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Meru potato farmers increase yields fourfold through conservation agriculture

By George Munene

By em­ploy­ing con­ser­va­tion ag­ri­cul­ture in grow­ing pota­toes, farm­ers across Meru County have been able to more than quad­ruple their out­put while lower­ing the cost of in­puts and re­du­cing weed­ing fre­quency.

Ac­cord­ing to The Food and Ag­ri­cul­ture Or­gan­isa­tion of the United Na­tions (FAO), Con­ser­va­tion Ag­ri­cul­ture (CA) is a farm­ing sys­tem that keeps soil dis­turb­ance to a min­imum which con­trib­utes to con­serving soil water, nu­tri­ent use ef­fi­ciency, and en­han­cing its biod­iversity. All this serves to im­prove and sus­tain crop pro­duc­tion.

"No one can con­vince me to go back to con­ven­tional meth­ods of grow­ing pota­toes again," Ayubu Mir­iti ex­claimed. The ca­reer farmer who was host­ing a del­eg­a­tion of farm­ers, ex­ten­sion of­fi­cials, and ag­ri­cul­tural ser­vice pro­viders from Narok, Meru, Na­k­uru, Nyandarua, and El­geyo-Marak­wet counties at his farm in Kisima Ward, Meru is a re­cent con­vert to con­ser­va­tion ag­ri­cul­ture and evan­gel­ises CA's be­ne­fits with good reason.

Hav­ing been in­tro­duced to con­ser­va­tion potato farm­ing by  PAFID (Par­ti­cip­at­ory Ap­proaches for In­teg­rated De­vel­op­ment), an NGO im­ple­ment­ing the World Food Pro­gram-fun­ded Farm to Mar­ket Al­li­ance pro­ject, Mir­iti di­vided up his ¾ acre farm­land into three plots. From the first sec­tion that was con­ven­tion­ally dug with a hand how he har­ves­ted just eight 50 kilo bags of pota­toes. The next ¼ acre plot was farmed through an ox-drawn plough; this yiel­ded an im­proved 22 bags. On the sec­tion he trialed CA potato farm­ing he got 36 bags; the equi­val­ent of 144 bags an acre.

"I halved my la­bour costs through con­ser­va­tion ag­ri­cul­ture; as an ex­ample, I did not have to carry out any weed­ing for CA pota­toes, while this was done twice for my other plots. Through PAFID, I have also learned about pre­ci­sion input ap­plic­a­tion which has fur­ther lowered my cost," Mir­iti ex­plained. 

Rip­ping breaks soil hard­pan (layer of com­pacted soil formed when till­age im­ple­ments press the soil dir­ectly below it) which hinders water per­col­a­tion and root pen­et­ra­tion in the soil.


                                        Rip­per mod­i­fied with 'ears' used for CA potato cul­tiv­a­tion


                                                               Rip lines

While Ayubu had to water his crop up to three times a week, with CA grown pota­toes he watered them just once a week.


"In the plots of land where rip­ping was not done, water is often stag­nant and is ab­sorbed piece­meal by plants while fer­til­iser is lost through sur­face run­off," he said.

Mir­iti's only re­gret he as­serts is he did not have his en­tire potato crop under con­ser­va­tion ag­ri­cul­ture.

"While con­ser­va­tion ag­ri­cul­ture has seen an up­tick with Kenyan farm­ers, most potato grow­ers are still ig­nor­ant of its tre­mend­ous be­ne­fits," said Jos­phat Musenze PAFID's Meru and Tharaka Nithi Field Su­per­visor.

For farm­ers look­ing to har­ness the di­vidend of grow­ing pota­toes under con­ser­va­tion ag­ri­cul­ture, PAFID works to get them in con­tact with Mech­an­ical Ser­vice Pro­viders (MSPs), i.e, tractor own­ers. These tract­ors are af­fixed with a rip­per that is mod­i­fied with 'ears' that part the ripped soil on either side. 

Jason Marangu, a farmer at Kibiri­chia Ward, and an early ad­op­ter of CA potato farm­ing is a per­fect case study of the pro­ject's trans­form­at­ive im­pact.


When he star­ted work­ing with PAFID, he says his har­vest per acre was a paltry 30 potato bags. As he has been taught and walked through con­ser­va­tion ag­ri­cul­ture and the right ag­ro­nomic prac­tices such as timely plant­ing and har­vest­ing, use of cer­ti­fied seeds, and proper pesti­cide ap­plic­a­tion he is the first farmer within his re­gion which has a stor­ied potato his­tory to har­vest 400 potato bags from one acre, the equi­val­ent of up to 20 tonnes. 

Jason now serves as an MSP, as well as train­ing farm­ers look­ing to have a prac­tical demon­stra­tion on con­ser­va­tion potato farm­ing.

"We have demon­strated that con­ser­va­tion ag­ri­cul­ture ad­dresses farm­ers' major pain points: it raises yields, re­duces costs while con­serving the en­vir­on­ment. As the con­sequences of both global warm­ing and en­vir­on­mental de­grad­a­tion be­come more evid­ent, con­ser­va­tion ag­ri­cul­ture has be­come a non-ne­go­ti­able and we need to work on a more sus­tain­able me­dium where farmer out­put isn't im­peded and eco­sys­tems are pro­gress­ively re­stored, " Jos­phat Musenze said.


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