At the edge of Aberdare Forest in Nyandarua County where lengths of acres of pine and cypress trees have been harvested, tens of farmers are harvesting green podded beans for retail and export.
Interestingly, the farmers whose presence in the woodlands is a boost to forest conservation, are not farming the in the gazetted forest illegally.
Geta Forest Block Community Forest Association chairman Jamleck Macharia explains that the farming system more or less resembles agroforestry.
But, while most cases of agroforestry involve intercropping trees with crops in one’s own land, in the Aberdares the farmers grow crops in a government forest on a short lease under a programme known as plantation establishment for livelihood improvement scheme (PELIS).
“The forest land is very fertile. From 0.5 acres I can harvest up to 300 kilogrammes of snow peas (mishiri),” pointed out the farmer who also grows potatoes and kale.
Snow pea, a high altitude plant, is a loved by the farmers because it fetches higher income in the market, most of it being exported to Europe and Asia.
The pea is a green beans plant with flat pods and is sold to the market when still fresh like the French beans. It is also edible whole in its pod.
The peas, according to the farmer is planted in 8cm by 10cm spacing and is harvested 75 days after planting, twice every week for a month.
A kilogramme of the cow peas sells at up to Sh200, the farmer says. The vertically growing vegetable have tendrils capable of attaching to a support and thus is supported by wooden pegs.
Like the rest of the farmers in Aberdare woodlands, Macharia was leased 0.5 acre-plot of land within the forest block.
But there are regulations that guide farming in the forest, says Macharia who has been farming under the PELIS system for almost a decade now.
“Most farmers here are landless and therefore, we agreed to grow fast maturing crops for our food security and for the market,” he says.
Macharia and 200 other farmers grow snow peas for the export market.
“Companies we sell the beans to always send their agronomists here to guide us through the process from planting to harvesting but the trickiest but is pest and disease control because the quality is of an essence,” the farmer observed.
“Horticultural crop exporters demand quantity which we could only provide when many of us planted the same crop variety at the same time.”
The farmers sell the peas to Jade Fresh and Kenya Horticultural Exporters.
Once millers are done clearing trees from a forest plantation, the community around the forest block subdivide the plot, every selected member is allocated half-an acre.
They farm the plot for three years while planting tree seedlings provided by the government.
“In the first year we only grow crops but in the second and the third year we intercrop them with tree seedlings,” says Macharia.
In forest farming, trees are planted in a wide spacing of 3metres by 3metres for cypress and 2.5m by 2.5m for pine.
The farmer says the spacing for planting the tree seedlings is wide enough, preventing competition for nutrients between the plants.
The lease-to-farm in the forest system ends after three years and the farmers have to wait until another plantation is harvested for them to move in. Because farmland everywhere shrinking due to human activities and climate change, encroachment forest resources for food production is rampant.
As a result, the government introduced PELIS system which recruits ‘community forest watchers’ such as Macharia and his fellow farmers to manage the woodlands better, in hoping they protect it deforestation and arson.
Forests are important water catchment areas besides being critical in regulating local climate and flow of water.
James Kariuki, a farmer in the area, notes that when the trees grow bigger, especially in their third year, growers begin to cultivate oats instead of veggies.
“If a farmer has failed to take care of the trees or fails to replace a dried tree his/her plot is taken away from him. We plant trees the same day so that the trees are planted in uniform rows, every farmer is given 320 tree seedlings,” he says.
The farmers receive technical support from Ministry of Agriculture and Kenya Forest Service, among other stakeholders.
Daniel Koros, an environmental expert at World Wide Fund for Nature, says PELIS has proved effective for both the environment and communities living around forests by minimising forest destruction since it was introduced in 2005.
“Before the introduction of PELIS, the Kenya Forest Service used to plant trees in a system known as Shamba System which was abused as people interfered with trees due to a lack of proper engagement of local communities,” says Koros.
Carol Mutua, a horticultural expert at Egerton University, says the crop performs well in the high altitude of 2600m above sea level.
The expert says diseases are controlled is by use of certified seeds, spraying plants with recommended fungicides, staking plants, destruction of crop debris by burning, crop rotation and use of resistant or tolerant varieties.
“The plants are shallow rooted, therefore, hand weeding is practised to prevent root damage. The major diseases include powdery mildews, which occurs as a white powder on the leaves, leaf spots, downy mildew and rust,” says Mutua.