By Army Sgt. David Turner
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 8, 2008 - When soldiers of 6th Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment, began inspecting chicken coops in Hawr Rajab, Iraq, in December, they found munitions caches and bomb-making materials instead of poultry. Al-Qaida in Iraq fighters terrorized the residents of this community south of Baghdad, destroying buildings, stealing feed and killing livestock.
Although peace has largely returned to the area, agriculture -- the main source of employment for local residents -- is struggling to recover. With help from soldiers of 6-8th Cavalry Regiment and the U.S. Department of State's Baghdad-7 Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team, farmers here are hopeful that prosperity will return.
Members of the embedded PRT and 6-8th Cavalry Regiment soldiers distributed more than 13,000 egg-laying hen chicks to 10 poultry farmers in the Hawr Rajab area May 6 with the aim of providing a more sustainable income for the area's largely family-based farms.
Mike Stevens, the embedded PRT's agricultural advisor, estimated that the delivery created 40 new jobs. He credits soldiers with the program's success so far.
"All I had to do was line up a plan to get the chicks out to the farmers," he said. "The [soldiers] risked their lives to recon these chicken coops," Stevens said.
The program to restore Hawr Rajab's poultry industry began with micro-grants to help farmers refurbish their damaged coops. The embedded PRT distributed 3,000 chicks to area farmers in April.
Prices for poultry products have been inflated here recently, with local residents relying on Baghdad markets for meat and eggs. Stevens said he reduced prices for meat and eggs in local markets would be a measure of success for the program.
Besides lower prices and higher employment for local residents, the greatest benefit to farmers is a better working relationship with their government, Stevens said.
"This is all part of the membership drive that began with seed and plastic distribution. It's a way of encouraging [citizens] to pay dues to get into the farmers union," he said.
The embedded PRT helped form local farmers unions as a way of restoring farmers' connections with the government, Stevens explained. Plans call for providing agribusiness training to teach farmers how to use their money wisely, giving them greater buying power.
Stevens worked with the Iraqi Agriculture Ministry to get the program off the ground. The ministry provides vaccinations for the chicks and, in turn, looks to the embedded PRT and soldiers in the area to help farmers in the short term.
Stevens said one farmer who received the chicks, Kaleed Jasim, reminded him of his job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"He said it was very nice to see farmers focused again in Hawr Rajab," Stevens said. "He's kind of like me back home. If something happens, I worry about my farmers, and you could tell he's worried about his farmers." Jasim worked for the Agriculture Ministry during Saddam Hussein's regime.
"He will be able to employ people with this business and provide employment to the industry he loves: agriculture," Stevens said.
The 6-8th Cavalry Regiment is operationally attached to the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team from Fort Stewart, Ga.
(Army Sgt. David Turner serves in the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)