Aging gracefully with flowers amid roses, worms and dew

By: DAPHINE BILIMA

About 50km from Meru town in Timau on the slopes of Mt Kenya, there is a flower farm where roses are blooming inside greenhouses, waiting to end up in Europe.

The 50-hectare farm named Sunland Roses is owned by Major (Rtd) Silas Mwiti and hosts 80 greenhouses, where over 50 varieties of the flowers flourish.

The rose varieties he plants include Sweetness, Sanoli, Athena, Cape Red, Red Naomi, Panache, Adelaide, Anna-Karina, Airforce, Good times, Ice Bear, Cloud Break, Spritz, Scenta, Mammy Blue, Candid Prophyta and Confidential.

“When I left the army in 1992 after serving for about 32 years, I first ventured into vegetable farming,” says Mwiti.

But even then vegetables were not his first farming venture. He had doubled up as a wheat farmer while working in the military.

After about eight years, he ditched the veggies for roses after seeing an opportunity, a decision he describes as his best ever.

“There are good returns in flower farming because you can harvest the plant for up to 10 years,” says Mwiti, who invested Sh9 million when starting the venture.

To plant the roses, Mwiti says he first starts by preparing beds in the greenhouses and, thereafter, lays the drip lines. While doing this, he orders for rose stalks from reputable firms at Sh30 each.

The stalks are then planted in the beds in a spacing of 30cm from each other and are ready for the first harvest after three months.

The septuagenarian mainly grows his flowers organically to get an edge in the international market.

Mwiti uses ‘earthworm juice’ as his fertiliser. He prepares the natural fertiliser by mixing water with earthworm urine and draining the resultant liquid.

“This is the best fertiliser crops can get because the earthworm urine is super nutritious. Take an example of forests, where there are plenty of earthworms. You will find that the soil there is very fertile and plants thrive and all this is because of earthworms,” says Mwiti, whose major challenge is stiff competition in the market, which sometimes results to low prices, therefore, less returns.

To ensure he has constant supply of the foliar fertiliser, Mwiti rears the worms.

He has made a bed for them using poles, iron sheets and a perforated polythene material to hold the soil. Other than soil, he adds compost manure to enable the worms thrive.

“Sometimes my farm workers go to the nearby Timau market to collect dirt to add to the bed to enable the worms stay in natural environment.”

To harvest the fertiliser, he flushes water on the earthworm bed. The water then flows through the polythene material and ends up in a tank where it is stored.

From the tank, the fertiliser is pumped to the greenhouses and to the flowers.

“I occasionally use other commercially produced fertilisers to add calcium, nitrate, ammonia, magnesium and sulphate but I still prefer the earthworm juice.”

But those are not his only sources of fertiliser. He further uses dried roses to make manure. He shreds the stalks and arranges them in a heap and leaves them for three months as he turns them until they decompost.

The manure will then be harvested and used mainly when planting new roses.

For pest control, Mwiti uses sticky traps as the international market is sensitive to pesticides. The stickers come in different colours, attracting a wide range of insects like white flies.

Half of his flower farm lies on the leeward side of Mt Kenya, thus, receive little rainfall.

“I do not rely on rainfall to grow my flowers because it is very little and inconsistent.”

However, he believes every single drop of water is important as he harvests dew every day, which has become his main source of water.

The farmer gets the dew from the top of his greenhouses, which are fixed with gutters and pipes linked to a reservoir.

“During the night, dew settles on the roof of the greenhouses as it does on the grass. Since the road is slanted, the dew water flows down the gutter and into the reservoir.”

“The amount of dew we collect each day is enough to sustain irrigation on the farm. However, I cannot quantify the litres collected because the water is directed straight to the dam,” he adds, noting dew collected depends on the weather.

Mwiti learnt the technology of harvesting dew during a conference he attended sometime back.

“I then leased a small parcel of land to practice the technology. It has turned out successful as I’m able to get quality flowers for export due to the dew water.”

Sunland Roses harvests about 50,000 flower stems in a day, amounting to 12,000 boxes each week. After harvesting the flowers, he keeps them in a cold room for about an hour to make them remain fresh. Thereafter, they are removed and sorted according to sizes, and later graded.

“We then package the flowers according to colour and sizes and export directly to the market in Holland, Australia, Italy and Russia. We do not use an agent. A single rose goes for Sh100,” says Mwiti, who encourages anyone interested in flowers to grow them for both local and international market, though he says it is a capital and labour-intensive business.

The farm he started with just about Sh9 million on an hectare has expanded to worth millions of shillings and employs 300 workers.

He confesses that the flower farm gives him tranquility as he ages gracefully. “Whenever I come to the flower farm, I just smell the roses and I feel very peaceful. It is the best place to be for a man like me.”

Jenaro Gatangugi, Meru County Executive Member in-charge of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, says farmers who use organic fertiliser enjoy long-term benefits of increased soil humus.

“The urine from the earthworms contains urea, which is similar to ammonia used in the chemically produced fertilisers.”

The fertiliser, according to him, increases the soil surface area, which is the most important part of the soil that helps in holding nutrients to be absorbed by the plant.

“If you want soil with high humus content and more moisture, you must use this organic fertiliser.”

Gatangugi, on the other hand, says dew harvesting is viable as long as the farmer knows how to collect the droplets and has a reservoir.

“Before engaging in flower farming or any other, consult agricultural officers and have the soils tested to determine the best varieties of crops to grow for optimum production,” says Gatangugi as he encouraged young people to also grow flowers.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION