A lesson on large-scale mixed farming
As you drive along the Eldoret-Iten-Chepkanga Road, you cannot stop marvelling at the hundreds of blue gum (eucalyptus) trees lining up one side of the thoroughfare.
The trees on the vast farm seemingly stretch to eternity as they make a memorable pattern.
Down further, it becomes clear that the expansive farm christened Elfam is not an ordinary one.
Driving into the 1,600-acre farm, a first-time visitor may mistake it for one of those institutions owned by the missionaries or a high-end private school.
On the right is a beautiful building with a blue roof, which the owner of the farm, Prof Margaret Kamar, refers to as the nerve centre. The building hosts a store and the main office, among other facilities.
The trees are worth over Sh200 million, Prof Kamar, who served as a Cabinet Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology, an MP and a member of the East African Legislative Assembly, tells us as she opens up on her vast farming empire.
Besides trees, she grows barley and wheat and keeps dairy cows. Dressed in a blue denim skirt suit and a matching cap, the professor looks like any other ordinary farmer.
She keeps track of everything that goes on in the farm, though, she has employed a manager and several other workers.
Prof Kamar checks her five tractors parked outside her home, located in the farm, to confirm if they are in perfect condition as she readies for a new planting season.
There is nothing much going on currently on the wheat and barley farms. The contract farmer, who produces barley for East African Breweries Limited, harvested and sold the produce last year.
Being a contract farmer, Prof Kamar is assured of a ready market and dedicates about 350 acres to the crop.
On average, she harvests nine 90kg bags of barley per acre. She sells each at Sh3,100 earning close to Sh10 million annually.
“I love growing barley because of the ready market, but I do not like the plenty of work that is involved in the farming,” she says.
“You first have to plough the land, then do the second tillage. Thereafter, you plant and then spray the crops with pesticides at least thrice, which is a lot of work. The same process is involved in wheat farming though you have to source for market from millers.”
She dedicates 450 acres of the land to wheat farming, from where she harvests an average of 5,400 90kg bags per season that she sells to millers at Sh3,200 each, earning over Sh17 million.
Last year, she reduced her maize acreage from 600 to 450 and reserved 150 acres for producing fodder for her dairy cows, one of her newest ventures.
She harvests about 25 90kg bags of maize per acre and sells each at an average of Sh2,500.
While it appears that she makes a lot of money from the cereals, Prof Kamar says the profit is not much as it only sustains the farm.
“If you engage in cereal farming alone, it is just like you are recycling your money because of the high cost of production. One spends a lot of money on fertiliser and other farm inputs then the market is tricky,” she explains.
“You entirely depend on people who have contracted you that if they do not buy, you end up making losses. For maize, the National Cereals and Produce Board has the last say on pricing regardless of the cost of production.”
Thus, to keep her expenses low and ensure she maximises her earnings, she has heavily mechanised the farm.
“It is more economical to own machines instead of depending on human labour or hiring equipment.”
Prof Kamar started farming in 1996. Then, she was growing mainly wheat and maize before venturing into barley farming two years later after she was approached by the beer-manufacturing company.
“I cannot really recall how much I invested but it was a reasonable sum because I had to buy the land and several machines.”
The professor says that besides diversifying, she went into dairy farming in August 2013 to make use of her wheat and barley straws that she used to give for free to her neighbours.
She has further planted three acres of lucerne and maize for silage. To venture into dairy farming, the politician started with 20 in-calf Friesian heifers.
Fourteen of the heifers have since calved down. She milks 300 litres daily, which she sells at Sh34 a litre to Oldonyo Dairies in Eldoret. Her dairy activities centre at the blue building she refers to as the nerve centre of the farm.
She has a room in the building from where she makes animal fodder from wheat and barley straws. The ingredients are sliced and mixed with lucerne and maize stalk to make nutritious fodder.
“We do not use all the wheat straw to make fodder, part of it is used as ‘mattress’ for the calves to ensure that they sleep comfortably in their pens,” says David Ngetich, the farm’s overall manager
A parlour that will enable 24 cows to be milked at once using machines is undergoing final touches.
From the parlour, Ngetich explains, milk will flow directly to a cooling plant before being delivered to the market in bulk.
Farmers will be allowed to visit the dairy unit and pick some lessons, although Prof Kamar did not disclose whether this will be at a fee or part of the farm’s social responsibility.
A soil scientist, Prof Kamar notes few large-scale farmers in the region have diversified into crop and animal production.
“People with big chunks of land leave diversification to small-scale farmers. One either does dairy, coffee, tea or cereals. Diversity is good as I have realised because it brings in more money.”
Her farm is also home to over 1,000 rabbits of different breeds.
According to Ngetich, they started with 160 rabbits in August 2013 as a way of boosting income after depending on cereal farming for years.
“The rabbits produce 36 litres of urine every day, which we sell at Sh100 each to a fertiliser-manufacturing firm in Eldoret. We want the animals to multiply to over 1,500 before we start selling them.”
“The perception is that rabbits are animals to be kept by the small farmer. That is a misconception. Their droppings are a good source of manure which one can use to grow crops,” says Prof Kamar.
As any other large-scale farm, most work is done by machines. However, the professor employs 15 permanent staff who include several university graduates. “Sometimes I have up to 60 casual workers depending on how much work is there.”
Being a politician, one wonders whether she will go back to politics. We pose the question. “I am yet to decide whether I will go back but by 2017, I would have made up my mind.”
However, she acknowledges that farming has helped her greatly to cope with life outside politics.
“I got a First Class degree in agriculture, I have a masters in the same and a doctorate in soil science. Politics and lecturing have been hindering me from dedicating time to what I learnt, but I thank the electorate for the five-year break they gave me because I am having real good time producing food,” says Prof Kamar as she advises the youth to venture into farming either as a side hustle or the main job.
Agricultural experts note that many large-scale farmers shun mixed farming because they have the economies of scale.
“Large-scale farming comes with various benefits but one can maximise on them by engaging in other ventures. It is cheaper, for instance, for barley and wheat farmers to engage in dairy farming because waste from the crops is turned into animal feeds. On the other hand, the animal waste is used as manure,” says Prof Paul Kimurto, a crops scientist at Egerton University.
He adds that diversification by large-scale farmers will also help to create employment.
“The habit of large-scale farmers, particularly in Uasin Gishu and Nakuru counties, to grow one crop, for instance, maize or wheat has led to decline in soil fertility. People need livestock to provide manure for organic farming,” says Prof Kimurto.