By FRANCIS MUREITHI
A one-kilometre murram road running from Charagita junction, off the Dundori-Ol Joro Orok Road in Nyandarua County, terminates at a Chinese construction company depot.
Thereafter, one takes a very rough road that makes the drive torturous in hot and dry humid weather conditions. Our destination is a potato farm that is run by an American.
Seeds of Gold team finds workers harvesting potato seeds and packing them in white gunny bags. Donning a grey cap, a yellow T-shirt, a grey jacket, a matching pair of trousers and brown boots, Chris Gasperi, the owner of the farm, easily mingles with workers.
Gasperi is a certified seed potato farmer in the region. “Welcome to Charagita,” he says with a huge smile. “It is one of the highest points above sea level in Nyandarua County. Our farm sits at 2,830m above sea level, the reason why this place is cool,” says Gasperi as he takes us on a tour of the 37-acre farm.
The youthful farmer is a trained nurse, holding a Bachelor of Science degree from University of La Salle in US and a masters in Hospital Administration-Nurse Executive from Wilkes University.
“I chose a different path because I have a passion for agriculture. The farming bug hit me earlier back home where I ran a vibrant home garden where I planted tomatoes, pepper and cabbages. I came to Kenya about two years ago,” the American, who is 34, tells Seeds of Gold.
According to him, seed potato farming, which he went into last year, is an unexploited opportunity.
“A 90kg bag of seed potatoes goes for between Sh3,000 and Sh4,000 and the price is relatively stable unlike the normal potatoes whose prices keep on fluctuating due to market dynamics,” he offers, adding during the planting season, prices of seed potatoes skyrocket as demand outstrips supply. To produce the certified Shangi seeds, the farmer is using the newly introduced rooted apical cuttings technology.
LAND PREPARATION IS CRITICAL
He works with Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) and Kenya Agriculture Research and Livestock Organisation (Karlo) experts to ensure the seeds are of good quality.
Gasperi says he landed upon the idea during a golf outing when a top National Environment Management Authority shared his frustrations in trying to get quality seed potatoes.
Later, he was linked to Oserian Flower Company in Naivasha, which was running a trial on apical rooted cuttings in collaboration with International Potato Centre and USAID. They allowed him to grow the seeds and he chose Nyandarua.
Gasperi started out with a three-quarter-acre farm, investing Sh500,000. A cutting goes for Sh10, but the capital has now hit Sh1 million as he increases the acreage to 10, as part of the leased 37.
“Each apical cutting produces between 10-15 tubers, which is equivalent to slightly over 300 bags of 50kg each from the farm.”
The produce are multiplied further in the next season and then the harvest after two seasons is sold as seed, he adds.
According to him, apical cutting produced seeds are of high quality and produce high-yielding crops, adding “cuttings are produced from tissue culture plants in a greenhouse, and are clean and free of disease.”
“Cuttings are planted in the field in slightly raised beds to produce high numbers of seed tubers,” he offers.
Each bed should be 50cm wide and 50cm from each other.
“I dig the soil 20cm under and I make a raised bed of between 3cm and 5cm high,” he explains.
The cuttings are planted three rows per bed with spacing of about 15cm between rows and 20cm between plants.
According to Gasperi, land preparation is critical for maximum production of seed potatoes. “The land must not have been utilised for at least six seasons. Plough the land twice and ensure the soils are loose and have no crumps for faster seed germination.”
EXPAND TO DAIRY FARMING
But before planting, soil testing must be conducted to establish its acidity levels. “I periodically do soil testing before planting the cuttings and use lime to neutralise acidicity,” he states.
Then a week before planting, he sprays herbicides to kill any weeds that might attack the cuttings.
Visitors and cars entering the farm are disinfected to avoid transferring diseases and germs to the cuttings.
“Our tools and inputs used by the workers must also be disinfected.”
For good growth, cuttings need a lot of water, which he supplies through drip irrigation.
He has sunk a borehole and has a tank that holds 30,000 litres of water. He waters the plants twice a day and reduces the water to once a day until the crop matures to egg-sized tubers.
Gasperi says when one starts with 1,000 cuttings which cost Sh15,000, a seed multiplier can produce 125 bags of 50kg of seed potato after two seasons of multiplication (one year).
Dr Moses Nyongesa, the centre director Kalro Tigoni, which is the potato research hub in Kenya, says for seed multipliers to get maximum returns, farmers must select a field where potato, tomato, pepper or nightshade have not been planted for at least six seasons.
“This will help the apical rooted cuttings roots to grow faster in a healthy condition that is disease-free since the crops share diseases and pests.”
So does Gasperi plan to stay longer in Kenya and farm?
“Yes, farming is where my heart is. I plan to expand to dairy farming as the land I have leased is largely underutilised.”
Apical cutting technology
It involves production of potato seeds through stem cutting.
A cutting is similar to a nursery-grown seedling except that is grown through vegetative means and not from the seeds.
The cuttings are produced from tissue culture plantlets in a greenhouse and after rooting. The common option is producing potatoes from mini-tubers.