 90kg bag, he switched to the cereal in search of better returns, dedicating a huge section of his farm to the crop.
But the farmer, who farms on 600 acres of leased land, is one of those counting losses as the cost of the commodity has this season fallen to a low of Sh1,600 per bag.
“Last season I only grew barley on a small portion of my land because I felt I wasn’t getting as much profit from it due to the problem of lodging. But it’s been worse with wheat now,” said the farmer, adding he will go back to barley this season.
Switching from barley to wheat is a challenge to brewers
Lodging, which happens when the barley slouches and falls due to excess use of fertiliser or because of heavy rains or winds, presents a challenge to farmers as most of the grain is left uncollected on the ground since the combine harvester cannot pick it.
The switching from barley to wheat is one of the challenges the East Africa Maltings Ltd (EAML), a subsidiary of East African Breweries Limited, which contracts farmers in the major barley growing areas of Moiben, Njoro and Timau, is grappling with.
“When the wheat prices are good, you find farmers shifting to the crop. The good thing with barley is that you do it on contract so that by the time of planting, one already knows the price,” said Gerald Gacheru, the agribusiness manager East African Maltings Ltd.
The company requires from 40,000 to 60,000 tonnes of barley annually for their production, a target they do not meet as some farmers switch to wheat.
“We contract the farmers at the start of the season based on our sales projections for the year. After we have known how much will be required to make alcohol, then we come to the farmer,” said Gacheru.
The search for better returns from wheat has not spared even the big farmer.
Purko Development Trust Agricultural Estate, a communally owned land in Tipis, Mau Narok, is one of the big farms contracted by EAML.
The group has 500 acres of its vast 3,600acre-estate under barley. The farmers currently have 700 acres under wheat, while the rest is used for pasture.
Wheat prices have left a dent in farmers pockets
Wilson Subuko, the field officer at the farm, said this year’s wheat prices have left a dent in their pockets. “About 230 acres of our wheat was damaged by bad weather. It rained and the grain started to germinate in the fields.”
The damage made the group sell the wheat at a throw away price of Sh1,600 per 90kg bag. Subuko noted they now are contemplating growing barley on all the farm.
“We usually get up to 3 tonnes of barley per acre, but in a bad year of heavy rains and strong wind yields like last season, yields can halve,” said Daniel Tikani, the acting farm supervisor, adding the brewer provides them with inputs like seeds, herbicides, fungicides and fertilisers.
Due to lodging, earnings in most cases reduce from between Sh45,000 and Sh60,000 per acre to Sh24,000, another reason that makes farmers shift to wheat.
Sylvester Ndeba, the Research and Liaison Manager at the EAML, said they are researching on the crop to address various challenges.
“We have thousands of crops under research currently as we try many varieties to see which ones perform well,” said Ndeba.
Two dominant barley varieties, Fanaka and Quench, are planted by farmers in the country. It is expected that by next year, the brewer will start to distribute two new varieties namely Grace and Aliciana.
Barley (Hordeum vulgare L.), a member of the grass family, is a major cereal grain. It is used as animal fodder, source of fermentable material for beer and certain distilled beverages, and as a component of various health foods.
Barley if well-grown is 1.5 times higher than wheat
Dr Dennis Otieno, an agro-economist at Tegemeo Institute, notes that it is important for farmers to look at the economics of barley and wheat production before making decision.
“Barley takes about four months to grow compared to wheat which takes five months. This short growing period reduces the labour time tied to the farmer, more for barley than with wheat.”
He adds that the production level for barley if well-grown is 1.5 times higher than wheat, with barley having a potential of 30 100 bags per acre while wheat can go up to 18-20 bags.
“The higher yields lead to more returns given the lucrative market for barley which is grown under contract farming with the EAML. The firm also provides training and inputs to farmers, which motivates its production.” The average price for barley as offered by the brewer is about Sh 3,500 compared to wheat price, which is market-driven.
“Wheat like maize is prone to fluctuating prices due to importation which dampen their prices in the markets. The production areas of Narok, Njoro, South Rift regions and the North Rift are further prone to lethal necrosis diseases. It, therefore, makes sense to grow barley.”
The main challenge with barley, according to Dr Otieno, is its high cost of insecticides, pesticides, fungicides and the recommended chemicals.