Farm grows water guzzling produce in desert

A farm in the arid Eastern Kenya has grown water guzzling fresh produce for export in the last seven years uninterrupted by the dry spells and has now become a model farm for its economic use of water.

The 23 acre Athi Farm located in Kabaa where the Holy host Mission (HGM) fathers is settled in 1924 concentrates on French beans, tomatoes and green maize production which are predominantly for export. It is an oasis that has been everyone’s envy sitting next to large swathes of dry patched up land. Since the area is relatively dry, the farm relies on the permanent River Athi to irrigate the crops.

According to Sammy Maimba the farm manager getting it right from the start has been his winning formula. To ensure high yields, the manager reveals that the most important thing is to use high quality seeds. “We get our seeds from Kenya Highland Seed Company since their seeds are of high quality, resistant to disease and they have high yields. We particularly buy the Oxly seed variety which is an improved Rio-Grade type with oval fruits suitable for all markets. With a maturity of 75 days after transplanting, the fruit weighs between 90 -100 grams. This is the best yield compared to other tomato seed varieties we have used I the past,” he said.

A 25grams of seeds is enough for an acre. The farm is currently doing 20 acres of tomatoes which gives about 1000 crates per week at an average price of Sh3000 per crate. The farm harvests the tomatoes four days in one week with an average of 200 crates per harvest. This translates to Sh3milion per week during the high season. The tomatoes do not lose their vitality after harvest and retains them even after two weeks of being harvested.

Sammy reveals how to increase yield. “One tomato crop is harvested for 2 months after which we plant a crop for a different family such as legumes. The idea is so that the nutrients in the soil can be replenished. For tomatoes, we are using the Oxly brand while for French Beans we use Serengeti variety. This way most of our yields are Grade 1 and rarely are they Grade 2,” he said.

The French Beans are exported to Europe while the green maize and tomatoes are for the local market. Buyers come to the farm for the produce and go to sell in Garissa, but now they farm their own tomatoes. Sammy says, demonstrating that tomato farming is catching up and dry in the season than in the cold season.

To qualify for the export market, Athi Farm had to be audited and certified by Euro-Retailer Produce Working Group (EUREP) in order to be recognized as a farm that uses Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). The good agricultural practices include methods of land use to ensure agronomic and environmental sustainability. Farmers are given guidelines on various aspects of crop management such as fertilizer use, irrigation, weed control, pest and disease control and harvesting.
According to Sam, Kenya Highland Seeds are recognized by EUREPGAP especially for its seed variety. In addition, the company staff visits farmers to follow up and to address any problems while guiding farmers on best practices to achieve higher yields. This partnership between the seed company and the farm has contributed to the huge profits reaped from the tomato farming.

As for challenges, the manager cited labour management as one for the aspects of farm management that can make or break the farm. They have to ensure that they are actually paying for labour delivered, otherwise the farm will incur a loss. The Farm provides jobs to many people and during the peak seasons they engage up to 100 casual workers. The workers are part and parcel of the production and each groups specializes in nursery preparation, making support for tomatoes and even irrigation.

“This specialization is very important, for example if the furrows for irrigation are skewed, it will cause uneven distribution of water and fertilizers and this will affect the yield,” he added. The management of the Farm is strategic. On a daily basis, the management stays involved with all aspects of the farm. This includes assigning and managing the worked as well as keeping all records of the farm while being constantly in touch with crop buyers. The manager has to stay on top of all these things. Sammy explained.

Sammy has a word for people who want to go into farming. “Farming is a serious business with good returns for those willing to adopt best practice and hands on management. Get good partners such as Kenya Highland Seeds and half your job is done. Lastly, be consistent in order to produce high quality produce that will always have a market,” he added.