Rice farmers intercrop to insulate themselves from weather changes

As weather patterns become unpredictable farmers at the Ahero Irrigation Scheme, one of the key rice farming projects in western Kenya, are turning to other crops during the dry season to earn them more revenue.

The farmers have started growing watermelons, butternuts and pawpaws, which have proven to be more profitable than rice. Delayed payments by rice millers and the invasion of middlemen from neighbouring countries who buy the paddy at low prices are the main reasons the farmers have turned to growing other crops as returns from rice decline.

One such farmer, Dennis Rabare, 38, who had been growing rice for more than 10 years, turned to watermelons two years ago. The fruit earns him seven times the revenue he used to get from rice. He now admits that he is no longer very keen on cultivating rice. “From Basmati cultivation, I earn between Sh300,000 and Sh400,000 annually because we only cultivate rice once a year,” he said. “The crop takes five months to be ready for harvesting then the farms are given a resting period of four months. By the time the four months are over, the climate is usually not favourable for new cultivation of rice.”

Mr Rabare cultivates the fruit, which matures after 75 to 85 days, three times a year. “I leased 20 acres and planted watermelons in the whole farm. Floods during the heavy rains destroyed 11 acres but I got good yields from the remaining nine acres,” he said.

Mr Rabare said he earned Sh1.5 million from the harvest and this is just from the documented sales he made to clients who bought the fruit in bulk. He said had the heavy rains not damaged his crop he would have earned Sh7 million from the 20 acres compared to Sh700,000 from rice in the same period. Mr Rabare said cultivating watermelon is not labour intensive like rice. He said the venture had raised his living standards and he plans to expand the acreage under watermelon.

“I want to take advantage of the Kisumu International Airport. When the cargo flights start operating, I would wish to export my produce,” says Mr Rabare adding that he had leased an acre of land to plant pawpaw on trial basis, also targeting the international market.

Together with other farmers who cultivate the fruit and butternut as well as engage in fish farming, they are mobilising rice farmers to embrace other profitable crops during the fallow period when the land remains idle after harvesting the grain.

“We are not asking farmers to abandon rice farming, but we want to encourage them to practise rotational farming so that they can earn a lot of revenue from their farms, however small they may be,” said Kepher Ainea, another watermelon farmer. “We have been exploited a lot by the rice market. So many Ugandan middlemen come and buy our rice at throw away prices. At the end of the day, we get very little income.”
He said that the middlemen did not buy the produce in bulk and the little money they pay was not sufficient to meet their basic needs. However, the watermelon farmers said lack of storage facilities for their produce was a major hurdle.

“Watermelons require cold room storage to stay fresh. A lot of them are damaged in the farm because there is too much sun,” said Mr Rabare. However, he says, his two dairy cows feed on the damaged watermelons, which Mr Rabare said boost milk production.

National Irrigation Board senior schemes manager for western region Laban Kiplagat said that they were still committed to the production of rice. “We cannot force farmers to plant rice twice a year, but they have to understand that the main objective of the irrigation schemes is to produce rice during the planting season,” he said. Mr Kiplagat said that the board recognises the need for farmers to earn an extra income and has let them plant other crops.

“These farmers cannot grow watermelons during the irrigation period because too much water will damage the fruit. They, therefore, don’t threaten the growing of rice,” he said.