A drive around Barina village in Rongai sub-county, Nakuru, leaves one in near shock.
The rains disappeared this season as soon as they started, thus, many farmers are at risk of losing their maize and bean crops for the second year in a row.
On one piece of land, though, the story is different. Over 20 people can be seen working on the farm that is full of Boma Rhodes grass.
Noah Chemirmir, 36, is among them, and one would mistake him for any other worker harvesting the grass.
Chemirmir, however, is the farmer behind the farm named Sochon, which sits on 530 acres, 250 of which he has put under seed production while on the rest he grows the Boma Rhodes grass for making hay.
He is contracted by Kenya Seed Company to grow Boma Rhodes seeds and he sells hay to livestock farmers.
On one acre, he plants 5kg of seeds and harvests an average of 60kg that Kenya Seed buys at Sh333 per kilo.
An acre gives him an average of 100 to 120 bales of hay. Unlike maize and beans, the common crops grown in the area, Boma Rhodes does not need a lot of attention and it is hardy, Chemirmir says.
“I mix seeds with fertiliser when planting using a tractor, spray to curb weeds after two weeks and wait to harvest after four months,” he says, adding that the crop is harvested about four times before it is uprooted and replanted.
And he is not your ordinary farmer. Chemirmir is a graduate of Collins County College in Texas, US, where he studied computer science.
He lived in the US for five years before returning to Kenya in 2009 after the bank he was working for shut down.
For many people, returning from abroad marks a beginning of a confused life as they try to acculturate themselves to the Kenyan life.
But Chemirmir says when he returned to Kenya, he already knew what he was going to do – farming.
His farming story started in 1999 when the area, which is semi-arid, was hit by a prolonged drought causing loss of livestock.
“In 2000, I farmed 20 acres of hay, just to try if I would make some money from the livestock farmers who had no fodder,” he says, adding, “To my surprise, I sold all the hay as people feared losing their animals to drought.”
He continued farming, though on small-scale on the family land, until 2004 when he left for the US.
Losing his job in the US years later was a blessing in disguise as it gave him a chance to return home and grow grass.
Upon his return, he cleared 80 acres of the vast family land and invested Sh800,000, part from his savings that he had accumulated while in the US and the rest came from charcoal that he made from trees which he cleared on the land.
“I harvested around 10,000 bales and sold at Sh150 each,” he says.
Encouraged, he planted 70 acres in 2011, only to harvest Sh500,000 loss. “The problem was poor quality seeds which I had sourced from a farmer,” he regrets, but adds that he learnt his lesson.
He did not give up; he went to look for certified seeds at Kenya Seed, where he also enquired if he could become their seed producer.
Initially, he says, Kenya Seed did not take him seriously due to his age, and the fact that hay farming is often associated with old people.
It took them more than a year, and a reminder to visit Chemirmir’s farm and confirm that indeed he had enough land for seed production. The deal was later sealed.
However, it is not all rosy. Depending on demand, prices per bale vary greatly, as they sometimes drop to Sh150.
Currently, he is selling a bale at Sh250, but fears that prices may come down if production goes up.
The only time he was tempted to try maize farming was in 2012, and it was a big mistake. He planted 40 acres, only for his crop to be destroyed by the Lethal Necrosis Disease.
He has also tried a hand in sorghum farming but as fate would have it, the crop was attacked by birds from nearby Barina swamp.
He has started Rift Valley Hay Farmers Association, which has 80 members with the aim of advocating for their rights and setting uniform prices.
“The organisation will also invest on a common store where we can keep hay as we wait for the best prices,” says Chemirmir.
From a capital of Sh800,000, Chemirimir says his farm is currently worth about Sh25m. He owns several farm machineries like harvesters, bailers and tractors.
“There is good money in hay farming. I will never look for a job in my profession because this is where my heart is.”
He does not harvest his grass until he has orders from clients to save on the cost of storage and ensure he sells only fresh products.
Chemirmir has contacts of over 400 farmers to whom he sends text messages to alert them when the grass is ready for harvesting.
Churchill Kitavi, an agronomist from Kenya Seed, says farmers need to understand the climate of their areas to be able to select the right seeds for hay production.
“Some varieties of grass thrive in lower and medium marginal areas while others do well in wet areas. You must get all that information before starting to farm.”
He adds that though the crop suppresses weeds as it grows, it is advisable to spray soon after planting.
Nitrogen should also be added into the soil each time after harvesting to hasten the growth process.
To be a contracted seed producer, a farmer must apply to Kenya Seed to visit and assess the farm before signing the contract.
Stanley Karimi, a Senior Technical Officer at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KARLO), says farmers can break even in hay production when farming on as little as two acres.
What matters most, he says, is doing a market study and cultivating the right grass.
Boma Rhodes, he adds is the best and most marketable as it is rich in nutrients, such as crude protein, phosphorous and nitrogen, thus a favourite especially for dairy farming.
Other types of grasses include Kikuyu, Mbarara Rhodes, Kapedo Rhodes, Sudan grass, Pokot grass among others. Sudan grass, Karimi says, does well in dry areas while Boma Rhodes medium-dry areas.
He notes that quality seeds and good farming practices like weeds control, are the gateway to good harvest.