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Mechanisation can double your returns, potato farmers told

SMART HARVEST
By Kenneth Kipruto | April 2nd 2016
George Kinuthia (left) checks the progress of the potato harvesting at his farm in Molo with Fergus Robley (right) the Managing Director of FMD East Africa and Jan Soltau (centre) the Sales Manager of Grimme.

Farmers are turning to mechanisation to meet the rising demand for potatoes by improving cultivation and reducing harvest losses, which can amount to up to 50 per cent of the crop.

According to Fergus Robley, the general manager of FMD East Africa, mechanisation can help potato farmers produce up to five times what they produce today.

“The average potato yield in Kenya is three to six tonnes per acre. Several factors contribute to this dismal performance, including sub-standard potato seeds, low level of mechanisation and poor application and quality of fertilisers,” says Fergus Robley.

Good land preparation is paramount in potato farming. The soil needs to be conditioned and free of weeds.

The seed bed farmer, also known as the rotary ridger prepares the soil by mechanical means to give bed a consistent tilth and good aeration. This is necessary to ensure the tubers are able to multiply sideways.

“Mechanisation is the surest way of improving yield. Farmers who have embraced mechanised agriculture and use high quality seeds as well as appropriate fertilisers are assured of increased production. They are also guaranteed lower production costs giving higher profits,” says Robley.

The planter allows the seeds to be placed at the right depth and given intervals as specified by the seed producers. This precision planting ensures the correct plant population is attained therefore maximising the harvest.

During the growing process, the tubers must not be exposed to light and the weeds should be controlled to give the potatoes a “competitive advantage”. The soil beds also get eroded by rain and wind.

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The seed bed maintainer (hilling ridger) earths up mounds of soil from between the rows and prevents these detrimental yield limiting factors from happening. This operation is usually carried out around three times between planting and harvesting.

The greatest loss of crop is experienced during harvesting. In Kenya, up to 60 per cent of the crop can be damaged when the process is done manually. The potato harvester reduces this loss to near zero because it runs at a certain depth just below the crop picking the potatoes and soil onto specially coated rollers and chains.

The chains then let through the soil between the gaps leaving whole undamaged potatoes on the soil surface ready to be weather hardened and bagged. This creates a nice flat seed bed for the farmer to plant another crop into without the need for any further mechanical land preparation.

To prevent the build-up of pathogens in soil, farmers should avoid growing potatoes on the same land from year to year. Instead, they ought to grow potato in rotations of three years alternating with other dissimilar crops, such as maize and beans.

Crops susceptible to same pathogens as potatoes like tomatoes should be avoided to break the potato pests’ development cycle.

Fergus said mechanisation has to go hand in hand with training of farmers, especially on the right handling and maintenance of machinery.

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