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Without breaking the soil, farmer turns dry land into grain basket

JULIUS SIGEIBy JULIUS SIGEI
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The crop sways gently from side to side as the breeze sweeps through the Athi plains, about 40 kilometres from Nairobi.

The healthy wheat belies the veneer of a desolate wasteland as you leave the Nairobi-Mombasa highway just before the interchange to Machakos.

Three kilometres up the hills, opposite Maanzoni Lodge, you arrive on the farm, much of it now fallow after harvest and recent prolonged rains.

But beyond the farm offices, baled fodder, an assortment of machinery as well as an interlude of a wildlife conservancy where wildebeests and the eland nibble at tender grass, you find a bumper crop, which is turning golden, a sign that it is ready for harvesting.

Besides wheat, which sits on 230 hectares, the farm is also home to hundreds of hectares of green grams, chickpeas and forage sorghum.

This is Ausquest Farm, founded by Australian-born Stuart Barden and his wife Annie eight years ago. “We deposit our rainfall in the soil to build a moisture bank. We don’t have any reservoir or irrigation here,” he tells us when I wonder aloud how he manages to do so well in a region considered semi-arid and barren.

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A descendant of a farming family in New South Wales, Australia, Stuart arrived in Kenya 10 years ago in search of a place to establish a dryland farm and share with Kenyan farmers the great potential in lower rainfall areas.

They saw the black cotton soils of the semi-arid Athi River and, with its soil type and low rainfall, felt this was what they were looking for.

“I found that food production in Kenya is a big deal and I thought I should make a contribution,” he told us as he took us around the farm this week.

After seeing the boom-bust cycle of Kenya’s agriculture where the country moves intermittently from high production to low yields, they wanted a farming system that buffers the variable weather common in Kenya.

“We use rain when it falls, store it in our soils and then use it at a later time to suit the crop cycle,” Stuart explains. He continues, “There is so much unrealised potential in Kenyan agriculture. We don’t have a lack of water in Kenya but rather a lack of farming systems to utilise it.”

But keeping millions of litres of water below his farm is not enough.

INVESTED IN FORAGE MACHINERY

“We are building resilience by taking care of the soil, which is getting better and better. We do this by not tilling it and by leaving crop residue to replenish the soil. We also don’t use a lot of fertiliser,” he says, shelling some wheat with his hands to produce the big grains, some of which he shares before he throws the rest into his mouth and starts chewing.

The result is a tasty, sticky substance that makes some of the best bread dough anywhere. “This is good milling wheat, it tends to have a lot of protein in it due to the high nitrogen levels in our soils,” Stuart says.

He hopes to get 20 bags per acre, a hefty harvest in a country where getting 15 bags is good business even in the wheat belts of Narok, Nakuru and Uasin Gishu.

His secret lies in the no-till technology and crop rotation, which ensure enough water underground, richer soil and more efficient use of fertiliser.

“I have not tilled this land for seven years. Moreover, it has residue of sorghum and chickpeas, which is digested back into the soil. The more organic matter you can have in your soil the more water it can hold.

Stuart in the farm in Machakos. David Naphtali Stuart in the farm in Machakos. David Naphtali (inset left), the farm manager and (right) an aerial view of the wheat farm. Stuart says the farm shares knowledge freely so that others don’t repeat the mistakes they make and can take the successes away as well. PHOTOS | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

“We do use fungicides on our crops at times. These past short rains were a challenge as conditions were ideal for various diseases,” Stuart explains.

To ensure dairy clients produce milk throughout the year – come rain or sunshine – Ausquest Farm makes fodder available all year round and sells it at Sh10 a kilo.

The farm has invested heavily in its forage machinery, which enables it to make a 365-day supply. Many of the fodder customers have dairy farms in the peri-urban areas around Nairobi.

The farm also produces an average of 1.7 tonnes per hectare of Desi chickpeas, 1.9 tonnes per hectare of Kabuli chickpeas and 1.6 tonnes per hectare of green grams.

Stuart is a believer in “less is more”, so Ausquest Farm only has six full-time employees, including himself, although they employ up to 480 casuals through a local labour hire contractor for hand weeding. “We are very fussy about employing from our local area.”

Innovation drives Ausquest Farm. With the help of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), it is now fabricating a planter for smallholder farmers, which it expects will cut the cost of planting from Sh10,000 a hectare to Sh3,000.

In the forage sorghum field, where infections caused by too much rain have prevented a healthy third regeneration of the crop, Stuart comments, rather philosophically, that profit is the reward for risk and that the better one can manage risk the more profit he can expose his farming business to.

BLACK COTTON SOIL

His earlier dalliance with grain sorghum saw thousands of birds descend on the ripening crop, wiping out the entire field.

And for showcasing best farming practices, the farm receives hordes of visitors. Delegations from government departments, schools and colleges, NGOs, researchers and individuals – all numbering over 8,000 – have visited the farm to date.

Stuart says the farm shares knowledge freely so that others don’t repeat the mistakes they make and can take the successes away as well.

He praises Kenyans’ go-getter spirit, but is a bit frustrated with its slow pace of realising its potential. He laughs off the oft-repeated excuse that black soil is unproductive.

“The biggest grain belt of the world – Russia and Ukraine – has black cotton soil.”

He should know about the elasticity of potential. Some 31 years ago, just after completing secondary school, his father challenged him and his siblings to get their own farms.

At only 16, the odds seemed unsurmountable, but he visited successful farms in Australia and learnt from others.

He started share farming and, together with his wife, built a farming business growing over 30,000 acres of crops per season.

He keeps learning, relying on Twitter and WhatsApp groups, as well as reading many research papers, to improve his knowledge.

Ausquest also mentors young farmers. Three of the Ausquest full-time team are successful farmers in their own right.

“We try and do what works best. We do use chemicals and we have very healthy soils, although we can always do better. The bottom line is that you take care of the soil. You can’t constantly take from the soil without giving back something. If you don’t give back to the soil, you are a miner, not a farmer and cannot expect that the soil (your farm) will continue giving something to you.”

Yatta MP Charles Kilonzo, a regular client of Ausquest, says he likes its professionalism and costing of silage. “Using their silage has reduced the cost of feed in my farm, increased milk yields and general health of my herd.”

Get it fast

His advice to young farmers

  1. Farmer Stuart Barden urges those looking to go into farming to prepare well.
  2. “Work hard and think harder,” he says. “A successful farming business is not built in a straight line of success; expect the unexpected and be flexible,” he adds.
  3. On the campaign by some scientists for a shift to agroecology, a farming system that frowns upon cultivation and breeding techniques that rely on chemical fertilisers, pesticides or artificial genetic modifications, Stuart says “diversity and soil health are key and there are many ways to achieve these goals”