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Daring investor reaping fruits of organic farming

By Gardy Chacha
Sylvia Miloyo at her organic farm in Ndeiya, Limuru, Kiambu County. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

 

What is organic farming? To answer this question, we drove from Nairobi to Rwacumari — a calm countryside village — in Limuru.

Six kilometres off Nairobi-Maimahiu highway we find Sylvia Miloyo Kuria busy tending to crops on her 5-acre farm.

Sylvia practises organic farming.

 “I believe in it,” she says.

Just over a decade ago Sylvia had a kitchen garden. She used conventional farming methods at the garden: applying fertilisers and using pesticides.

The garden, Sylvia says, was small, but produced abundantly, prompting her to go commercial. And so she started distributing produce from the garden to clients.

Sunlight is preferred

Later, Sylvia would have a baby. Like every first time mother, she was constantly alert to her baby’s safety; often questioning if she was feeding her healthy food.

She says: “I researched about pesticides and fertilisers and what I found out confirmed my fears. I did not like how all these chemicals affected human beings.”

Sylvia became a believer in organic farming — a form of farming that excludes all synthetic chemical inputs.

“Having discovered the damage pesticides can do to the human body, I couldn’t allow myself to sell people poison,” Sylvia says.

Profit is king

The poison Sylvia is talking about is standard food derived from farms practising conventional farming – where profit is king.

Synthetic chemicals, argues John Njoroge, an agronomist and director of Kenya Institute of Organic Farming (KIOF) in Juja, were introduced into agriculture to increase yield and guarantee aesthetic qualities of produce.

Proponents of organic farming believe that synthetic chemicals should be kept off the food chain.

Hence farmers should ensure plants — at the base of the food chain — grow exclusively without introduction of synthetic chemicals.

Debate as to whether organic food is healthier hasn’t been settled yet in the scientific quarters. While some studies failed to arrive at a definitive conclusion many have favoured the premise that organic food is better for health.

Great for health

For instance, the longest running study to address the issue, by Teagasc Food Research Centre, in Ashtown, Ireland, found that products grown without using toxic chemicals contain about 20 per cent more flavanols.

Flavanols, says Kate Kibara, a nutritionist and founder of Kate Organics – an enterprise selling organic produce – are antioxidants.

Antioxidants have been known to protect cells from effects of aging and cell damage associated with illnesses such as cancer.

“If plants thrived before the advent of synthetic chemicals then why should we promote the use of such additives?” asks Njoroge.

On her part Sylvia says that plants should grow naturally, “as God intended”. That way, produce remain free of toxic chemicals; which have adverse effects on health.

With the elimination of chemicals, one would think that the bulk of work in organic farming has been eliminated hence the farmer would relatively lay back.

What KALRO says

In reality, organic farming demands more man hours and acumen. According to Dr Ann Muriuki, a soil science specialist with Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO), in organic farming, the amount of biomass to be moved is huge – which makes it labour-intensive.

Sylvia runs two organic farms: a 10-acre farm in Mai Mahiu and the Rwacumari establishment.

Her clients range from single households to a hotel that prepares organic meals in Nairobi’s city centre.

“The demand is higher than supply,” she says.

In her first year of going organic farming, Sylvia was immediately confronted by the realities of farming without synthetic inputs.

“I suffered from a bad thrip infestation. Luckily, I got a biopesticide which I applied to reduce the damage,” she says.

How she manages weeds

In those first few years, Sylvia learnt the art of organic farming the hard way: learning how to handle weeds, how to improve soil fertility and how to keep pests at bay without the aid of conventional agrochemicals.

In Rwacumari, Sylvia grows spinach, kale, onions, carrots, maize, indigenous vegetables, beans, tomatoes, coriander, garlic among other vegetables.

It has been a decade since Sylvia went organic and she is holding on steadfast. This is because she has adhered to practices essential for success of organic farming.

What organic farming entails

The following captures the actual practice of organic farming.

· Green manuring: This involves ploughing under the soil forage while they are green or soon after they flower. Green manures are leguminous crops grown for their leafy materials needed to improve soil structure, properties and characteristics. Sylvia performs green manuring from time to time with cowpeas. Green manuring is a method of improving soil fertility hence avoiding the need to use synthetic fertilisers.

· Composting: Like green manuring, composting is a method of adding nutrients into the soil – the same work done by fertilisers. Compost manure is prepared by putting together farm waste; which are then acted upon by microbes and broken down to release nutrients.

In an organic farm, Sylvia says, nothing goes to waste. “Everything – including kitchen waste – is put together to make compost,” she says. If a farmer were doing mixed organic farming, they would incorporate waste from animals too in the compost. The animals are fed organic feed hence their waste is also organic. Composting would make an organic farming perfectly cyclic, as the nutrients are recycled.

· Biopesticides: These are bug-fighting preparations derived from natural materials such as animals, plants, bacteria, and certain minerals. Companies certified to manufacture biopesticides are able to supply farmers like Sylvia with a wide range of products used in organic farming. In Rwacumari, Sylvia often uses metarhizium – insect killing fungus species that occurs in natural ecosystems. Njoroge, from Kenya Institute of Organic Farming, says organic farmers can also formulate biopesticides from Neem plant and hot pepper.

· Crop rotation: Crop rotation is the practice of alternating different species of crops with every new planting season on a piece of land. It may vary from 2 or 3 years to longer periods. Often, crop rotation is done stabilise soil fertility and structure. However, this mode of farming also reduces chances of recurrence of soil-borne diseases and pests. “This season I have had a lot of trouble with spider mites on my tomatoes. Next season, I will grow a different crop on the same field. Without food the spider mites won’t survive and will have been wiped out by the time I am planting tomatoes on the field again,” Sylvia says.

· Companion planting: This is planting different crops in proximity for any of a number of different reasons. In organic farming, companion planting may involve weeds like Mexican marigold – which has a strong pungent smell that repels pests. Sylvia has planted leek onions with cabbages because former repel diamond back moth, a pest that attacks cabbages. It may involve planting herbs with bright and colourful flowers: to attract bees, which then pollinate the flowers of the crop plant and hence higher yield. It may involve intercropping with a few sunflower plants – to distract pests like birds: the birds would choose the sunflower and leave the crop being cultivated.

· Agroforestry: Sylvia has lined the entire perimeter of the farm with indigenous species of trees. Trees, she says, act as windbreakers: preventing damage of crops by strong winds while also working as a wall to prevent pests from invading the farm as some bugs are transported by wind. According to Njoroge, trees also provide a habitat for organisms like birds, chameleons, lizards, frogs and praying mantis; all which act as biological pest control by eating insects destructive to the crop. Trees also provide shedding thereby reducing effects of the scorching sun.

· Mulching: In organic farming mulching serves to reduce evaporation of water from the soil and also as a way of enriching the soil with organic matter.

· Planting under greenhouse: The greenhouse – apart from its conventional function of creating a microclimate – acts as a barrier against insect pests and microbes. This makes it easy for the farmer to realise a good harvest without doing much about pests.

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