Life was not easy for 36-year-old, Michael Opiyo after he was robbed by thieves of his money, leading to the collapse of his business in Gulu town. At the time, he was just 25 years old.
Opiyo was a well-known young business man person in Gulu town. He was famous for dealing in black buveera and farm produce. His business was worthy millions of shillings. That was in 2012.
“When I was robbed, I thought about many things but nothing was adding up. I then decided to go back to the village,” he says. His village is in Lukutu, Agonga parish, Nwoya district.
The same year, the once powerful business man sneaked back to his village to start a life as a farmer. “Even then I had no money to start with, I planted three stems of bananas, but in 2013 I got a chance to receive some 100 banana suckers from NAADS which I planted,” he says.
But even then, things were not good. Opiyo found it hard to live in the harsh condition in the village still. “I worked hard and gradually increased the acreage to the current 20acres of the bananas and by 2014, he had started earning some money from the sweet bananas. “You realize that I did not even have any knowledge about farming. I did everything through trial and error,” he says.
His farm, after 7 years now has 20acres of bananas of various types including cooking bananas (matooke), sweet bananas and bogoya. He also has over 10,000 coffee trees (20acres), 10,000 pineapples, 3,000 avocados trees, and 1,000 mangoes trees, paw-paw etc. He has also got two dairy cows. Total land acreage is over 40acres.
When had just returned to the village in 2012, he cleared the garden using an old hand hoe that he got from the neighbor because he could not afford a new hoe. But today, he uses ox-ploughs and tractors. He spends about sh2.5m preparing the land each season.
Opiyo practices modern farming, since he uses farm tools like tractors that he hires, ox-ploughs, fertilizers and pesticides to kill germs and pests on the farm.
“I have decided not only to engage in citrus farming but also I keep bees with a dual purpose of helping me pollinate the crops and then give me honey,” he says.
He says that he practices mixed farming because he wants to cushion himself from losses just in case one enterprise fails. “I know that because of the unpredictable nature of our climate, one crop may fail but if you have several enterprises, you survive with the others,” he says.
“It is very important for a farmer to know when to plant certain type of fruits and trees. I always plant at the beginning of the wet seasons,” he says. This is why he plants around April and August each year.
For most of the trees and bananas, maintaining good space is important. “I plant bananas with a 3×3 spacing when I am not intercropping with coffee, however if I am intercropping it is 3×4,” he says.
Opiyo said when digging the pits for bananas, they should be at least 4feet deep. “I don’t mix the black loam soils with the red soil because I have to use the loam soil to cover it again after planting,” he says.
For coffee, young coffee plants are planted in the field in large, pre-dug holes. (50cm × 50cm × 50cm) adding that various spacings are used in different regions of the world and coffee can be grown as hedgerows or in high density squares depending on the variety.
Opiyo says coffee will usually grow best if planted in rows and plants should be spaced 3m (9.8 ft) apart and young trees are delicate and require protection by shading. “Shade trees are usually planted before the coffee trees are transplanted. It should be up to a year in advance,” he advised. In his case however, he plants bananas earlier enough so that they provide some cover for the your coffee trees.
“Most of my long term enterprises like coffee and the fruits will fully start yielding in the next year and I expect good earnings,” he says.
“For the case of fruits and coffee you need to monitor whether they are being attacked by pests. Check under the leaves to see if there is any de-coloration going on,” he says. For the bananas, the biggest threat is banana wilt. “I am always on the lookout for any signs in the banana shamba. One of the signs is the brownish appearance of leaves,” he says. Once a sign is noticed, the infected plant must be removed immediately and burnt.
To deal with droughts, Opiyo, uses drip irrigation, where he places ten litre jerricans of water drip on the stems. He uses one jerrycan for every four stems. He places the jerrycan in the middle of the four stems.
Opiyo said bananas take one year to mature, while pineapples take 18 months to mature, while coffee and avocados take three to four years to mature. A banana takes between three to four months to mature after fruiting.
“Poor harvesting especially if you let the banana bunch hit the ground affects the quality of the produce. This is why I do not let my bunch drop to the ground,” he says. He advises farmers to cut down the entire banana stem from which they have harvested, cut it into pieces and use it as manure on the shamba.
Pineapples are harvested by cutting them off the plant, before they are carried to a cool room for storage, or directly handed out to consumers. “If you hit them so hard on the ground, they rot so easily and reduce the shelf life,” he says.
Opiyo sell his fruits to fruit vendors in Anaka, Pakwach, Kitgum, Gulu and other places like in Kampala and Karamoja region.
“Others come here and buy the sweet bananas that they sell on the roadside,” he says.
Opiyo last year sold eucalyptus trees planted ten years ago, before he became a commercial farmer and got sh3m.
He intend to supplies the local farmers with coffee seedlings this second season and he will walk away with five millions cash shillings also teaches them how to plant coffees.
His long time crops like coffee will start yielding this year. From the bananas and fruits however, his average gross earnings per year are sh25m. He spends sh800.000 for ploughing gardens, sh2.5m for buying chemicals and farm tools to be used for spraying fruit orchards, sh1m buying coffee seeds, sh1.8m buying fish feeds, and sh500,000 for buying other farm inputs.
Opiyo employs four workers in his farm to help him with work. He pays each of them sh150,000 per month on average.
Opiyo works with his wife on the farm. “On top of employing people, I and my wife work together in the farm when necessary which has reduce on the expenses because my wife is positive toward farming and willing to support me,” he says.
“My biggest challenge is lack of a large irrigation system to use during dry season this has made it difficult to manage my farm especially during the dry season,” he says.
Opiyo says that using the jerrycan drip irrigation is very tiresome to big farmers like him because fetching water is very hectic.
He cited many of his fruits dried up during long dry spell as he couldn’t afford irrigation which made him to think of alternative. “I am saving for a better irrigation system,” he says. A modern drip system can cost as much as sh20m per acre. However, mobile systems like the water gun cost at least sh3m.
Opiyo added that farm chemicals and other farm inputs have become very expensive in the market. “I am now supplementing them with home processed organic fertilizers and pesticides,” he says. These are got from rotting animal waste and crop materials, ash and urine.
Others challenges include thieves who steal the bananas and monkeys. “The farm is quite big to manage and keep safe effectively. So some thieves sneak in and steal foods. But we are working on improving security,” he says.
To fight climate change and long drought, Opiyo has embarked on planting more trees and discouraging people from cutting trees for charcoal burning in his area.
“I have already planted 3,000 eucalyptus trees and I will plant more trees to help me fight climate change,” Opiyo said.
He is supplying local farmers with eucalyptus seedlings for planting and teaching people on how to conserve environment.
He plans to open up a reservoir dam with constant water to supply his gardens with water during dry season and fight long dry spell.
Opiyo has both visitor’s and record books where he keeps records of visitors who visit to the farm and records his daily expenses, planting dates. This has helped him to determine the profit he receives at the end of the year.
“For me I am able to know the progress of the farm because I keep records of whatever I have planted and the expenses, every small thing bought or done in the farm I put it down on record like money spent in particular items beginning from clearing field until harvest season,” he says.
Opiyo’s plan is to start an irrigation system in future to help him manage the drought which are very difficult to predict by many farmers today.
“When irrigation is done, I need to open up a demonstration farm to teach students and local farmers to improve on agricultural sector where all people are farmers” Opiyo explained.
Opiyo intends to buy machines which can produce juice and dry fruits like banana to add value addition to his product to earn more money in future.
“Besides that I want to improve my knowledge and skills in farming so that my farm is not at risk of collapsing in future,” he adds.
Juliet Akumu an agriculturalist in Gulu town, Gulu Municipality said before a farmer start to plant anything he/she must consult the expert on what to do.
She explained that many farmers are making loses and not reaping from their seat because they are engaging into more than one tye of farming which make it hard for them to manage the farm.
Akumu warns that farmers must plant crops that they can manage so that its ease for them to look after in terms of providing all the necessary requirement.
“You should learn to practice one type of enterprise applying the modern system of farming where you use modern equipment and improved seeds” She said.
She advised farmers to plant fruits saying there is ready market for farmers as predicting climate has become very difficult for.