Huge tracts of land under potatoes stretch to the hills yonder as one traverses Nyandarua County.
Our destination is Kinuthia Kiarie’s farm on the foot of the Aberdare Ranges.
For six years, Mr Kiarie has been growing strawberries conventionally on his three-acre piece of land, making him one of the biggest suppliers of the fruits countrywide.
Besides selling the fruits in major supermarkets, the farmer says he exports them to London, Mogadishu and Kampala.
To continue enjoying sweet fruits from the berries, Mr Kiarie has invested in modern technologies, which are making his strawberry farm one of the most advanced in the country.
Instead of using dry leaves and twigs as mulch to grow his strawberries, Kiarie has adopted polythene mulch.
Black polythene sheets dotted with green plants under a green net stand out as the Seeds of Gold team tours the farm.
The plastic mulch has reduced his water use, cut labour expenses since there is no weeding and keeps his fruits clean.
The farmer has further invested in a mist irrigation system that helps him beat frost during the cold season while the shade net stop birds that ravage the fruits when grown in open field.
“Mist irrigation uses an overhead sprinkler. The system is connected to tanks that distribute water from a pressure pump helping fight frost during cold season. I also use it during hot weather to curb wilting,” he explains.
Besides that, he has also invested in a small lighting system that helps him grow his fruits faster. “I use the normal LED lights, which I have hung above the plants. They produce enough light, aiding the plants to make food through photosynthesis including at night. The lights also help induce flowering throughout the life of the strawberry plant, increasing yields and the size of fruits,” he offers.
“This is a Sh1.3 million project that I am keen to use to double my yields and earnings,” he adds.
According to him, production during the cold weather has been dropping by between 50 to 75 per cent due to presence of frost, which deters the fruits from flowering.
Therefore, the light and mist irrigation system help him overcome the two challenges. “Strawberry is an ever-bearing fruit, thus one makes it more productive by using the night lights.”
CUTS THE AMOUNT OF WATER LOST
Kiarie, who has relied heavily on the internet to transform his farm, says his production has increased by between 40 to 60 per cent thanks to the technologies.
“In plastic mulching, one covers the soil with a polythene sheet, which offers favourable conditions for plants to grow, develop and maximise production,” he says.
To grow the crop, Kiarie first prepares a bed with a mixture of soil and manure at a ratio of 3:1 with a spacing of 60cm between the crops and 30cm between rows. He then uses the drip irrigation system and covers the bed with a perforated black polythene.
While farming in the open field, a farmer requires to constantly water, weed the plants and add manure after every six months. Kiarie says the mulching technology is less laborious.
“Initially, I would send several people to deflower the fruits, pick weeds and scout for diseases but these days, one or two persons are enough for the job. Deflowering enables the fruit to grow bigger.”
Though it is expensive to use the mulch compared to planting in bare soil, Mr Kiarie observed that it is economical in the long run.
Besides the reduction in workers, plastic mulch, according to him, helps in water conservation since it cuts the amount of water lost from the soil during evaporation.
“The plastic mulch prevents growth of other plants such as weeds since the sun cannot reach the soil directly,” he observes.
According to him, the plastic sheet keeps ripening fruits off the soil, preventing diseases and rotting.
He produces at least 4,500 punnets of strawberry from a three-quarter acre, with each going for between Sh120 and Sh180.
Once he harvests the crop, the fruits are sorted, with the bigger ones sold raw while the smaller ones he gives his wife Beth to make jam, another source of their income.
The couple sell 250g of strawberry jam at Sh150 while a kilo goes for Sh500.
Mr John Wambugu, an agronomist at the Wambugu Farm in Nyeri, says plastic mulch increases the microclimate underneath it, leading to faster growth rate of the plant.
He, however, warns that the use of overhead sprinkler might mess up with pollination if done excessively.
While the farmer lauds the lights, Mr Wambugu says they may not be really necessary since we are in the tropics where we get lengthy periods of sunshine.