They put their all in maize, which is now wilting after the sky refused to open for rains.
The farmers in Uteteni, Makueni County, are now staring at huge losses, which will wreak more misery on the drought-stricken villages. But amidst this air of gloom and despair, there is a farmer who is not crying.
Four years ago, Peter Waweru ditched maize for French beans after suffering poor harvests for close to a decade. “For eight years, I lost more than Sh30,000 every season on land preparation, irrigation and fertiliser.” It was then that he sought advice from the Ministry of Agriculture in Makueni.
“I was asked to take a sample of soil from my farm for laboratory assessment. After two days, I went for the results. “They told me my soil was acidic, which could not support maize farming even if the rains were to improve.”
He was advised to grow French beans, but after adding lime to the soil to raise the pH level.
Neutral soil has a pH of about 6.5. Anything higher is alkaline and while lower is acidic.
Add agricultural lime
To raise the pH, farmers are advised to add agricultural lime. One can lower the pH by adding elemental sulphur or fertiliser containing ammonium sulphate.
“I was applying inappropriate fertiliser because I didn’t know my soil,” recounts Waweru.
His 1.5 acre farm, which sits on the banks of River Tawa, is now teeming with French beans and bullet chilies.
“I directly plant the beans seeds into the soil in single rows of 30 by 15cm spacing. I then put a single seed per hole.” The beans take an average of 45 days to mature, then one can harvest every day.
He sells a kilo of his produce at between Sh50 and Sh100. He harvests 120kg of French beans in a week, bringing him a tidy sum.
Lukas Munyoli is another farmer who ditched maize for fruit and vegetable farming after conducting a soil test. His three-acre farm in Kiteta village, Makueni East teems with grafted oranges, passion fruits, apples, mangoes and vegetables planted in an integrated system.
“Oranges take between three to five years to mature. To grow them, you first dig 2.5 square feet holes, putting aside the top soil which will be mixed with a kilo of crop or animal manure,” explains the former teacher. He grows bullet chilies and French beans using irrigation.
Munyoli harvests an average of 25kg of passion fruits a day, which he sells to a juice manufacturing company at Sh14 a kilo. The farmer further earns at least Sh20,000 from French beans and lilies per harvest.
The main challenge these farmers face, however, is the frequent attack by pests such as the black aphid, which erodes some of their profits because they spend a fortune spraying their crops.
Jacob Ademba, a research officer at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, says a farmer who does not conduct soil test is like someone who is groping in the dark. Soil testing, according to Ademba, incorporates sampling procedure, soil analysis and interpretation of the results leading to proper land use.
He further recommends organic manure during planting to improve soil pH and structure. However, for crops that are already planted, one needs to lime the soil with fertiliser rich in calcium.