Mohomane Farm leads model potato production

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LEBOELA MOTOPI

BEREA – A comprehensive one-day potato production training session was conducted for more than 50 local farmers on Saturday, March 9, at Sehlabeng, Thuathe, in Berea district. Seasoned staff of Mohomane Farm, located in Machache, Maseru, under the direction of the capable general manager, Nthethe Ralitapole, led the training programme. Ralitapole, who has been a seasoned potato farmer for more than 10 years, learned the trade from his late grandfather. The venue for this instructive session was the Tops Piggery and Farm, owned by ’Maneo Motopi, nestled in Baruting, Sehlabeng, approximately 10km from the capital city, Maseru.

Ralitapole emphasised that the primary objective of the training was to provide both seasoned and novice farmers with comprehensive guidance on enhancing potato productivity, enabling them to sustainably earn a livelihood from this agricultural pursuit. This mission aligns with the broader goals of his organisation, which is committed to offering formal training to Basotho individuals on the art of growing potatoes.

Their vision, as Ralitapole further elucidated, is to become the most trusted authority in potato production in Lesotho. He emphasised the critical role of nitrogen in the development of potatoes, indicating that the ideal soil pH should range between 5.5 and 6. “In order to optimise potato growth, the seeds should be packaged in a sieve-like bag with adequate ventilation. It is essential to plant them within a week of sprouting upon arrival at your farm,” Ralitapole advised. Lesotho cultivates its own indigenous potato seeds, particularly in places like Semonkong on the outskirts of Maseru. Semonkong is renowned for producing some of the finest locally grown potatoes, owing to its black loam soil, which is considered most conducive to the cultivation of high-quality potatoes.

Notably, many potato farms in Semonkong are situated on sloping terrain, ideal for potatoes as they do not thrive in clay soil that retains water. Even during the heaviest rainy seasons, the Semonkong slopes efficiently drain water. While Lesotho imports a significant portion of its high-quality potato seeds from South Africa, Wesgrow, based in the Western Cape Province, stands out as one of the top suppliers. Ralitapole explained the process of identifying top-quality potato seeds, emphasising the importance of labelled bags and knowing the seed’s generation—whether it is the third, fourth, or fifth, integral to their identity. Facilitators highlighted the crucial aspect of seed storage, advocating for placing seed bags on wooden pallets in a well-ventilated storeroom. Ralitapole stressed the need to avoid prolonged storage due to the seeds’ short shelf life. Ideally, they should be planted within a week of sprouting upon arrival. Before embarking on the planting process, the facilitator emphasised the importance of market research to identify the most preferred potato varieties.

“This involves understanding the market preferences for potato types and sizes, as consumers have diverse needs. For instance, some retailers, particularly in the fast-food sector, prefer large potatoes for chips, while others specifically seek baby potatoes or medium-sized ones for cooking,” he explained. Time management is critical in potato production, and the facilitator highlighted the significance of knowing the optimal time for planting and bringing the product to market. “It is crucial to avoid bringing products to market when there is an oversupply, as this can adversely affect prices. Timing is key to ensuring a favourable market reception,” he said.

Soil type was identified as another crucial consideration, and the facilitator recommended conducting soil tests to determine soil deficiencies and composition. “Understanding the soil is essential because it guides the farmer in selecting the right fertilizers. Good soil content is directly correlated with good production,” he stated. Various topics were covered, including assessing the farm size to determine seed quantity, appropriate amounts of fertilisers and herbicides, and the correct quantities of other essential minerals.

The importance of acquiring suitable farming equipment was emphasised, with reassurance that beginners should not be discouraged from starting with minimal or no implements. The facilitator underscored the importance of selecting seeds that align with local climatic conditions, soil types, and the preferences of the local market. Tyson, a variety of small to medium-sized potatoes, was mentioned, along with other popular types such as Up-to-date, Mondeo, Lanorma, and Taisiya.

“Up-to-date, Mondeo and Lanorma are particularly lucrative varieties for small-sized potatoes. There is significant potential for profit in these varieties, especially for farmers focused on the production of smaller potatoes,” he highlighted. For larger-sized potatoes, Mondial stands out as the most popular and sought-after variety, known for its tolerance to harsh weather conditions. Despite the relatively higher cost of Mondial seeds, their exceptional yield makes them a crucial choice for potato cultivation. Other notable large-sized potato varieties include Panomera, Allison, Sababa, Sitra, Challenger, and Touris.

During the training, participant Letima Tseko from Mafeteng, a poet, shared a unique perspective on potatoes. In his poetic expression, he described potatoes as a distinctive plant which defies darkness, growing underground, ageing, and prolifically leaving behind millions of offspring, much like stars. Tseko’s eloquent oratory skills captivated and moved other participants. Mondial potatoes are in high demand in Lesotho, particularly among various businesses, including small enterprises, retail outlets, and chip production lines.

The variety is particularly favoured for chip production due to its texture, which efficiently conserves cooking oil. Even after the second round of frying, the finished chips retain their crispiness. Sababa, exhibiting similar characteristics to Mondial, is also considered suitable for chip making. The presentation emphasised the importance of potato shape, highlighting that oval-shaped potatoes are ideal for chip making as they fit seamlessly into chip cutters. The highly productive Mondial variety yields a minimum of 13 to 25 potatoes per plant.

Ralitapole shared practical advice on potato cultivation, specifying that the correct quantity of Mondial seeds for an acre of land is 13 bags, with each bag containing 600 seeds. He recounted a successful scenario from August last year when local farmers who had planted sufficient Mondial potatoes capitalised on the market during South Africa’s load-shedding period. This was advantageous for them, as South African farmers relying on electricity to irrigate their vast farms experienced significant losses.

The issue of irrigating potatoes was brought to the forefront, acknowledging that not all local farmers prioritise irrigation relying, instead, on seasonal rains. While it is true that potatoes can survive without additional watering, Ralitapole stressed the importance of irrigation during severe droughts for enhanced production. Like any other plant, potatoes require essential moisture for optimal growth. Various irrigation methods were discussed during the training, including pivot irrigation, which is electricity-driven and particularly useful during dry seasons. Drip irrigation and overhead sprinklers are also common in Lesotho, although the latter is known to be disease-prone, causing potato blight that requires fortnightly treatment.

Choosing the right fertiliser for potato planting depends on the type of soil. Solid fertilisers commonly used in Lesotho include varieties such as MPK 232 (22), 234 (30), 515, and 414.

The recommended fertilisation schedule involves top-dressing with nitrogen and urea three weeks after the plants emerge from the soil. Two weeks later, potassium and phosphorus should be applied to support rooting and flowering processes, followed by immediate irrigation for optimal results.

Liquid fertilisers, considered effective, include DIA Grow (organic), Super-Grow, and Oblivion, all rich in potassium. Potatoes, like other plants, require oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc for healthy growth. Weed control is crucial for successful potato production, while herbicides play a significant role in reducing the costs associated with conventional weed removal methods. Pre-emergence herbicides, applied before plants appear and commonly used before rains, are ideal during hot seasons when plants are under stress. Saltan SC is cited as a common choice for pre-emergence herbicides.

Post-emergence herbicides, which combat broadleaved weeds, include Basagram, which is recommended before the plant starts to flower. Other popular brands for post-emergence herbicides include Pandera (used upon flowering), Linagan, and Gramosone.

Ralitapole emphasised the importance of a well-planned approach to irrigation, fertilisation, and weed control in ensuring good potato production. In addition to weeds, insects, particularly millipedes and worms, pose a significant threat to potatoes, making pest control crucial for successful potato production. Commonly used insecticides, both in liquid and solid forms, vary depending on the type of insect involved. Carbofuran and Velum Prim are popular choices, especially for millipedes.

Ralitapole emphasised the importance of proper potato classification right in the field upon harvest. This involves separating cut potatoes from clean ones and distinguishing small ones from large ones to streamline processes before storage. Post-harvest, chemicals like Spore-kill are employed to clean potatoes, enhancing their shelf life. During packaging, Ralitapole stressed the need for using bags that clearly identify the potato brand by name. Choosing the right bag for each potato variety is crucial for proper identification, underscoring the importance of knowing which seed variety was used.

A key aspect of the training involved a demonstration of potato planting using a cattle-driven plough. The demonstration covered aspects such as the correct spacing between seeds (30cm), the right distance between furrows cut with the plough (a metre apart), proper fertiliser application, and the correct method of collecting soil around the seeds using the plough. One of the participants, ’Mahlompho Ramosetle, a seasoned poultry farmer operating two broiler chicken farms in Nazareth and Masowe 1 in Maseru, found the training insightful and useful.

She highlighted the lucrative potential of potato farming, provided individuals have the necessary knowledge. Ramosetle expressed the need for government support through subsidies for seeds, fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides to help boost production. She noted the challenge local farmers face in planting on time, and with adequate support, this issue could be addressed. Although relatively new to potato production, Ramosetle demonstrated impressive results during the training. From her Nazareth farm on the outskirts of Maseru, she was able to produce 100 bags of potatoes from a 0.35-acre plot of land in the last season. She credited her improved production to the knowledge gained from training sessions provided by Mohomabe Farm, emphasizing that informed practices significantly enhance productivity in potato farming.

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