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Butternut squash farming in Kenya is an emerging economic crop in Kenya with ready market and high nutritional value.

Butternuts belong to the cucurbit family and are produced world-wide. They are frost- sensitive and grow best under warm conditions. Various forms and colours exist, the most common being pear-shaped with a tan skin colour. Plants have a vine-type habit and extensive root systems. Male and female flowers are separate, males being borne on long stalks, females being borne on shorter stalks much closer to the stem. Pollination, usually by bees is important for normal fruit development. Butternuts are increasingly used locally in place of pumpkins and are also becoming more important in processing and prepared foods.

Butternut squash farming in kenya 2023

PRODUCTION IN KENYA

In Kenya, the production of horticultural crops such as vegetables, forms an important source of income for smallholder farmers, who produce more than 70% of the crop output. Horticultural crop production has higher returns than most other cash crops, and is suitable for production both on small and marginal farms in varying climatic conditions. The horticultural industry (cut flowers, fruits, vegetables) is the fastest growing agricultural sub-sector in Kenya, contributing more than 10 % of total agricultural production.

The main vegetable crops grown by small-holder farmers for both subsistence and commercial purposes in Kenya include cabbages, tomatoes, onions and indigenous vegetables such as the African leafy vegetables (ALVs) like amaranth and some cucurbits. The common cucurbit species
include pumpkin, cucumber and courgette. In the recent past, there has been promotion of the production and consumption of butternut squash, as a nutritious crop especially for children and as a security crop for food insecure families. Butternut squash is an emerging economic crop with ready market and high nutritional value

DESCRIPTION OF BUTTERNUT SQUASH

Botany

Squash is a tender tendril-bearing and viny-like plant belonging to the family Cucurbitaceae of gourd family. The fruit is large and variable in shape, size, colour and markings with a peduncle that is large, soft and corky on the surface at maturity.

Roots

Rooting commonly occurs at the stem nodes, which may improve plant vigour. Adventitious roots are also commonly formed at its nodes.

Stem
It has a very course, prostrate or climbing annual, herbaceous vine, reaching a length of 4 m or more and flowering throughout the year. Some varieties produce tendrils that help secure vines, limit wind damage and improve vine growth across weedy and uneven ground.

Leaves

The leaves are broadly rounded and heart shaped. The leaf occurring at the node where a fruit is developing is called the “feeder” leaf because photosynthates from the leaf are preferentially translocated to the adjacent fruit. If present, tendrils indicate ripeness in mature squashes when they begin to brown.

Flowers

Flowers are erect, lemon yellow to deep orange in colour, about 12 cm long, the male flowers with longer peduncles than the female ones—15 to 30 cm in diameter. Flowers are generally large with separate male and female fl owers borne on the same plant (monoecious). Male fl owers form fi rst.

Seeds
Seeds are large (up to 3 cm long). Numerous seeds are embedded in the tissue of the placenta which lies at the centre of the fruit.

Fruit shape
Fruit varies in shape (fl attened, elongated, smooth, and ribbed) and size (0,25 to 6 kg or more). After pollination, fruit develops from the preformed ovary at the base of female flowers. The shape of the ovary prior to pollination is indicative of the mature fruit shape.

CLIMATIC REQUIREMENTS ON BUTTERNUT SQUASH FARMING

All cucurbits are warm-season crops. They grow best during hot weather and cannot tolerate frost.

Temperature

Squash can be grown in both the wet and dry season. It has been reported that environment can  have a marked influence on development and quality of the fruit. The optimum monthly average temperature for good growth is from about 180 C to 270 C.

Likewise, warm temperature and low relative humidity favour good fruit-setting development and quality of the fruit. Seeds will germinate at 15°C, but germinate best at 29°C to 32°C. Squashes grow best at temperatures of 23°C to 29°C (day) and 15°C to 21°C (night). Growth virtually stops at temperatures below 10°C and the plants may be severely damaged and maturity could be delayed by temperatures below 5°C for several days. Plants are usually killed by one hour or more of frost (temperature below 0°C).

Therefore, plant cucurbits in the field when soil temperatures are high enough for good germination and all chances of frost have passed. For early summer squash production, plastic mulch and/or row covers will raise soil temperatures and provide some frost protection.

Low temperatures also have an adverse effect on flowering and fruit set. Cucurbits are monoecious plants—that is, each plant produces both male and female flowers. Normally, several male flowers form before female flowers develop. During the periods of cool temperatures (below 22°C) most pumpkin and squash cultivars respond by producing primarily male flowers. Male flowers do not form fruit. By contrast, some cultivars of summer squash appear to form mostly female flowers in response to cool temperatures. However, without male flowers to provide pollen the female flowers do not form fruit.

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SOIL REQUIREMENTS ON BUTTERNUT SQUASH FARMING

Site and soil

It thrives on many types of soil but it grows well on an organic-rich medium and is often found on compost or refuse heaps. A soil pH range of 5,6 to 6,5 is recommended. Squashes grow well on most well-drained soils. Sandy loams are ideal. They also grow well on clay soils, but harvesting is difficult when soils are wet and the fruit often becomes dirty and difficult to clean.

PROPAGATION OF BUTTERNUT SQUASH FARMING

Cucurbita is easily and almost exclusively propagated by seed. However, plants can be reproduced vegetatively via cuttings. Vegetative reproduction is generally not difficult, but ease of propagation is dependent on rooting conditions and plant health. Cuttings of one to three nodes from healthy, vigorous plants with a small feeder leaf will root readily in moist and well-drained media. Time to fruiting may be quicker from rooted cuttings than with plants generated from seed.

SOIL PREPARATION ON BUTTERNUT SQUASH FARMING

Squash can be grown with minimum tillage. Clear the area and dig holes at appropriate distances. In an open fi eld, a distance of 2 m to 3 m between hills is recommended. Field preparation for squash should be done by plowing twice and harrowing, then furrow the field at 2 m apart. Furrows are made with a native plow or machine tractor to a depth of 15 cm.

PLANTING

Planting period

Cucurbits are good rotational crops with other vegetables. Because they are usually grown for autumn harvest, they can be planted in late January or early February , and therefore fit in well in a planting schedule.

Spacing

Seed pumpkins and squashes with corn planters, using plates designed specifically for these crops, or with vacuum seeders. Plant seed 2,5 cm to 3,75 cm deep in moist soil.

Traditionally, medium-vined squashes and pumpkins are planted in rows 2 m to 2,5 m apart, with plants spaced 0,5 m to 0,6 m apart in rows. However, many growers use a 2 m x 2 m spacing to allow for cross-cultivation. Where late season application of pesticides is anticipated, leave spray and harvest aisles. For larger varieties with fruit-size expectations of 9 kg or more, plants require a minimum of 3 m2 to 3,6 m2 each. Overcrowding stresses plants, creating smaller fruit size.

In addition to fruit set problems, close spacing causes vine growth to become “airborne”—meaning that vines that would normally root in the soil at the nodes will not be able to do so as the vine growth is not situated along the soil surface where it belongs.

The volume of seed needed per hectare varies with type, cultivar and spacing. Largeseeded cultivars most pumpkins and squashes require 0,5 kg to1 kg of seed per hectare. For larger-sized varieties, there are approximately 6 600 seeds per kilogramme.

Transplanting

Transplants should be grown in large 8 cm cells or containers. The roots should not be disturbed at transplanting. Summer squash tends to develop female flowers before male flowers, especially during cool weather. The fruit enlarges for a short time and then aborts. This is a concern of growers, but it remedies itself once growing conditions become favourable.

Transplanting is also recommended, especially for F1 varieties. Sow seeds in the seedbed and prick individually in the pot-let. Transplanting is done 3 weeks after sowing. Incorporate animal manure and other compost materials into the soil to improve soil structure.

Seeding rate

To plant a hectare needs about 2 to 4 kg of good seeds. Squashes are directly planted at the rate of 2 to 5 seeds per hill, with a space of 2 m to 3 m between rows and 1 m between hills.

FERTILISATION ON BUTTERNUT SQUASH FARMING

Field fertilization

The rate of fertilizer depends on soil analysis. For general recommendation, fertilise at planting time, early vegetal growth, flowering and fruiting stages. Apply four (4) bags of complete fertiliser at planting time ( band placement) together with animal manure. It must be mixed will the soil at the rate of 1 to 2 kg per hill, respectively. As the runners are about 30 cm long (approximately 2 to 3 weeks after planting), side-dress with 3 bags of urea (45-0-0) at the rate of 1 to 2 tablespoons per plant.

When the vine of the plant reaches 90 cm (1 month after planting), side-dress 1 bag of muriate of potash (0-0-60) in 1 to 2 tbsp per plant. Additional urea and potash may be applied every 15 days whenever necessary.

IRRIGATION

Vine crops (like squash) require an abundant supply of moisture for their maximum plant and fruit development. Although it is tolerant to drought, regular irrigation during dry seasons is highly recommended to obtain a higher yield. Furrow irrigation ofthe field should be applied after every 7 to10 day interval, especially during the critical stages such as at planting, vegetative, flowering and early productive stages.

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Do not irrigate when the fruit is already mature. Squashes are relatively deep rooted (1,2 to 1,8 m) and can tolerate dry conditions fairly well. However, extended dry periods will result in poor fruit set and/or poor fruit development and size. Plants tolerate wet conditions fairly well, but foliar diseases and fruit rots increase. Plants also form adventitious roots at the notes and these help with water uptake.

Pumpkins and butternut squashes are usually grown without irrigation, but it is a great benefit if irrigation is available. If it is available, apply 2,5 cm to 3,75 cm of water per week during flowering  and fruit development.

WEED CONTROL

The most common methods of weeding and cultivation are hand pulling and hoeing. Cultivation starts when the plants are two weeks old in order to control weed growth. Use an animal-drawn plow to lessen the cost of weeding. Shallow cultivation is necessary before the vines cover the  around to keep the soil in good tilth, moist and free from weeds.

Control weeds through frequent, shallow cultivation. Although pumpkins and squash are deep rooted, most roots are near the surface. Deep cultivation is very harmful, destroying many of the fi ne roots near the soil surface. Hand-weeding and hoeing are usually required. As the plants cover the ground, they shade out many weeds.

OTHER CULTIVATIONS PRACTICES OF BUTTERNUT SQUASH FARMING

Mulching

Mulching can be rice straw, grass clippings and plastic to minimise weeds and to maintain adequate soil moisture. It is spread on the surface of the ground around the plants.

Thinning

One week after emergence, weak seedlings are thinned out and only two healthy seedlings are allowed to grow.

HARVESTING Butternut squash

Premature harvest of the crop reduces its fruit quality; hence, harvesting should be done at the right stage.

Butternut squash are not harvested until they are fully ripe and the skins are hard. They are either pulled or cut from the vine with a part of the stem attached to the fruit; removal of the stem leaves an injury through which decay organisms may enter. When gathering squashes or pumpkins for storage, careful handling is needed to avoid bruising, as damaged fruit soon rots.

A Story Of A Successful Butternut Farmer In Kenya – Ruth Wangari,

Butternut Squash Farming in Kenya  is not a walk in the park and there are times it gets too hot to handle. Despite the challenges, the secret is to soldier on. One farmer knows this too well. Ruth Wangari, a butternut farmer in Lanet has been in the business for the past two years and she has seen the good and bad times.

Market prices of Butternut squash

Since she started, market has been an issue but somehow she survives. Marketing the produce remains the main challenge for her and other farmers as middlemen fleece them.

Farm gate prices of Butternut squash in Nakuru range between Sh8 and Sh10 per kilo and may drop depending on the distance from the available markets.

Direct marketing

“I once tried to directly supply the produce to the market only to encounter a roadblock. Traders have specific brokers who supply them giving them an edge over the farmers. I had to sell my produce at a throw away price,” she says.

At the moment, Wangari has over one tonne of the fruits at her store and she is waiting for prices to improve before she can sell. But even as she waits, her biggest concern is continued loss of weight.

“I now sell in small quantities to residents at a slightly lower price with an aim of clearing my store. It is my hope that the market demand will shift in favour of the farmers before they go bad,” she said.

Her story is similar to that of other butternut farmers in Solai, Subukia Sub County where Butternut squash is grown by many.

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Market issues aside, Wangari says she has stuck with butternuts because they are a fairly easy crop to grow. She grows the crop on her one acre farm. Her farm is fertile and there was no need for fertiliser from the onset.

“All the expenses I incurred add up to at least Sh20,000 from planting to harvesting. Land preparation and labour constituted the largest portion of the expenses,” says Wangari.

How she did it

There are two varieties of butternut squash that farmers can plant — Waltham and Atlas F1. Waltham variety matures 90 to 100 days after transplanting and can yield five to six tonnes per acre. Atlas F1 variety when mature yields fruits weighing two to three kilos each with potential yields of 12 to 18 tonnes per acre.

After ploughing, the seeds are planted in holes between a metre and 1.5 metres apart to give room for runners on which the flowers and fruits will be produced.

“Some runners produce three to five fruits and the first harvest is usually the peak of the crop. It takes three months for the crop to mature,” says Wangari.

Butternut squash are naturally disease resistant but the most common disease is gummy stem.

“I rarely use chemicals unless I see signs of disease. My crops were attacked once but with the assistance of an agricultural officer I managed the situation.”

How she did it

The disease also reduces the period which the affected fruits can be stored.

Wangari adds that the productivity of Butternut squash mainly depends of the leaf area with those producing smaller fruits producing more fruits.

“I have tried both the smaller fruits and the larger fruits but the tonnage is almost similar. It however depends on the size of the leaves that make the food to be stored in the fruits,” says Wangari.

The crop takes three months to mature. Wangari harvests between two and three tonnes per season translating to between Sh20,000 and Sh30,000.

“The harvest reduces in subsequent seasons. If taken care of properly, one can harvest from the same crop up to five times or even more,” says Wangari.

Crop expert’s take

Egerton University’s crop protection officer, Lillian Jeptanui says Butternut squash farming in Kenya requires proper understanding of the market conditions just like for any other horticultural crops.

“Butternut squash are a high value crop and perishable. After two weeks of harvesting they start losing value. Within a month of storage, they go bad. Owing to this short shelf life, farmers should ensure they do proper market survey to avoid post-harvest losses,” notes Jeptanui.

Increase shelf life

To prolong shelf life, Ms Jeptanui recommends harvesting at the correct time, proper cleaning and sorting of the fruits and ensuring part of the stem is still attached to the fruit.

“When harvesting at least two inches of the stem should remain intact to the fruit for it to be stored longer. Those bruised, cut or have their stem removed should be eaten as soon as possible since they can’t be properly stored.”

The butternuts are a rich source of nutrients especially for children. Adults also consume them in chapati, porridge and some people grind their seeds for medicine.

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