HOW (NOT) TO BE A CUCUMBER FARMER
By Nurain Oladeji
So, you’ve decided to be a vegetable farmer. Great. You’ve made extensive research and arrived at one crop—cucumber, at least for starters. You’ve assessed the returns on investment and remarkably short seed sowing to reproductive growth interval. Many hybrid varieties start flowering under five weeks and you could make your first harvest before the sixth week runs out. You don’t have to wait too long before recouping production cost and start making profit. The prospect is so great the excitement could make you levitate. To accompany that excitement, let’s share a few practical things you might want to seriously consider and have a good grasp of. The list is not exhaustive, but, isn’t learning on the job the thrill of starting a business?
Consider starting small, whichever way you choose to define small. This primarily refers to land area. Depending on available resources, one should consider starting with a maximum of one acre. Even if one has acquired a larger piece of land, it is still advisable to start cultivation on a relatively manageable area. A plot or two should do in the case of limited resources. The whole idea is manageability of the impending volatility of operations. Unforeseen situations are best managed on a small scale, because, of course, there will be unforeseen challenges.
Pests and diseases are very real
Most high-yielding plants are usually the most susceptible to yield-limiting factors. Cucumber has several pests and diseases that could affect it at virtually every growth stage. There are soil-borne pests that could attack seeds and prevent them from germinating. Cut worms that can attack immediately after germination and sever the seed leaves, which usually results in death of plants. There are leaf-feeding insects that can infest the field and feast on the young cucumber leaves. There are higher animals as well to worry about: goat, sheep, cattle and rodents. Rodents can be particularly notorious during fruiting stage of cucumber, biting into fruits and rendering them unmarketable. And then, there are diseases. Fungi, virus and bacterial, mostly. Cucumber is especially susceptible to fungal infections, particularly downy mildew, powdery mildew and anthracnose. Fungal infections are extremely rampant during rainy season due to high humidity. Routine spraying of fungicides is a common practice in cucumber production. You don’t want to mess with fungi. Prevention is always better. Once plants are infested, they cannot be treated without already losing significant leaf tissues or entire plants, and of course, yield. No known variety is particularly resistant to these fungal infections, but many hybrids are tolerant.
Other crop management practices
These include the all-round activities that are directly intended to keep the crop at optimal performance during active growing period: weeding, nutrient supplement, water supply, etc.
First, cucumber is a drought-intolerant crop. Up to 70% of the fruits is made up of water. Water stress should be avoided at every stage of production. It is wise to ensure a perennial source of water. If the land belongs to you, consider sinking a bore hole or a well or even both. Vegetable production is more suited for off-seasons, and seasons are usually determined by rainfall. Also, in cucumber production, fungi attacks are minimal and easier to control during dry season when humidity is low.
Never overestimate your native soil fertility. Also, never apply fertilizer blindly. The philosophy of healthiness is key. Consider operations that would conserve soil fertility. If you can, get as much manure as possible—they are bulky and hard to transport, but they are worth the trouble. It is best to have applied manure at least one week before seed sowing. Considering that you will find yourself helpless against the use of many chemicals, whenever you can substitute chemicals for something more natural, please do. You may still need to add more chemical fertilizer, but if you’ve applied manure, the chemical fertilizers will be in little doses and for specific purposes, like potassium during fruiting period.
Of course, you know the virtues of staking in cucumber production. It is best to have it in place within the first three weeks, before the plants starts to grow vines and tendrils. With stakes, you can prevent most of your leaves and vines from touching the ground. And when fruits start to develop, they are likely to be kept off the ground. This will prevent perpetual wetness from which fungi can start to develop, also, it can keep them out of reach of rodents.
Weeds can be a real menace. It is not advisable to use herbicides at all on vegetable fields or fields intended for vegetable production because of the crops’ tenderness and susceptibility to even the residual effects of previously applied herbicides. If at all you must use herbicides, limit it only to the inter-bed’s pathways and away from the crops. If you can, use mulching materials. They are remarkably effective is supressing weeds and retaining soil moisture. Mulching can be done using plastic, rolled over the beds and perforated at points where seed where seeds would be sown; crop residues such as dry leaves, rice husk, etc. can also be used. (To read more on cucumber production,follow this link https://www.agriculturenigeria.com/farming-production/horticulture/cucumber )
You are one man
Never overestimate your invincibility. You will need a lot of help. Hire enough workers and make sure they do the exact things you need. Skilled labour is scarce, especially for beginners with very little capital, and one might be tempted to want to do everything by oneself. Activities such as staking and even spraying of fungicides could be done inappropriately by unskilled labour, with dire consequences. While planning, give labour serious consideration. In case of limited resources, you may consider hiring a fellow or two who have the temperament to learn, so you train them to do what you want, and over time, they’d be skilled enough to not make a mess of your field. It is wise to hire permanent workers or have an arrangement that will make them obliged to work for you whenever you need them. Labour availability has a habit of being suddenly scarce during desperate times, and virtually all operations in cucumber production are time-bound.
Run it like an actual business
In the end, it is what matters most, the sustainability of your venture. You need to look beyond “feeding the world” first and try to ensure your farm gets a good management in terms of your eventual balance sheet. There is the almost automatic notion of running it yourself because you own the business. There is no shame in it, you may not have the managerial skills your cucumber venture requires. If you can afford it, employ someone who is a more competent manager than you. If you feel you need one but can’t afford to hire, at least keep in mind that, for your business to grow, you would need to make provision for the effective day-to-day running of your business. Good management is essential to growth.
The endless question of logistics
While you are set to dive into this noble venture, be aware that the challenges faced by most regular individuals such as bad infrastructure including bad roads and road network, communication etc. will likely multiply in your case. Your farm will very likely be situated outside of town. Have an idea of the cumulative cost of going to your farm, movement of farm input, transportation of your produce, etc. These costs are not often seriously considered when making business plans, and their aggregation alone could startle you in the end. It would be great if a vehicle is at your disposal, it makes a lot of things easier. When you start harvesting, you will need to transport your produce multiple times within a week. Try to develop a system that works, or at least looks like it would work.
The wisdom of Aristotle
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not in an act, but a habit.” Aristotle.
Cucumber production, like production of every other vegetable crops and, indeed, other ventures in agriculture, have high potential for profit. There are, however, a lot that can be lost in challenges as a result of inexperience. Learn from these challenges, take notes, keep well-detailed farm records, visit other farms, read less success stories (you must have read a lot, otherwise you would not have seriously considered becoming a farmer), read stories of failures, of costly mistakes made by people in the past. Those who have achieved success in cucumber production have also made mistakes in the past. They might still be making some mistakes. Keep an eye out for these mistakes. They are often so random and at times incomprehensible that they are not easy to write about like success stories. Be sceptical. If your business must thrive, you must run it as a business, meaning you would have to follow the rivers in other to find the sea.
Most importantly, every now and then, when everything seems to be tumbling down and you are sure your cucumber production venture is doomed, grab a bottle of chilled Coca-Cola and be comforted in the knowledge that the world will still be here tomorrow.