With the stringent EUREGAP conditions imposed by the European Union, an increasing number of smallholder farmers are turning to organic farming to secure markets for their fresh produce.
The push for organic farming is also being made locally by the growing number of Kenyans who are adopting healthy eating habits and demanding food with low chemical content.
That means demand for food with no additives and those grown with little or no inorganic farm inputs such a fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides is on the rise. ” To achieve the required level of organic farming, one has to be a fanatical believer in consuming products with little or no synthetic chemicals”, said Thomas Mugo, a farmer in Ndaragwa, central Kenya.
Over 100 farmers in the area have formed the Subuko Organic Farmers Association, which is committed to achieving the required standards of chemical-free production. The motivation for this form of agriculture is mainly to reduce costs and improving the health of consumers.
The farmers say this form of agriculture reduces their costs by over 50 per cent as the price of conventional fertilisers hits the roof. During this year’s planting season, the price of a 50 kilogramme bag of Diammonium phosphate fertiliser (DAP) was around Sh2,000.
“This is the cost of a seven -tonne lorry of farmyard manure needed to formulate enough compost for the farm”, said George Kamau, another farmer.
Kamau, the main initiator of organic farming in the region, has undergone intensive training at the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming (KIOF). Experts report that organic matter in the soil improves soil water retention capacity, improves aeration, mollifies acidity and provides nutrition for the important soil dwelling micro-organisms.
“For the first three months, crops grown through organic farming will look weak compared to those under conventional fertilisers. However, in consequent months, they take off and overtake the now undernourished crops using artificial fertilisers”, said Kamau.
He says artificial fertilisers feed the crop directly while organic manures feed the soil first. The soil then nourishes the crop. Most of the soils are deficient of phosphorus, an important mineral required by crops. The Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) has also been showing farmers how to access soil sampling and testing services.
To be fully compliant, the farmers must decontaminate their farms for three years. No chemicals should be used on the farm and all foods and other requirements at household level must be free of chemicals.
“Most of us use herbal products like tea and soap. Other than special cases, children and animals are dewormed or treated from ailments using herbal concoctions”, said Alex Ngatia.
Consequently, the farmers have planted various crops and plants that have medicinal properties for both humans and animals.
The marjoram plant- a green carrot like tuber- is used for treating after-birth problems in animals and humans. It is also being used to manage pain and aches. Fennel, another vegetative plant helps in milk-let down in cattle and treats eye and digestive problems.
Lettuce and beet root, both popular vegetables have been proved to treat diabetes and anaemia. In animals, they improve milk production.
Leek, a tall shrub with green compound leaves and yellow flowers, helps to clean the blood. Others like Senna are used in deworming livestock while Teplosia vokensii is a natural acaricide used in controlling external parasites like ticks and mites. Most of these plants have important vitamins that boost the body’s immunity and help to fight off diseases.
“Farmers must also keep a variety of animals like ducks, goats, chicken rabbits and cattle to improve the quality of manure produced on the farm”, adds another farmer Mbugua Wainaina.
Consumption of animal products under the organic farming programme reduces incidence of brucellosis and salmonellosis. The two diseases common in humans are transmitted through milk and eggs respectively.
Egg shells together with wood ash, dry materials and planting nitrogen fixing leguminous fodder shrubs can replenish the lost phosphorus.