News and knowhow for farmers

Meru potato farmer doubles earnings through innovative storage

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By George Munene

Meru farm­ers are mak­ing premium earn­ings from the dif­fer­ence in their rainy sea­son, which means they can de­liver pota­toes when they are most scarce and prices are highest.

Whilst in most parts of the coun­try long rains run from April to late May those of Kibiri­chia, Meru County last from Oc­to­ber to Decem­ber. This, coupled with proper stor­age sys­tems, en­ables potato farm­ers from the re­gion to pro­duce for the mar­ket at times when pro­duce is scarce and prices are higher.

For Al­fred Mweti, a potato farmer in the re­gion, the av­er­age cost of pro­duc­tion for an acre piece of land runs him about Sh20,000. Plant­ing high pro­du­cing potato vari­et­ies such as Shangi and As­ante, with proper ag­ro­nomic prac­tices, an acre yields 110-80 50kg bags that can be sold at a me­dian price of Sh2500.

Mweti grows his pota­toes over two sea­sons: the Oc­to­ber to Decem­ber long rains and March to May shorter rains. Most pota­toes pro­duced over Decem­ber usu­ally sell at a premium as most parts of the coun­try have enough rain to pro­duce bulk quant­it­ies. De­pend­ing on the pre­vail­ing mar­ket prices, the pota­toes are im­me­di­ately sold or stored to be sold when mar­ket prices are fa­vor­able. “It’s a wait­ing game; with good stor­age, pota­toes go for up to four months without going bad— most small-scale farm­ers however lack the fa­cil­it­ies for proper stor­age for such a long time. Once you wait out the ini­tial price de­prec­a­tion caused by over­sup­ply you can sell your pro­duce in April or May when a bag goes for up to Sh3000,” ex­plains Al­fred.

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Stor­age is done in a floored, well-vent­il­ated room. Some spoil­age is to be ex­pec­ted though; about one out of every 100 pota­toes will go bad. The stor­age area should have a roof or the pota­toes covered, to avoid in­ad­vert­ently bak­ing them. When stored past five months pota­toes be­come scrawny and flac­cid de­pre­ci­at­ing their value.

To pre­pare an acre for plant­ing, Mweti hires a day’s la­bour force of 5 people, each paid Sh400. An acre of pota­toes con­sumes three bags of DAP fer­til­iser at plant­ing, each 50kg bag cost­ing Sh3000-2500.

Plow­ing is again done after a month for weed­ing when the pota­toes begin to sprout.

Earth­ling up is done de­pend­ing on the growth rate of your pota­toes –usu­ally after two to three weeks and helps to in­crease the sur­face area avail­able for tuber ex­pan­sion. At this point, top dress­ing is done with CAN, NPK or Urea fer­til­iser. A bag of top dress­ing fer­til­isers costs Sh2500 and three bags are needed to cater to an acre.

To com­bat suck­ing and chew­ing pests—mainly cater­pil­lars— es­pe­cially over the first one to two months when fo­liage first de­vel­ops Twiga Chem­ical’s Du­du­thrin is used.

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The main threat to pota­toes grown in the re­gion is late blight. If un­con­trolled, it greatly di­min­ishes out­put and can wipe out en­tire silos of stored pota­toes. This is con­trolled by weekly spray­ing with fun­gi­cides such as De­th­ane and Ridomil once leaf growth is ob­served, con­tinu­ing until flowers are formed and shed. One kilo­gram of De­th­ane costs Sh950 with two ta­ble­spoon fulls suited for one pump.

Fo­li­ars, which are li­quid fer­til­isers, are ap­plied to fo­liage and are com­pat­ible able to be mixed in with pesti­cides. They can be sprayed one to three times to en­hance growth. De­pend­ing on the stage of growth— which de­term­ines the num­ber and size of leaves three to five 20 liter pumps can be used for an acre.

Har­vest­ing is done after 70-120 days with every cas­ual laborer paid Sh200 for every 50-kilo­gram bag har­ves­ted. Pota­toes are graded from 1-4. Grade one is sold to con­sumers; two and three which can be clasped in a palm are used as the next sea­son’s seed­lings or sold to other farm­ers.

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