By Army Sgt. Robert G. Cooper III
Special to American Forces Press Service
Feb. 12, 2009 - Civilian experts in economic growth who serve in the National Guard now can bring their select skills from the heartland to the front lines. National Guardsmen from seven states have volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan as specialized units with the singular purpose of jump-starting the country's agricultural economy.
The units, called agribusiness development teams, are a new breed of Army operations. Rather than focusing on combating terrorism with weapons, they focus on rebuilding Afghan trust in both their economy and in their government through agriculture, the country's chief industry.
Army Maj. Shawn Gardner, operations and training officer for Indiana's 1-19th Agribusiness Development Team, stressed the importance of agriculture when it comes to successful operations in Afghanistan.
"Agriculture sustains about 60 to 70 percent of the population of the country, so we won't have true security until the economic state is better repaired," Gardner said. "We'll start at the grassroots level, helping them maintain their agricultural baselines, and grow from there."
While the mission may sound simple, the concept of soldiers putting down weapons to pick up a plow is much deeper.
"The tactical mission is to help the local farmers learn to establish some farming techniques that have been lost through several generations of war, and with that, the strategic mission is to help them have a better understanding and appreciation of their provincial government," Gardner said.
To stimulate the Afghan economy through agricultural initiatives, the teams will have to start at the provincial level, Gardner said. The mission of the Indiana National Guard's 1-19th ADT focuses on Khowst province, historically an agricultural hub for fruit and nuts prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979.
Coupled with years of civil war and tribal fighting, the current state of agriculture exists only through one- to two-acre subsistence farms. Kevin McNamara, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, said the farms, offering barely enough for local communities to get by, are a stark contrast to what Americans consider farming to be.
"Afghan agriculture is completely different from Indiana, but the strong agricultural backgrounds of the individuals deploying is significant," McNamara said. "This mission speaks highly of [the soldiers who] volunteer to improve the lives of those in dire straits. Without this mission, we wouldn't be able to stabilize Afghanistan."
McNamara, a former Peace Corps member who has been to Afghanistan many times to assist in agricultural education, has been working with the 1-19th to provide training on some of the team's short- and long-term goals.
"Agriculture is the industry there," he said. "There isn't much else. Most people are poor there, so this agribusiness team approach will have a definite impact on improving and stabilizing their incomes."
The training was an outgrowth of a June meeting McNamara had with 1-19th ADT leaders.
"They were certainly excited about the opportunity of the deployment, but realized the challenges it presented," he said. "After speaking about challenges they would face, both cultural and technological, we developed training based on baseline information of current agriculture statistics in Afghanistan."
The statistics centered the training on small-enterprise farming and addressed soil fertility, wheat production, fruit production, forestry, animal husbandry and horticulture. The knowledge provided by Purdue's Department of International Agriculture focused on facets that McNamara said will have a direct impact on increasing not only production, but also the incomes of local farmers.
"We're hitting the issue of farming income, which is exciting," McNamara said. "That means more wheat to eat and more milk to drink. The more we increase their production, the more we increase their wealth and pull them from poverty."
The training also focused on Afghanistan's arid environment, which limits rainfall to mere inches per year.
"We had a session on pest management, where we looked to see how weeds and diseases are affecting crops, and we discussed what pests or diseases to look for and how to treat them," McNamara said. "Irrigation is also very important, but hard to work with, since the people don't have the education or financing to afford it. Our training gave a thorough overview on irrigation techniques that are relevant."
Purdue will continue to provide expert oversight during the deployment, McNamara said.
"We will have video teleconferencing capabilities and a reach-back system where we will have a full-time desk position that can provide answers in a quick fashion," he said.
Army Col. Brian Copes, 1-19th ADT commander, said the deployment will feature many initiatives designed both to educate Afghan farmers and to sustain the instruction his team will provide. In addition to joining forces with other U.S. departments such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the team also will conduct agriculture education and information operations through print and broadcast media.
Using a phrase he borrowed from Purdue, Copes calls the focus of the agriculture missions "post-production, post-harvest, value-added processing."
"It's a big, sexy term, but once you understand how to turn grapes to raisins, it becomes clear," he said. Copes related the phrase to teaching Afghan farmers how to trellis grapes, which are currently grown on the ground on most farms. Upon showing farmers how to increase grape production, the 1-19th soldiers then can show them how to streamline their storage capabilities, thus increasing the production of raisins.
Copes said he also plans to use programs from American youth education groups, such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America, to reach out to the Afghan's next generations of agriculturalists. The soldiers also will use high school agriculture courses taught by one of the team's leaders, who teaches the same curriculum at Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis. "We've got a curriculum already, but we need to begin adapting it to their cultural needs," Copes said.
According to the World Fact Book, nearly one in three Afghans can't read, so Copes said the team also has made plans for radio public service announcements on food safety and nutrition.
The ADT will work with Khowst University, one of Afghanistan's 15 universities. Copes said he and his deputy commander, Army Col. Cindra Chastain, met with the university's chancellor and vice chancellor last year.
"We had an early dialogue, and they warmly embraced the idea of a partnership with us. Our plans are to further develop three large greenhouses that have not been put into use there. We hope to figure out how to use them as a research facility. We will also utilize [about 200 acres] of university property to establish a demonstration farm."
Many challenges, most of them cultural, will be waiting for the team upon arrival, McNamara said.
"We've armed these soldiers with a good understanding on how to improve the situation there," he said. "But it won't be easy, and it won't be quick. There's a lot of potential, but this will probably be the hardest jobs these folks have ever had.
"The Afghan people will be reluctant to adopt changes they can't understand, because it puts family at risk," he continued. "There aren't banks or institutions that can support them. Understanding the production systems there and improving them will be their biggest challenge."
The mission's focus isn't on immediate gratification, Copes said.
"The reality is, I'm only going to be there for 10 months, but we don't know how long the U.S. will be there," he said. "We are planning for up to five rotations through Indiana, but that's up to the current administration. The knowledge and expertise we leave behind will be there long after our money and tractors go away."
(Army Sgt. Robert G. Cooper III serves at the Camp Atterbury, Ind., public affairs office.)