Driving along the Meru-Nanyuki highway, one may believe that little is left for the smallholder farmer in the area, thanks to expansive wheat fields extending as far as the eye can see.
Tens of greenhouses where flowers and other horticultural crops are grown also dot the landscape.
But looks can be deceiving as tens of small-scale farmers flourish in the area, in particular those growing fresh produce like pigeon peas under contract for export.
Jackson Majau is one of the small farmers growing crops that he sells to an international firm for export.
The farmer practises mixed crop farming on four acres in Buuri sub county, specialising in snow, snap and garden peas that he rotates with carrots, cabbages and potatoes.
Majau joined the bandwagon more than 20 years ago when small-scale farmers started planting several varieties of peas after the crop was introduced in the area by large-scale farmers. At the time, he was just 22.
He started as a broker buying peas from farmers and selling it to exporters but with time, he realised he could also produce the crop and sell making more money.
He invested some Sh250,000 in a water reservoir with a capacity of 300,000 litres and started farming peas.
“To grow the peas, I prepare the farm by ploughing first and then harrowing to make the soil finer. The spacing from one row to another is 2.5 feet while from one hole to another is three inches. After planting, I cover the seed with little soil,” Majau says, adding that he uses DAP fertiliser applied at a ratio of 5kg per a kilo of seeds and properly mixes it with the soil.
While he buys seeds at between Sh450 and Sh630 a kilo depending on the type of peas, each acre needs 22 kilos which give a harvest of 6,000kg if well-taken care of. The cost of production per acre averages Sh70,000.
Irrigation is done carefully to prevent waterlogging while the seeds start germinating after two weeks, the stage at which the plant is sprayed with pesticides. Weeding starts a month later and he also applies CAN fertiliser to prepare it for flowering.
“Peas is a very delicate crop and has to be taken care of properly, therefore, spraying is a must to control pest attack. Snap peas are usually thicker and broader than snow peas, and they have to be staked after 45 days,” says the farmer, who is among those contracted by Vegpro Kenya Limited, which exports fresh produce and cut flowers. The company supplies farmers with certified seeds.
“If it is too cold, the peas develop black spots which can lead to rejection of the produce. One should also guard against fusarium wilt, which causes the plant to dry up,” Majau adds.
The plant flowers between 50 to 60 days, when he applies more fertiliser to prepare the crop for maturity at between 75 and 80 days. Harvesting continues for two months and with proper planning, a farmer can harvest three times in a year.
With prices of the peas ranging from Sh60 to Sh100 a kilo, a farmer can take home more than Sh600,000 from 6,000 kilos per acre. However, Majau says the highest he has ever earned from an acre was Sh530,000, some two years ago.
“At times prices rise to Sh150 a kilo, but this is a very sensitive crop because in the past I have harvested crop that is less than Sh30,000 from an acre yet I had spent over Sh70,000,” says the father of three, who has, however, built a good house and owns a lorry that he uses to transport produce, all proceeds from his farm.
According to him, with proper management and timing, peas are a lucrative crop as compared to carrots or potatoes. From an acre of carrots, he harvests crops worth Sh200,000 while for potatoes it drops to Sh160,000 with a production cost of about Sh50,000 for both crops.
Majau has also diversified to dairy farming, keeping three Friesian cows producing an average of 25 litres each, which he sells at Sh35 each.
Moses Kimathi, another farmer in the area, says he harvests an average of Sh400,000 per season from the eight tonnes of peas he gets.
“Despite the crop being good and earning good money with a kilo selling up to Sh150, sometimes prices fall to as low as Sh25 a kilo,” recounts Kimathi.
Joseph Muruatetu, the agricultural officer in-charge of Timau ward, advises farmers to ensure that the contract they sign does not favour the company.
He says they ask farmers to visit their offices with a copy of the contract, after which they also invite an official of the contracting company and involve the Horticultural Crops Development Authority so that the contract is binding and to ensure the grower is protected.
“There are some hidden clauses that farmers should be aware of especially in regard to quality. Sometimes when there is a glut in the market, the buyers introduce stringent quality checks with the intention of rejecting some of the produce,” says Mr Muruatetu.
“We, however, have a challenge because some farmers don’t consult us, and end up signing lopsided contracts that favour the companies and later complain to us that they have been swindled of their produce,” he adds.
He notes that for peas, they advise the farmers not to sell their produce at less than Sh50 per kilo since they would go at a loss because the cost of production is high.
Stephen Murage, an agronomist with Vegpro Kenya Limited, which has contracted farmers in the area, says peas need tender care until maturity.
“I tell farmers that this crop is just like a baby. Farmers should plant certified seeds of proper variety that are disease resistant.”
Murage says since peas are susceptible to erratic prices due to the unpredictable nature of the market, they advise farmers on when to plant huge quantities and seasons they should slow down on production.
“Each year we come up with a planting programme that we share with farmers based on expected production in major markets. This protects them from price shocks in case of a glut,” he says.