From a distance, it looks like a jumbled-up farm where tens of ordinary and fruit trees, and vegetables are growing together, competing for space on the small piece of land.
At Tamalu Farm in Meru County, which fits the description of a model garden, a closer look reveals an agricultural concept where indigenous trees are intercropped wit a variety of fruit trees and vegetables on only half-an acre.
Most of the trees are about two metres tall, providing a microclimate for the crops underneath. Neat rows of crops and trees on 75 by 50 metre plots welcome you.
On the edges, drip-irrigation pipes have been connected. However, irrigation happens mainly using sprinklers that draw water from a nearby borehole.
“Half-an-acre of the 10-acre farm has been used for this concept. We have about 80 species of vegetables and herbs, with over a dozen indigenous trees, and a variety of fruits growing together. It is an agro-forestry concept borrowed from Brazil,” explains Mr James Thiong’o, the farm manager.
The trees and vegetables planted on this farm were carefully selected for optimum returns. They were also grown strictly using botanical inputs
“The trees are mostly indigenous and are grown for charcoal (from their pruned branches) and fencing poles in the medium term and precious timber for the long term.
Some of them are endangered species such as the Prunus Africana and Hagenia Abyssinica. The vegetables are of high value, fetching good money and the demand for the produce remains high,” says the manager
Interestingly, eucalyptus and New Zealand pine are the only exotic tree species, and contrary to popular belief, there are no visible adverse effects on the growth of the other crops.
“In fact, the eucalyptus, in particular, is the main species we are using to improve soil structure and its pruned branches form part of our mulching and compost,” Mr Thiong’o explains.
The fruits and vegetables are ready for sale within months. Harvesting is done weekly, with the vegetables and fruits fetching Ksh50,000 at high-end restaurants, lodges, and green groceries in Nanyuki, Nairobi, and western Kenya, and individual buyers.
“We started our weekly harvests a few months ago and our monthly sales stand at Ksh200,000. We have launched a CSA programme (community supported agriculture), which guarantees that our clients consume fresh and high quality produce,” he adds.
Supporters usually cover a farm’s yearly operating budget by purchasing a share of the season’s harvest and assist with farm work. In return, the farm pro-vides a healthy supply of seasonal fresh produce.
Among the high-value crops intercropped with the indigenous trees are cherry tomatoes (yellow, red, black, and chocolate) that are packed in biodegradable punnets and sold at between Ksh300 and Ksh700.
Artichokes are packed in crates and fetch Ksh500 per kilo, curled purple kale, Ksh50 per bunch, as does mint (a herb) and the pak choi vegetable, going for Ksh50 per head. White radish fetches Ksh175 a kilo.
Also on this model garden are bananas, broccoli, rare species of pumpkins, parsley, basil, beetroot, passion fruit, tree tomatoes, and avocadoes. Research is still going on with a view to introducing more high-value crops, either imported or locally bred.
The farm recently introduced a chocolate cherry tomato species, and a crossbreed of cucumber and watermelon to form cucumelon. This is one of the latest fruits of their research and innovation. The farm has also introduced coffee to see how the beverage crop performs, as it is not common here. They hope that the slower maturing cherries will fetch a higher price due to their intense flavour. The overall objective of the initiative is to showcase profitable regenerative agriculture and still utilize the farm as a research and demonstration centre for agronomists, farmers, and entrepreneurs.
Although the farm boasts multiple enterprises, including hydroponic blueberries, pasture-raised livestock and layers, the key enterprise is the agro-forestry section. The biggest reason for having this demonstration agro-forestry system is to collect sound financial and agronomical data that can be fed into business plans to replicate and scale these systems across East Africa. It is also meant to serve as a hands-on training facility for local and international farmers wishing to learn about the implementation and management of these food production systems. Mr
Thiong’o explains that the agro-forestry system borrowed from Brazil is the secret behind the success of this farm that began operations barely a year ago.
Inter-cropping has several advantages with the prunings of the growing trees providing compost, mulch, and wood to prepare wood vinegar.
Wood vinegar (liquid smoke) is a bi-product of charcoal production, which happens on site. The smoke coming from the pyrolysis is collected and cooled/condensed into a bucket. It is then diluted with water and sprayed on the crops to ward off pests.
“We use a simple charcoal kiln (A Cookswell Jiko Design) to harvest the smoke and also end-up with wood charcoal. Trimmings and prunings of the trees on the farm are used to light the kiln.
We have learnt that once you spray the liquid smoke mixture on crops, pests tend to get confused and flee thinking that there is a fire,” the manager explains. The diversification of crops on a single plot also minimises pest and disease attacks. Moreover, stratifying their annual and perennial crops in a systematic way, allows them to take advantage of space and develop a good microclimate, over time.
“We go to the weekly farmers’ organic market at various locations across the country. Those who purchase our produce give us referrals. In addition, our digital marketing receives a lot of attention and is the main driving force behind our success. As some say, 30 to 40 percent is the growing of crops and the remaining 60 to 70 percent lies in the marketing,” Mr Thiong’o adds.
Organically certified botanical sprays supplied by Nairobi-based company Organix are the only pesticide/fungicides used on the farm, while soil amendments and fertilisers come from Ocean
Agriculture, Tamalu’s main supplier of inputs. The CSA approach has played a great role in ensuring the sustainability of the farm. Under the arrangement, fresh produce is delivered to the consumer, using farm-to-door delivery via courier and private vehicles. Also, since demand often outstrips supply, some clients pay for their supplies in advance to avoid missing out on some products.
The farm plans to expand the agro-forestry project to supply the increasing consumer base with chemical-free foods, and to demonstrate to farmers the benefits of intercropping valuable trees with crops.
However, limitations in water and renewable energy may hinder quick expansion but the farm is seeking ways to mitigate these challenges.