Potato farming rolls back poverty frontiers



MASERU – The Director of Marketing in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, Lekhooe Makhate, says his ministry is ready to assist the Matelile Farmers Association (MFA) in their huge potato harvest this season. Founded in 2018, MFA, ’Marethabile Mokitimi, says they are members of the Potato Lesotho Association (PLA) – an affiliate of the farmers’ mother body, the Lesotho National Farmers Union (LENAFU).

About 100 residents of Matelile, in the Mafeteng district, have teamed up to form MFA to help combat hunger and escape the wretched poverty that is rife in rural communities. And Makhate, said they are aware of the production of potatoes in Matelile, through the PLA. “We work closely with the PLA,” he said. But they only visited that association before the harvest started. He said they would direct customers who need the potatoes to Matelile so that the farmers could have a market.

What the ministry needs is only information regarding the extent of the potato production in the area so that they could assist those farmers with market access. Makhate said one of the primary guidelines that the farmers have to follow is to do the right packaging, indicating that among the top fruits and vegetables that the country imports from South Africa, potatoes are on the list.

He said they will have to protect the market for Matelile farmers. This year MFA received potato seeds and fertilisers from the Food and Agricultural Association (FAO), through LENAFU’s assistance. FAO provided the association with 600 bags (25kg) of potato seeds together with 1 660 bags of fertilisers for the 81 acres of land planted in fields belonging to these farmers. Before planting the potatoes, they used to plant peas and wheat as individuals for home consumption.

So far they have sold 2 000 bags (12kg) of potatoes to different buyers, especially businesses in the country but mostly in Mafeteng town. More is yet to be harvested, while some have already been packaged and are ready for sale. The potatoes are graded into extra-large, large, medium, small and extra-small, giving the buyers a choice of grades they want to have in their store. After the potatoes are harvested, they are transported with an ox-drawn scotch-cart from the fields to the store-room where the grading and sampling is done followed by the packaging process where the very farmers are involved.

Mokitimi said they have a massive and lucrative market of buyers who demand large potatoes over others. She said they are expecting to harvest 20 000 bags (12kg) of potatoes when harvesting is complete. Their challenge is that they have to fork out some money to pay for the storeroom while their produce is still there and they also have a grave challenge of harvesting their potatoes using animals drawing the plough, a process which leads to a massive amount of wasted potatoes since they get damaged in the process.

“If we could be assisted with planter and harvesting machinery, we could experience better yields,” Mokitimi said, adding that the traditional way of harvesting escalates their losses. Refuoehape Chabalala from the Department of Agriculture Research (DAR)’s Horticulture Section said producing potatoes is not as easy as some people think because it requires a lot of expertise and knowledge.

Chabalala said potato production is still low in the country despite their high demand and efforts by some farmers in Semonkong, Ha Mohale and Marakabei and endeavours by PLA to produce seed. He said the major challenge, among others, is that the country does not have breeders to produce early generation seed that is indispensable for high yields. And the right choice of a cultivar is important before the plantation starts as some varieties take a long time to mature.

Chabalala said farmers have to test and prepare the soil before planting the potatoes so that the seeds would germinate well.  “There should be no soil lumps as that would frustrate bulging of the potato tubers in the soil,” he said. He said the spacing of the crop rows in which the potatoes are planted is important depending on whether the crop would be rain- fed or irrigated. “Seeding rate under rain-fed production is lower,” he said.

He said the seeding depth is also critical when planting the potatoes and it should equal the diameter of the seed depending on the soil moisture level. “Under the less soil water content towards the soil surface seed may be placed deeper.“During planting potato seeds do not need excess moisture because they could rot,” Chabalala said, adding that the moisture that the seed has suffices for it to germinate. At planting fertilisers could be applied but carefully close to seed tubers because the potatoes have a weak rooting that could easily explore the nutrients.

“Choice of fertilizer and application rate depends on soil analysis results,” he clarified. Before the farmers can select seeds, it should be clear if they want potatoes for home consumption, sales or industrial purposes (processing). He said the ridging of potatoes is done within four to five weeks after the emergence of crops. “During this time the crop is about 20 – 25cm high,” he added. At that time, the application of nitrogen (LAN) is also needed to help boost growth of the plants.

He said the purpose of ridging is to protect formed tubers from sunlight, insect pests and disease causing organisms. The potatoes do not have to get sunlight because that reduces quality and could be toxic to the health of the consumers, he added. It is important for the farmers to scout for potato crops at least every two weeks so that farmers can monitor the growth of the plants, pests and diseases. Farmer should spot any disorder or diseases attacking the crops on time.

After harvesting, Chabalala said the packaging is of great importance and the farmers have to be equipped with the necessary skills at this stage. He said the potatoes have to be stored in a cool, dry and well-ventilated place where there is no direct sunlight, and that paper bags and perforated baskets are preferable. “If exposed to sunlight, they can change the colour,” he said, adding the potatoes could turn greener, something which is dangerous to human health. Chabalala said the potatoes have to be graded according to their sizes during the packaging.

If there is no immediate buyer of the potatoes, he said, it is needless to wash them because doing so makes their skins vulnerable to diseases. Asked about ways to help improve potato production in the country, Chabalala said the Agricultural Productivity Programme for Southern Africa (APPSA) readily provides such information.

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