Every week like clockwork, Snowview farm is a hive of activity. While market traders show up to haggle with the management for the best produce, workers are busy planting delicate seedlings.
Sitting on the vast plains of Solio village, Laikipia County, the 200-acre farm stands out with its green houses, tree fences and tight security at the farm’s gate.
David Ndegwa is behind an ambitious plan to transform what was once barren land into a model horticulture farm produce for sale both locally and abroad.
The farm is divided into four sections; Rhodes grass is grown on 100 acres, horticultural produce on 40 acres, while trees are grown on the remaining 60 acres.
So far, the at least 20 different varieties of horticultural crops are grown at the farm, including cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower three different types of lettuce, celery, green peppers, onions, tomatoes, leeks, garlic, spinach, kales, cucumber, carrots potatoes, amaranth, coriander and snow peas.
“We started farming here in July 2017, we export 50 per cent of the produce while the rest is consumed locally,” Ndegwa explained.
One of the unique things about the farm is that every day is a harvesting day. All the vegetables grown at the farm are available 52 weeks in a year.
“This means that we plant every week to ensure we have produce throughout the year, to avoid the seasonal gaps that affect the market in the country,” he explained.
Ndegwa said one of the ways to capitalise on the gaps was to avoid seasonal planting which leads to high prices due to low supply.
Farmers try to beat the seasons by planting crops when the conditions for that crop are not conducive.
“While the harvest may lead to better prices, the cost of production is also high because it takes more inputs to ensure the crops grow to maturity,” Ndegwa said.
Therefore, Snowview farm’s principle is to be in the market throughout the year, so they can average their price and avoid adverse market fluctuations.
Also, the farm wants to change the market dynamics by ensuring that the buyers are looking for them as farmers (producers) instead of them waiting for the market and middlemen to determine the prices.
“We want to avoid dealing with the brokers who often link the farmers to the market especially when there is a short supply of products in the market,” he noted.
Ndegwa admitted brokers are currently a necessary part of the business for many farmers, but for Snowview farm their ability to produce throughout the year means they become reliable and suppliers can approach them directly. One of the challenges in producing horticultural produce throughout the year is that they require a steady supply of water.
“We sunk a borehole at the farm, and the output is measured by cubic metres per hour, one acre under horticultural produce requires 16 to 20 cubic metres of water,” he explained.
Practically 2,000 cabbages can be grown on an acre and one cabbage requires one litre of water per day.
Ndegwa says the local market is more flexible and lucrative than the export market.
He explained that while local markets readily consume produce with few restrictions, it is easy for an entire consignment of lettuce to be rejected because of one flaw in a single lettuce leaf.
Also, the export market is affected by the seasons, depending on what they are consuming at that particular time.
In order to ensure the 20 varieties of crops get the necessary attention to thrive, the farmworkers plant the crops in small quantities.
“The farm employs 60 people at any given time to ensure each week each crop gets the necessary attention it needs,” he pointed out.
To ensure they have sufficient planting material every week, the farm has a propagation and germination greenhouse with a team dedicated to caring for the seeds.
“Within the propagation chamber, each tray is clearly labelled and each week they plant the necessary seedlings they need to ensure they have a steady supply of planting materials,” he said.
The farm also grows runner beans for the export market of which they harvest at least 7,000kgs per block. They have 14 blocks so far. While in the case of snow peas, each block produces 4,000kgs. A block occupies 0.25ha.
“We ensure that production costs do not outweigh the profits and this means we ensure we measure everything including spacing, for instance, we want to produce one onion at less than Sh10,” Ndegwa explained.
For investors who have land but do not know how to go about farming, Ndegwa advises them to get a consultant with experience in the management of large scale farm enterprises.
“You as an investor can provide the land and capital and allow the consultant to do the work as you watch your investment work for you,” he said.
The Snowview farm is also in the process of experimenting with the growing of watermelon and chilli. Around the farm, several Calandra trees have been planted to control weeds and also fix nitrogen in the soil.
Also, the trees are a source of income for the farm as they can be sold as fodder.