Acute wheat shortage looms as farmers shift to lucrative maize

Sunday June 18 2017

Farmers sow wheat in a farm in Kabenes, Uasin Gishu County. High cost of production and low prices have made many farmers reduce the acreage under wheat or abandon the crop altogether. PHOTO | JARED NYATAY | NMG

Farmers sow wheat in a farm in Kabenes, Uasin Gishu County. High cost of production and low prices have made many farmers reduce the acreage under wheat or abandon the crop altogether. PHOTO | JARED NYATAY | NMG 

By STANLEY KIMUGE
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High cost of production and dwindling prices are pushing farmers away from wheat farming, with many opting to grow maize and engage in dairy farming which are more lucrative.
Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Willy Bett says many farmers have reduced the acreage under wheat due to the shortage of maize witnessed this year, which has pushed up prices.

Last season, the CS said, the government discussed with private millers ways of protecting local farmers against importation of the crop, which leads to low prices.

“We met in my office and signed an agreement that they buy a 90kg bag at a minimum of Sh3,000. Imported wheat costs Sh2,500, so the extra Sh500 was an incentive to local farmers. We will continue with this incentive,” said Mr Bett.

He added: “Kenya is a major wheat deficit country. We produce about 30 per cent and import the rest. Although this will not affect the country’s requirements, this is not a consolation to us because we want to produce sufficient quantities.”

But Mr Bett said the trend was likely to reverse in the next two planting seasons when prices improve, with farmers expected to increase wheat cultivation. 

“Initially, local production will drop as more farmers move to maize. But in economics, the cobweb theory states that when there is scarcity, the prices go up. And when there is a surplus, the prices come down. Farmers are likely to go back to wheat production... The country is looking towards reducing imports,” he added.

The country is a net importer of wheat, producing less than 500,000 tonnes against an annual consumption of one million tonnes, according to data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

Farmers who spoke to Sunday Nation said high cost of maintenance of the crop and low prices had made them to reduce the acreage under wheat or abandon the crop altogether. 

Last season, the national government increased the prices of maize from Sh2,300 to Sh3,000 per 90kg bag.

Mr Shadrack Moimett, a farmer from Kesses, Uasin Gishu, said that although he planted wheat on his 10-acre farm last season, he opted to plant maize this year, and pasture for his dairy cows.

Mr Johnson Murei, another farmer from Moiben, said he had reduced the acreage under wheat from 500 to 200.

“Wheat production is expensive, especially the chemicals used to control weeds and rust. Many farmers here have planted less wheat this year. The government should introduce subsidy programmes like the ones on maize so that farmers produce more wheat,” he said.

Increased prices

Farmers and traders in Kenya’s bread basket have increased the prices of flour. A 90-kg bag is retailing at between Sh4,200 and Sh4,800.

Mr Kimutai Kolum, another wheat farmer in Ziwa, said the cost of farm inputs had gone up.

“Planting and harvesting are not big challenges; the problem is how to maintain the crop. The chemicals used to control weeds cost up to Sh25,000 per five litres, and the spraying is done every two weeks to control rust,” he added.

He said many farmers had switched to maize due to better market prices and subsidised fertiliser and top dressing. He anticipates high production of maize next season.

“We might have a lot of maize next year despite erratic weather and the Fall armyworm. But farmers who will not spray their crop might incur losses.”

The Ministry of Agriculture projects harvests of 32.8 million bags, down from 37.1 last year — a decline of 11.5 per cent.

Maize production is forecast to drop by 4.3 million bags this year owing to delayed rains and the armyworm attack, setting the stage for expensive maize flour next year.

Egerton University think tank Tegemeo Institute says the cost of controlling the caterpillar worms using pesticides will increase.

More than 15 agriculture-rich counties — including Trans Nzoia, Uasin Gishu, Kwale, Taita Taveta, Nakuru, Busia and Bungoma — have been invaded by the pests.

A widespread attack could aggravate the ongoing food crisis that has led to high prices.