Ben Chekwanda is a long time maize farmer in Trans Nzoia and, over the years, he has reaped maximum yields from his land in Kiminini outside Kitale town.
But today, he does not want to have anything to do with Kenya’s former food basket. He moved to Nakuru after incurring heavy losses in the last couple of years.
“The cost of farming in Kitale now is prohibitive. I moved out two years ago and I now trade at Mauche, near Njoro,” he told Seeds of Gold this week.
He is not alone. Trans Nzoia has fallen victim to its own success with its produce now a pale shadow of its former self. At the height of its boom in 1990s, an acre of land would yield up to 50 bags of maize, but today you’ll be lucky to get 12 bags.
Soil acidity, sub-division of land, poor quality seed and erratic rainfall have dramatically raised the cost of farming and consigned farmers to misery.
“The cost of hiring land has shot up from Sh2,000 to Sh10,000 an acre in the last 10 years. You now also need more than double the amount of fertiliser if you are to harvest anything decent,” Mr Chekwanda says.
“We used to apply 50kg of DAP per acre, but now we have to use 125kg.”
The situation has been compounded by reports that the government-subsidised fertiliser is increasing the acidity of the soil.
A study conducted by agricultural experts who had been tasked by area Governor Patrick Khaemba established that the region’s diminishing productivity has been caused by acidity attributed to continuous usage of DAP fertiliser.
The experts recommended the use of lime to lower soil PH.
Kenya Seed managing director Willy Bett said soil in the region has accumulated a lot of acidity due to consistent use of commercial fertiliser.
“Trans Nzoia is still very productive. We only need to review our farming techniques to ensure we use the right fertiliser,” he said.
Mr Bett said farmers were applying various types of fertiliser without seeking expert advice on the nutrient needs of the soil.
“Unless we develop mechanisms of testing our soils, we may continue feeding it with the wrong nutrients while we think we are enriching it,” Mr Bett told Seeds of Gold at the seed company’s offices in Kitale.
The county’s director of agriculture, Mr Edward Osanya, attributed last year’s poor yields to environmental uncertainties and soil acidity.
“We had unfavourable weather conditions. In addition, soils in parts of this region have become too acidic ,” Mr Osanya said.
Mr Khaemba wants the government to stop supplying subsidised DAP fertiliser to the region, unless it also supplies lime alongside it.
“We don’t want DAP. If you keep supplying this fertiliser without lime to neutralise its resulting acidic impact, we will ban future supplies,” Mr Khaemba told the NCPB depot manager Mr Richard Kirui.
Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) has also faulted the counties for making blanket statements on the matter.
“Lime alone cannot be the solution to the declining production; you can apply lime but with poor agronomic practices, you will not have solved the problem,” said Kari director Ephraim Mukisira.
Dr Mukisira urged governors to advise farmers to embrace crop rotation other than sticking to one crop every year, saying such a move would add nutrients to the soil.
But Mr Timothy Busienei, chairman of the Cereal Growers Association, thinks that of all the problems facing farmers in Kitale, land fragmentation was the worst.