The day is bright as Seeds of Gold team heads to King’ong’o, a few kilometres from Nyeri town.
Our destination is Julia Gaitho’s farm, where we find her sorting feeds in a small granary next to her several fishponds sitting on part of her 23 acres.
Julia, 88, has been a farmer all her life, and has resisted the temptation to convert the use of her land from farming to real estate as her farm is surrounded by commercial storey buildings as King’ong’o acquires a new face.
On one side of her farm are two chicken pens. Away from the birds, some lush green plants that include chia, onions and persimmon dance to the gentle wind. And not far away from the crop farm sits the dairy unit and the pigsty.
“Some call me Jack-of-all- trades because of the many things I keep and grow. I also keep fish and do spring onion farming. I have always been an enthusiastic farmer and passion is what drives me,” says Julia, adding she will not stop despite her advancing age.
She keeps two mature cows and a calf, and she is currently milking one, which produces 25 litres everyday earning her gross income of Sh30,000 as a litre goes at Sh40.
At her pigsty, she has two sows and 16 piglets, each having calved down recently to eight young ones. She has reared pigs over the years, initially selling the animals to Farmers’ Choice.
And she is hoping to raise the numbers to reclaim the market, but currently, she sells the animals to fellow farmers at Sh13,200 each.
The octogenarian began growing chia sometime last year, and though a labour-intensive crop especially during harvesting and sorting, she has reaped a lot from the seeds that are a remedy to arthritis.
The crop, which matures in four months, occupies an eighth of an acre, from which she harvested last season 54kg earning her over Sh80,000 as each kilo went for Sh1,500.
Onions sit on quarter acre and she just made her first sale to a trader in Nairobi the other day, selling 1,000kg at a wholesale price of Sh40 per kilo.
“I transported the produce to Nairobi and made Sh40,000,” she says, adding she would sale the remaining produce this week. Her chicken farming dates back to her hey days when she was still young. Interestingly, she also keeps quail birds for meat and eggs, with the products being highly sought because they help manage high blood pressure and diabetes.
Currently, she has more than 150 Kuroiler chickens, which she keeps for eggs and meat.
“I sold 192 chickens recently at Sh350 to hotels in Nyeri as they were aged. I am now working to restock the chicken houses this month,” she says.
At the fish farm, a worker clad in a red apron is feeding catfish fish. Julia has built two greenhouses adjacent to each other which host her fish farming venture.
In one of the greenhouses, she has four plastic tanks where she breeds 5,000 fingerlings that go at Sh10 each, while the other hosts five small ponds where she keeps tilapia.
“In greenhouses, tilapia are better reared in wooden ponds as they are easy to make, clean and even harvesting is simple,” says Julia, noting the rectangular ponds are made of wood and dam liner.
The farmer says she rears tilapia in greenhouses because of the region’s cold weather, which normally makes the fish grow slower.
“But in the greenhouse, tilapia matures by five instead of six to seven months enabling me to sell and restock faster,” says Julia of the project started last year November. The farmer gets tilapia fingerlings from a farm in Kirinyaga.
The ponds vary in sizes depending on the fish they host. The bigger ponds measure 14ft by 16ft and the smaller ones 7ft by 16ft for the younger fish.
She normally moves the fingerlings after every nine weeks to the ponds. The farmer invested in the project Sh1 million, which went to the purchase of greenhouse materials and liners.
So why keep catfish? “The advantage of catfish is that they are best for business as they can make fillets better compared to other fish. They then mature at seven months weighing between 1.5 and 2kg,” she says, noting demand for the fish in the region is fast growing, therefore, market is not a problem.
Julia changes water in her ponds after every three to four days and offers the fish only commercial feeds. She has eight workers in total and hires more if need be.
“I have farmed for years and I have seen farming trends change. I usually pick new trends from farm events and try to implement then. I do not regret as farming offers me my daily bread,” says Julia, who works with an agronomist and a vet doctor.
Dr Julius Ndogoni, a lecturer at Department of Fisheries and Environment, Karatina University, says ponds require enough water flowing in an out to ensure survival of the fish.
“The oxygen demand for catfish is slightly lower compared to that of other fish like trout. It adjusts to different climate changes without stressing the farmer,” he says.
He explains that while rearing trout, water has to run in and out of the pond as the fish demand for oxygen is higher and that can only be achieved when clean water is running in and out of the pond.
“Fish farming is the next frontier especially catfish as it is a very broad fish that requires minimal management,” he says.
John Wambugu, an agronomist at Wambugu Farm in Nyeri, says farming enables the elderly like Julia to continue building the nation instead of depending on their children.