A visit to Homabay County takes us to the lush terrain of Ringa village, Kasipul Kabondo Constituency where we meet Gabriel Ofuwa Oduor, a watermelon farmer, who briskly coined his melon farming as a lifelong success since 2012.
Equipped with thorough knowledge on cultivation of melons while working as an extension officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Oduor decided to give it a try on his one hectare piece of land. ‘’Most people in this region were cultivating maize and beans and I decided to grow something different and hence settled on watermelons as this climate befits their cultivation,’’ he said.
The land is dug to achieve a fine tilth before the seeds are sowed. Compost manure is mixed with phosphate fertilizer and added to the holes. He eventually covers the holes with 3 inches of top soil. This according to Oduor creates a bed with a high nitrogen soil base that is naturally warm.
He reveals that he settled on the Sukari F1 variety after conducting a research which variety thrives well in the region.
‘’Watermelons require plenty of space, I give the vines enough room to roam, which means I usually plant spacing them 60 centimeters between the plants and 2meters between the rows. After planting, I cover the seedlings with floating row covers to keep out insects and trap warm air near plants,’’ he averred.
Moreover, watermelon vines bear male and female flowers. Ones the first flowers appear and fall of shortly after opening, there is no need to be alarmed; they are later followed by female blossoms that appear in a weeks’ time. The female flowers have a small swelling at the base and stay on the vines to bear fruit.
‘’ I tackle weeds before the vines start to ramble because it is quite difficult to move among vines at a later stage without crushing them, ‘’Odour said.
In addition, water plays an important role in keeping vines healthy and producing delicious fruit. The Vines are most sensitive to drought during the time from planting to when fruits start to form. He waters his crops on the base of the crop avoiding overhead watering as this prevents possible outbreak of fungal diseases among wet foliage. The soil needs to be consistently moist, but not waterlogged as this kill plants. He always waters early in the morning and late in the evening.
For Oduor, he uses fertilizers with more nitrogen and less of phosphorus and potassium during the planting season. Once flowering begins, he uses reverses by using fertilizers with more phosphorus and potassium and less of nitrogen. He has incorporated bees as they assist in pollination.
The mouthwatering proceeds from the melons have made him glued to his farm. ‘’Seeds are very expensive but the returns are enormous, I used 24,000 last season on the seeds but I managed to get 300,000 shillings. All this in a period of four months,’’ Odour joyfully narrated.
“This season has not been good due to adverse weather changes but from my own calculation, I will rake 200,000 shillings,’’ he explained
Knowing how to determine when a watermelon is perfectly ripe is not easy. One way prefered by Odour is observing the tendril near to the melon stem. A tendril is a modified leaf or stem in the shape of slender, spirally coil. When it turns brown and dries up, the melon is ripe. Slapping and tapping or thumping are other common methods he uses to determine ripeness
Interestingly, he does not source for market for his produce. Buyers from Kibuye Market in Kisumu frequent his homestead inquiring to buy the melons. ‘’ I get phone calls from people as far as Nairobi and Mombasa willing to purchase at a higher price,’’ he pointed out.
However, there are challenges the farmer is grappling with, fungal diseases multiply rapidly on melon leaves, alternaria leaf spot, anthracnose, and gummy stem blight produce spots on leaves, while stem blight also forms bleached or tan sections on stems. Downy mildew causes yellow or pale green leaf spots, while powdery mildew produces white spots on leaves. He treats by spraying fungicides. ‘’ Beetles, aphids melon fly are some of the pest that give me headache. I do routine spraying to control them also,’’ he asserted.
Thieves are another nuisance he his dealing with, he has employed two security personnel to guard his crops at night while he guards during the day.
Optimally, the farmer has expanded his cultivation area from one hectare to two and half and he is targeting to venture also into hybrid Kales farming next year.