In the middle of the arid Laikipia County, about 30 kilometres from the Maralal-Rumuruti highway, is a plantation flourishing with maize.
Next to the maize are healthy evenly distributed young sorghum plants running into hundreds of acres of land.
This is Ol Maisor farm, previously a ranch with thousands of livestock and marauding wildlife.
There are no signs of irrigation at the extensive green farm and the owner, Martin Evans, has no immediate plans to invest in irrigation but is optimistic of continued improved crop production in the dry, barren land. Mr Evans’ farm was an abandoned arid patch until last year when his son Mathew came back home from the University of Queensland in Australia, where he was studying agronomy.
Mr Mathew brought back with him skills applied in Australia, which he has successfully used to change the barren land to productivity.
The key word in the Australia based farming technology is moisture preservation.
Mr Mathew describes the technology as zero tillage and stubble mulching, combined with GPS technology. The technology is suitable for low rainfall environments. Laikipia receives about 500 millilitres rainfall per year, compared to Australia's 400 milliliters.
“It’s conservation agriculture, the aim of the system is to save soil moisture because we have low rainfall. We want to store all the rain that we get in the soil. Which means you don’t have to disturb the soil because the more you disturb it the more you lose the moisture,” said Mr Mathew.
With the technology, one does not have to plough the soil every season, and the initial digging at 30 to 40 centimetres depth is enough for eternity.
He says the land should be flattened after it is ploughed for the first and only time. “After you plough and flatten, you apply crop cover or heavy mulching so that the rainwater doesn’t run as floods, causing soil erosion, but slowly sinks in the soil," said Mr Mathew.
Controlled traffic is also a critical component of the farming method. Farm equipment moving or working on the farm must meet specific measurements. “There is no tractor running all over the farm as in traditional farming. The wheels of the equipment compact the soils making it hard. For the GPS to effectively control the equipment, all equipment must have the same space between the wheels and same width for the tyre,” adds the agronomist.
There are various measurements for the equipment depending on the size of the farm and farmer capital ability. At Ol Naisor they use a standard measurement of three metres between the wheels and 27 feet spacing for sprayers so that they can spray three rows at a time.
“On the system, we have a planter and plough, spraying machine and a combine harvester and they all fit in that same system, making 95 per cent of the soil soft all the time while the five per cent of the farm is for the roads,” explained Mr Mathews.
The tracks make it easier for the GPS technology controlled tractors to move around the farm during rainy seasons.
For mulching sustainability, farmers are advised against removing maize stalks or any other organic matter from the farm after harvest. Mulching also controls weeds, further reducing the cost of production.
"It’s a very exciting technology, it allows you to use land that is underutilised, especially in Laikipia which has millions of acres of land suitable for agriculture but with unreliable rainfall,” says Mr Mathew.
He says it’s a more profitable use of land compared to livestock farming, adding that most livestock die in droughts.
The farmer expects to get an average of 10, 90kg bags of maize per acre. “I would say the cost of production per acre is seven bags of maize, while the three bags is our profit. No cow can give you such a profit margin per acre in this desert. We were making about Sh300 profit per cow per acre,” says the farmer. He says the technology is more suitable for food crops such as maize, peas, wheat and sunflower, or any other crop that can be harvested using a combine harvester.
And the capital is not as large as one might think.
“One can start small with the little they have, that is what we have done, we don’t have a budget for all the equipment but we gradually buy as we make profit,” says Mr Mathew, adding that machinery can be leased. The farm boasts of 600 acres of maize and 600 acres of sorghum. Another critical pillar of the farming method is crop rotation.