For Michael Mwaniki, a farmer at Ndimu Village within Elburgon Sub-County, the planting season always came with a bit of trouble.
He was often caught up alongside other farmers in a mad rush for equipment as they prepared their land for sowing.
Demand for harrows, planters, and other farm machinery was high, meaning that farmers had to wait longer, slowing down planting in time for the rains.
“When every person wanted to have their farm planted, it became hectic since we had to wait for days to get access to a plow and other farm machinery. The costs of hiring the machinery were also prohibitive,” says the small-scale potato farmer.
Nevertheless, Mwaniki is now elated after the County Government of Nakuru procured tractors, harvesters, balers, plows, sprayers, and planters under its Agriculture Mechanization Services (AMS) program where farmers hire machinery at a subsidized cost.
“The County Government has enabled me to increase the acreage under potatoes on my farm by providing a one-stop-shop for all mechanized agricultural machinery. It also trains small-scale farmers on the proper use of the equipment,” he said.
“With the future of farming now resting with the emerging small scale and middle-class farmers, there is an urgent need to empower this group to ensure food security,” he points out.
Mwaniki indicates that since he enrolled in the AMS program last year, his potato yields per acre had increased by over 50 percent while costs of tilling and weeding through the use of modern machinery had dropped significantly.
“The equipment makes it possible for me to undertake more than one activity on the farm, thus saving the long-term costs and improving productivity. Farmers also need to use new techniques such as moisture conservation, correct seed population and placement, and correct use of agricultural chemicals if the country is to become self-sufficient in food production,” adds Mwaniki.
The farmer further states that mechanization makes work easier for large-scale multiplication of certified potato seed within stipulated timelines. For instance, he points out a single machine cultivates, prepares ridges, and incorporates fertilizer in the soil.
“I have drastically cut on costs and improved on efficiency through mechanization. When one tractor is used for different applications, costs of production are reduced which translates to higher profits,” notes Mwaniki.
The first step in potato farming he explains is chiseling. “Chiseling is better than disc plowing because it improves water percolation and minimizes soil erosion. It does not disrupt soil and water conservation structures,” explains the farmer.
After chiseling, a fertilization spreader works on the farm following the advice of soil analysts attached to the AMS program to know the amount of fertilizer to apply.
Hook tine cultivator mounted with a ridge machine incorporates fertilizer and nutrients in the soil and creates ridges behind. A combined cultivator is later used to cultivate and prepare ridges ready for planting.
A planter is used to place potato seeds inside the ridges and spray them with nematicides before it is covered with soil.
When the seed germinates after ten days, weeding is done by a ranger machine that covers weeds including a section of newly germinated potatoes.
After germination, preventive fungicide against late blight disease is applied (four leaves stage) and in areas with cutworms, pyrethroid chemical spray is applied in the evening.
Later, the alternation between preventive and curative chemical applications is done according to weather variability. During rains, spraying is done after five days whereas sunny weather requires seven days.
Maize is rotated with potatoes. Mwaniki explains that crop rotation helps curb pests and diseases, and maintains good soil structure because potatoes are tubers while maize is the root system. The practice also improves soil structure and adds organic matter.
County AMS Program Manager Eng. Stephen Waithaka states that technological advancements have enabled the manufacture of light and cheaper machines that could help smallholder farmers revolutionize agriculture both in terms of quantity and quality of products grown and processed.
Eng. Waithaka says the notion that mechanization is only for those in large-scale farming was misguided and a threat to Kenya’s food security.
“As the County administration we are implementing ways of achieving the Big 4 agenda on food security which includes mechanized farming, irrigation, and use of quality seeds and appropriate fertilizers,” he notes.
“Mechanized farming contributes to timely preparation of land, efficient land use, and increased production. It also reduces the cost of production and created more employment opportunities particularly among the youth,” offers the AMS Program Manager
Eng. Waithaka reveals that smallholder farmers were also being equipped with technical know-how to operate and maintain the machinery through field days, workshops, farm visits, and seminars to enable them to become commercially successful.
“Most of those who operate farm machinery do not know how to properly use equipment hitched on tractors. Farmers have been mistaking tractor drivers for agricultural machinery operators,” notes Eng. Waitaka.
Consequently, soil erosion and poor yields are common challenges witnessed in the county due to lack of skills in machine operation,” he elaborates.
He notes that the devolved unit has put in place a virtual school where smallholder farmers were being trained via a mobile App on the benefits of mechanized agriculture in boosting yields and increasing the quality of produce.
“The venture is aimed at attracting the youth towards agriculture and reducing the labor intensiveness associated with traditional farming methods.
“The school incorporates a digital tracking technology of linking tractor owners with smallholder farmers who do not have agricultural machinery. This gives younger farmers opportunities to embrace better-mechanized food production to increase yields in addition to using certified seeds,” states Eng. Waithaka.
He adds that the adoption of mechanized farming will improve the quality of lives of women and children through reduced working hours at farms, better incomes for households, increased job opportunities for rural youth, and better nutrition, education, and health.