By Dedan Okanga and Benson Kathuri
After agonising for over six months, Sila Tiren, a commercial maize and
wheat farmer from Moiben village in Uasin Gishu district can now sleep soundly.
The farmer has opted to stop maize and wheat farming in favour of dairy farming on his over 1,000 acres farm.
Tiren has joined thousands of disgruntled large-scale maize farmers in the North Rift who are fast abandoning the business for other commercial ventures, to avoid further losses.
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Many are moving into dairy or non-agricultural activities unlike in the past, when they would move swiftly into wheat farming, whenever market conditions became unfavourable for maize production.
"Right now, wheat farming is equally in a crisis and it would not make sense to invest there. Farmers are not ready to go into the farming only to incur predictable losses," said Tiren, a large-scale commercial farmer during an interview with FJ in Eldoret last week. Tiren has grown maize and wheat on his 1000-acre farm all his adult life, and he admits that the ongoing maize-saga is perhaps the worst crisis to ever hit the sub-sector in recent history.
Currently the large tracts of land lies idle as he works-out the finer details of his planned shift into dairy farming, that he says would fetch higher profits compared to maize business that is currently embroiled in controversy. "I am not the only one who has given up on farming. No serious farmer is preparing his farm ahead of next month's planting season. Instead farmers are moving out and production would decline sharply, he warned.
According to Tiren, large-scale farmers have incurred heavier losses than smallholder farmers due to price controls imposed by the Government late last year.
Many of them who borrowed heavily to fund agricultural activities like ploughing and purchase of inputs including fertilisers are struggling to service loans they took during the last planting season.
"Farming is the only business, in which you cannot predict how much you are going to get at the end of the season, because you are at the mercies of nature. But the current crisis is man made, which makes some of us very uncomfortable," he lamented.
Tiren recalled that in the days when fuel cost about Sh40 a litre and fertiliser was about Sh2,500, the market price for a bag of maize was as low as Sh300 but he would still make profits out of it.
"The cost of production has more than doubled because of high fuel and fertiliser prices and that is why we have been asking for a minimum of Sh2,400 a bag to respond to these challenges," he said.
According to the farmer, most of those who have opted out of maize and wheat business are investing their resources in dairy while a few others are into passion fruit farming, which is becoming a new commercial sensation in the region.
The Central Bank of Kenya, however, says the entire agricultural sector was and is affected by high costs of production as well as unfavourable weather.
"There was mixed performance in the agricultural sector during the first eleven months of last year," said the bank in its monthly economic report for December.
"The sector has been affected mainly by low production of food crops owing to unfavourable weather coupled with effects of post-election violence and high agricultural input costs."
Though Tiren has vowed not to resume cereal farming, stakeholders in the agricultural sector want the Government to address the underlying challenges to stem an exodus of farmers from food production.
The Kenya National Federation of Agricultural Producers (Kenfap) wants the maize market to be fully liberalised and remove all Government-sponsored interventions that have created distortions in the market place.
"Cost analysis done by Tegemeo Institute showed that the average production price at the farm last season was Sh2,329 and therefore, the minimum cost of buying maize from farmers had to be over and above that as was requested by the farmers in November last year," said Nduati Kariuki, Kenfap chairman.
"Farmers have been coerced to subsidise the consumers and how long will this last while the Government does not adequately support the farming process.?
Kariuki want the Government to deal firmly and quickly with those involved in the on-going maize scandal. Maize farmers in the North Rift should also be allowed to sell their produce directly to any willing buyer, a move Agriculture minister William Ruto has endorsed. However, experts argue that no miller would buy the grain from farmers when they can get it from the National Cereals and Produce Board at the subsidised price of Sh1,950.
"The Government should ensure that the costs of farm inputs are reduced in order to cut on production cost," Kariuki told the FJ.
"It should also support the private sector to engage in investing in the sector given that the national supply situation suggests that there will be a deficit at the end of the marketing year in 2009.
The association is also calling for a nationwide campaign to compel people to change their eating habits that are biased towards maize products.