Who doesn't love potatoes? Mashed, boiled, fried baked, name it! Having a love for the tuber, I decided to try my hand at growing them.
Potatoes are usually grown from tubers. When exposed to sunlight the potatoes start to change to a greenish colour and the eyes of the potatoes begin to grow shoots. Planting usually stars with land preparation. This involves ploughing the land then breaking up the soil slumps to a fine tilth.
Furrows are then made for the planting of the potato tubers. The smaller potato tubers, like about 1 inch in diameter, are the ones preferred for planting. This is because they are harder to work with in the kitchen. Larger sizes can be used, it is just that they would have to be cut into about 1 inch size, preferably with a few eyes on each piece. If cutting, the cut pieces should not be planted until the cut surface has dried to form a protective layer.
The tubers should be planted at a spacing of about 1 foot apart and about 2.5 to 3 feet row to row. The spacing dictates the size of the tubers one would want to harvest. Closer spacing results in smaller sized potatoes, while further apart will result in larger sized tubers.
Once planted potatoes require water. They require an average amount of rainfall, about a good rain shower once a week or about an inch of water if irrigating. Too little water while growing will result in water stress, while too much will result in water logging and a persistence of especially fungal diseases.
Weed control is also important. It should be done periodically to prevent the weeds from competing for water and nutrients with the potato plants. Care should be taken not to hoe too deep while weeding so as not to damage the roots of the plant. It is good practice to heap the soil at the base of each potato plant(hilling) as you weed. This is to help the plant in the production of tubers. If planted at the right spacing row to row, when the plants have fully grown and are in bloom, they should form a canopy thus covering any smaller weeds in the rows.
There are pests and diseases that should be prevented and controlled for maximum yields. Pests like the potato beetle and cut worm are disastrous for the plant. Scouting should be done at least once per week. If any pest is discovered, the appropriate spray or other solution should be done immediately. The same applies to diseases. Potato blight, verticillum wilt, nematodes, viral and bacterial diseases should all be controlled in the best way possible. Good agricultural practices like crop rotation and leaving the land fallow work well in pest and disease control. A rigorous scouting and spray regime should also be incorporated. In my case I had to also deal with wild animals that love potatoes. These are the wild pig and porcupine. I had to employ ingenious ways to prevent total crop failure from them.
Once the crop is mature, care should be taken in how the tubers are dug up and handled to prevent post production loss. Potatoes should be harvested once the plant has begun to dry. Harvesting should be done in dry weather to prevent the potatoes from coming into contact with water. For this same reason harvested potatoes should not be washed with water. Potatoes should also be handled with care so as not to bruise the skin. Potatoes that are mature and ready for harvest should have a tough skin that should not be easily rubbed with your thumb. If harvested and skins are still not cured, the potatoes should be put in a dark cool place with air flow for about 2 weeks.
Selling the potatoes should be done as soon as possible. If storage was intended, a variety with good keeping qualities should be planted. Potatoes are very perishable so storage and handling should be done with care. The potatoes that were damaged during harvest and those that have begun to turn soft should be removed immediately from the rest to prevent loss.
If some of the harvested potatoes are to be used as seed, selection and separate storage should be done.
Potato farming especially as a business in Kenya is hard. This because of unpredictable weather(of late), pests, diseases and lastly market.
There have been seesawing of weather especially in the last five years. There have been times when the weather has been extremely wet and others extremely dry. Of memorable note was a frost about 6 years back. It came down one evening to early morning. It was so bad that it dried off most vegetable plants. This resulted in total loss for most vegetable farmers in my area. The only farmers that were not badly affected were the ones that planted various cereal crops.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to find certified disease free potato tubers for planting. This usually means that the majority of planting tubers available are already infected with disease. Con troll of the disease thus becomes impossible and reduces yields.
The market angle is what really breaks my heart. Most middlemen and traders buy potatoes “per bag”. This is vague. A law was passed recently that stated that potatoes for sale should only be packaged in 50kg bags. However, since traders are purchasing per bag, the traders then add a fabricated net on top of the 50kg bag to pack with potatoes. The end result is usually 2-2.5 times the weight of the bag being counted as the 50kg bag. Farmers are thus left with peanuts for all their labour and expertise in the farming of potatoes. This is daylight robbery!
Is it worth it?
As it currently is, I would not plant potatoes for commercial venture. The lack of certified seed and the market middlemen/traders issue are my biggest problem with this venture.
I would only plant potatoes for the love of chips, crisps, baked and mashed!