The giant New Holland machine rips through the plantation, raising blinding dust in its wake. After one long trip amid the humming of the engine, it deposits grain into a waiting truck before embarking on a virgin set of rows.
Tens, perhaps hundreds of combine harvesters have pitched tent here, slowing traffic on the Bomet-Nairobi road and bringing roaring business in Narok and other trading centres.
It is harvest time at Nkorinkori, the heartland of Narok, East Africa’s largest growing wheat belt accounting for the nearly half of the 500,000 tonnes of wheat produced locally.
After years of braving harsh weather and diseases, wheat farmers in the region have a bumper crop this time around.
“The crop has been very good this year. Much of it is attributed to the El Nino rains which were facilitative rather than destructive,” Narok County chief officer in charge of agriculture Christopher Nkunkuu says.
Scientists at the Kenya agricultural Livestock and Research Organization (Kalro) were also instrumental in coming up with varieties that are stress tolerant.
“We tested 14 varieties from Kalro and farmers adopted a few of these which have been doing well. They include eagle 10, Korongo and robin.”
He said stem rust has also not been as virulent, giving farmers a breather except during the last few weeks.
Even then, routine spraying was enough to manage it.
Mr Nkukuu was referring to Ug99, so named because of the country it was first discovered (Uganda), and the year it was named.
Also referred to as the polio of agriculture, the disease can wipe out up to 70 per cent of the crop, with most victims being the new unsuspecting farmers who plunge into wheat farming after being lured by tales of fabulous riches to be made in the venture.
While land under wheat has been diminishing due to competition from pasture farming, occasioned by the dairy craze in the county, the trend has been reversed in the last few years after Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease relentlessly attacked maize in the region driving many maize farmers to seek refuge in wheat.
The fertiliser subsidy programme also appears to have borne fruit. The government this year imported 104,000 tonnes of fertiliser which the National Cereals and Produce Board was to sell a 50 kilogramme bag to smallholder farmers at Sh1,800, nearly half the Sh3,500 charged by retailers.
However, middlemen soon infiltrated the system and the non-deserving farmers were soon having a field day. Mr Nkukuu says a more effective system would be one in which a universal price was set, even if it was not as low as the present one.
MIGRATORY BIRD MENACE
This year the crop also came under attack by the quelea, a migratory bird species that can consume thousands of acres of crop in a week.
“We found an estimated nine million in Duka Moja, Nkareta and Nkorinkori. The roosts were destroyed by aircraft from the Desert Locust Control Organisation for Eastern Africa – the regional body in charge after we informed them,” Mr Nkukuu informed us.
Each bird consumes 10 grammes a day, and if uninterrupted by farmers who scare them away, the nine million birds could have decimated 90 tonnes a day.”
Mr Nkukuu calls for more preparedness to minimise damage whose extent he said would only be clear after complete harvesting.
“As a country we need to be more prepared in controlling the migratory birds. We had a slow response because we don’t have enough planes. The quality of the fleet has to improve.”
Narok last year produced 169,000 tonnes of wheat, earning the farmers slightly over Sh6bilion. The estimated harvest this year are 187,884 tonnes, reflecting a 30 per cent increase. Many farmers expect 12 bags from an acre and above.
Despite this bumper harvest, however, low prices occasioned by cheap imports have continued to plague the sector. The 10 per cent import duty slapped by the East African Community common market four years ago has seen millers opt for wheat from such countries as Russia.
Kenya is a wheat-deficit country relying on imports to meet the growing demand for the product.
Kenyan farmers produce between 30 and 40 per cent ( about 350, 000 tonnes) of the second most important staple food, which is grown in Narok, Nakuru, Njoro, Uasin Gishu and Timau.
It ships in two-thirds of total requirements to meet the annual consumption of close to one billion tonnes of wheat each year.
The latest food security report from the Ministry of Agriculture indicates that millers imported 492,371 bags of wheat between January and May 2016.
Last year, Kenya’s wheat imports hit Sh35.6 billion, representing a 5.3 per cent jump from Sh33.8 billion in 2014 and Sh30 billion a year earlier, according to data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.
REPRIEVE TO FARMERS
On Monday, local farmers got a reprieve after a meeting between Agriculture CS Willy Bett and millers agreed that the latter should mop up local wheat even as they went about importing.
“We agreed that the 18 millers should divide the local produce between themselves which stands at 840,000 bags for the large scale farmers and 630,000 bags for the small holder farmers – and report to the ministry on what number and from which farmers they have bought,” the Narok chapter of the Cereals Growers Association chairman Lesiamon ole Koonyo said.
The ministry and the millers confirmed the agreement.
The millers will buy the wheat at Sh3,000 a bag even though they get imported wheat at Sh2,650. The collection point will be at the National Cereals and Produce Board where each bag will be charged Sh45 for handling and storage charges.
This will be shared with millers paying Sh25 and the grain association footing Sh20.
Mr John Ntaiyia, the Narok CGA treasurer, called on the memorandum to cover the yet to be planted wheat in the upper zone of the county.
Narok has two climatic zones. While the farmers in the lowlands (Nkorinkori, Nkareta, Ololulung’a, Katakala, Ntulele and Duka Moja) have begun harvesting, those in the highlands such as Olokurto, Entiyani, Oloropil and Olpusimoru are now planting.
INCREASE WHEAT IMPORT DUTY
Mr Nyaiyia said the world lobby of cereals growers took part in the negotiations because Kenya’s wheat has one of the highest bushel weights.
Dr David ole Sankok, the Narok Central Business Association chairman said this year’s bumper harvest had breathed a new life into the fast-growing farming and resort town. “This harvest, coupled with increased tourist numbers, has returned the town to its lost glory.”
Other leaders, however, called for more to be done to enable farmers return a profit, saying the cost of farming had shot through the skies in recent years.
Mr Suki Singh, a CGA director, called on the government to protect local farmers, and by extension the local economy, by increasing import duty to 35 per cent.
Wheat farmer, Hugo Wood, warned that food security was jeopardised if the government would not stop the importation of wheat in favour of local produce.
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what it costs to plant wheat per acre
- To do a good crop of wheat, one needs Sh5,000 for leasing land, Sh1,800 for ploughing and Sh3,000 for two sets of harrowing
- Another Sh1,800 for planting, Sh3,000 for the fertiliser and Sh3,500 for seed. Herbicides could take up to Sh10, 000 depending on weather.
- To break even, the buying price has to be at least Sh3,600. When millers offer Sh3, 000 a bag, it means most farmers will not be in business next year
- Farmers have called on the government to protect local farmers, and by extension the local economy, by increasing import duty to 35 per cent.