High production costs, climate crisis throw off wheat farmers
By Titus Too and Robert Kiplagat | September 28th 2021
The lush wheat plantations that dot Uasin Gishu and Narok counties are gradually fading away, as farmers switch to maize farming and other agricultural ventures.
Over the years, the two counties in the Rift Valley region accounted for 100 per cent of the wheat produced in the country.
Ironically, the country imports more than 70 per cent of the wheat to meet the local demand.
In Uasin Gishu County in the North Rift region, the country’s grain basket, the wheat production is declining, with farmers struggling with the poor market, high costs of operation and climate change.
The trend has discouraged farmers, with most of them quitting the venture altogether.
Statistics from the county’s department of agriculture indicates a drastic drop in production acreage and yields since 2011.
“Our parents heavily relied on wheat production for economic purposes. They cultivated wheat on over 30 acres, but we have since moved from wheat to maize production due to high production costs,” said Monicah Kirwa, a farmer from Merewet in Moiben Constituency, Uasin Gishu County.
Kirwa says they currently cultivate maize to meet their economic obligations, including paying school fees, upkeep and other expenses.
“Currently, we have four acres of land under wheat, though its cultivation was not planned. We had planted maize on the farm, which was affected by the erratic weather at the beginning of the season. So we decided to harrow the farm a fresh and planted wheat,” she said.
“Wheat is an expensive venture, especially at the moment when we lack fertilizer subsidy. It is expensive to buy seeds and fertilizer. Mechanised operations, including land ploughing, harrowing and planting are costly. We also require chemicals sprays to control weeds and diseases,” she added.
The agrochemicals, she says, are very expensive, but a farmer has no option but to buy them.
Kirwa regrets that after the huge investment in inputs and operations, there is no good market, with middlemen offering as low as Sh2,900 for a 90kg bag.
“The frustrations have pushed us to maize farming. Cultivation of maize comes with more advantages because the yields range between 30 bags and 40 bags of 90kgs per acre in a season, compared to wheat, which is about 10 bags to 15 bags,” she said.
She added: Apart from maize being a staple food, its by-products are livestock feeds.
Emmanuel Kenei, a maize farmer from Moiben, abandoned wheat farming due to high production costs.
“Buying maize seeds for a one-acre farm costs Sh1,900, compared to Sh4,000 for wheat. The fertilizer for wheat retail at Sh3,200 per 50kg after the government failed to provide the Sh1,400 subsidy,” says Kenei.
“With the current fuel prices, we expect the cost of ploughing to increase from the current Sh2,000. Harrowing and planting costs have been Sh1,000 and Sh1,500 per acre, respectively,” Kenei adds.
The farmer says weeding is costly in wheat farming since it requires chemical spraying, while with maize, a farmer can do it manually.
“For the last 10 years we have not seen government purchase wheat through the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB). It is only millers who have been buying our produce in small quantities after exhausting imports. Further, unlike wheat, maize has demand throughout the year,” said Kenei.
Cosmas Boen, a farmer from Mumetet, says the wheat producer price is not worth the risk of venturing into its cultivation.
“Wheat has high risks of going to waste due to poor weather patterns. If rains persist towards the harvest time, a farmer may lose the entire plantation,” says Boen. He has appealed to the government to consider raising producer prices to Sh4,000 per 90-kg bag to motivate farmers.
“Presently, millers are allowed to import wheat, and once our produce is harvested, they just buy minimal quantities, with middlemen offering as low as Sh2,500 per bag, which is discouraging,” said Boen.
Uasin Gishu County Agriculture Executive Samuel Yego admits that most farmers have shifted to maize farming.
“The impact of climate change that has led to post-harvest losses, escalating cost of fungicides and other sprays have pushed farmers out of wheat production. We are a net importer of wheat, and if the trend continues, we are likely to import 90 per cent of our wheat demand,” warns Yego.
He says there is need to safeguard the crop through an enhanced subsidy programme and encourage farmers to form cooperatives and invest in their mills to value add.
“Over the last three years, acreage under wheat in Uasin Gishu has reduced from 20,000ha to 16,000ha. This is likely to push importation of wheat from the current 70 per cent to 90 per cent to meet the country’s need,” says Yego.
Other sources indicate statistics of a gradual trend of reduction in hectarage and yields since 2011.
“Wheat productivity has continued to drop over the past 10 years due to many factors. Climate change that has led to unpredictable rain patterns and the high cost of inputs has discouraged farmers,” said Thomas Korgoren, a large-scale wheat farmer in Uasin Gishu and Narok.
A few years ago, wheat production statistics from the Agriculture department in Uasin Gishu indicated a hectarage of 31,068 in 2011 and a yield of 1,065,096 bags of 90kg harvested.
In 2012, the hectares reduced to 28,045 and yields to 712,770 bags. There was a further drop in hectares to 21,570 in 2013 and 18,829 in 2014. The yields reduced from 641,985 bags to 488,395 in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The situation is also desperate in Narok. The county is known for producing over 40 per cent of the total wheat in the country.
The Standard has established from data collected by government agencies that in the past five years many farmers also reduced the size of land under wheat plantations due to climate change.
The crop production had dominated in farms in the lower Mau and upper part of the county, but not anymore.
The changing weather patterns have forced many farmers to rethink wheat farming as a profitable venture.
Musa Nampaso, a wheat farmer in Ololung’a, is among the farmers who have shifted to other crops.
“Before we used to plant wheat in February and harvest around June, July. But nowadays, there are no rains in February. We are forced to gamble by planting between March and April,” says Nampaso.
The farmer recalls that in 2016 several farmers incurred huge losses due to a prolonged dry spell, which made many give up on the crop.
He says climate change also led to the invasion of their wheat fields by the destructive migratory quelea birds.
“We have never witnessed such a huge swarm of quelea birds before. They invade the farms leaving a trail of destruction. We have tried to get help from the government, but they give false promises,” said Nampaso.
According to Cereal Growers Association (CGA) Chief Executive Anthony Kioko, the size of land under wheat in Narok is also on the decline.
“The size of land has declined by about 15 per cent in Narok. Currently, only 250,000ha are under wheat. It was almost 400,000ha in previous years,” said Kioko.
However, he encourages farmers to embrace proper timing when planting and increase acreage next year due to the new all-time high prices of the grain. Recently the government announced an increase in the prices of wheat from Sh3,250 per 90kg bag to Sh3,700 in the hope of motivating farmers to get back to the crop.
Narok Wheat Farmers Association Chairman Stanley Koonyo says many farmers have been discouraged by weather, poor prices and high cost of inputs.
“There was a time we used to fill all the NCPB depots in Eneng’etia, Narok, and neighbouring Nakuru, but for the last decade, farmers opted for other crops,” he says, citing delays in the disbursement of the government-subsidised fertilizers, delayed rains and poor prices as impediments faced by wheat farmers in the vast county.
Koonyo has however promised to rally farmers to increase wheat production to benefit from the good prices next season.
He says in 2015 farmers harvested about 3 million bags, but the same has declined to about 1.8 million.
The farmers want the local meteorological department to be liaising with them to ensure that farmers are aware of weather patterns to avert losses occasioned by poor timing during planting season.
Wheat is grown in Ntulele, Suswa, Nairagie Enkare areas of Narok East Sub-county and Enaibelbel, Engeng’etia, Kisiriri, Melili, Olchorro areas of Narok North Sub-county.
Local Met director Peter Runanu says the weather forecast locally has been up-to-date. “We always do daily forecasts and relay our information through social media as well as to relevant government authorities and farmers for them to make informed choices,” said Runanu.
He acknowledges that weather patterns have changed in the area for the last few years.
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