War on Terrorism

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wisconsin National Guard tasked with aiding Afghan farmers

July 12, 2010

The Wisconsin National Guard is building an agribusiness development team to help farmers in Afghanistan improve their techniques and reap greater profits from legitimate crops - and hopes to enlist the aid of agricultural academics in Wisconsin to develop an Afghan-specific agriculture training program for this mission.

The National Guard has used the agribusiness development team concept successfully in Central America for the past two decades, drawing on the rich farming experience of many Guard members. The Guard brought the concept to Afghanistan in 2007. The initiative capitalizes on the skills of its Citizen Soldiers, employing them in a way that will allow a developing democracy a safer and more productive way of feeding its people. The concept also stays true to the image of the Concord Minuteman, with one hand on a musket and the other on a plow.

The teams consist of approximately 60 Soldiers and Airmen, some of whom will perform a security mission to allow the team to operate without relying on assistance from other military units in the area. The agricultural experts will focus on animal husbandry, water and soil conservation, horticulture, irrigation, storage, and distribution and agribusiness education. The team will also assess local farming practices and environments to determine the best strategies to assist Afghan farmers.

Col. Darrel Feucht, commander of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 64th Troop Command, will lead up the team, which is expected to deploy to Afghanistan within the next 18 to 30 months. Wisconsin Guard members with farming backgrounds have already been identified, and he will begin selecting volunteers to build his team.

In addition, Feucht plans to use the time before the deployment to establish a working partnership with universities, professional farming organizations, perhaps even the Future Farmers of America - what the military refers to as "reach-back" resources - in order to tap into that academic expertise as needed.

"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for the state, being one of the top agriculture states in the country," said Feucht, who earned an agricultural sciences degree in 1985. "It's something the people of Wisconsin can understand and appreciate - I think they will embrace this."

"Wisconsin is perfectly positioned, with our rich farming history, to provide the expertise and practical know-how to the farmers in Afghanistan that will help them succeed and make their nation prosperous and secure," Doyle said. "I know that our Wisconsin National Guard members and our academic agricultural experts can make a real difference."

More than 80 percent of Afghans work in agriculture, which accounts for about 45 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. However, since 1978 wars have cost the nation 40 percent of its irrigated farmland as well as a generation of farmers. Farming techniques are primitive by American standards, and the lack of refrigeration or pesticides limits the size and storage of harvests. To help counter this, other agricultural development teams have worked to include farming classes in Afghanistan schools.

Gen. Craig R. McKinley, National Guard Bureau chief, said agribusiness development teams are playing a significant, nonkinetic, soft-power role in Afghanistan. These teams that draw on the civilian-acquired skills of National Guard members to help Afghan farmers improve agricultural practices came out of an initiative from Missouri and now involve multiple states. "What [started] out to be an experiment now has turned into 12 teams," McKinley said. "The land grant universities from all over the Midwest are now eager to put these ... teams out into the remote areas of Afghanistan to help ... Just something as small as trellising a crop, getting it up off the ground, has produced crop loads in excess of anything they've ever seen before."

By helping transform farming into a successful livelihood in Afghanistan, military leaders hope that insurgent groups such as the Taliban will have less success recruiting new members. Improving the success of food crops may also diminish the appeal of growing opium.

Agribusiness development teams are one part of a broad agriculture strategy being implemented by the U.S. and Afghanistan governments as well as non-governmental organizations. The initiative will unite military, civilian and academia to bring the best farming and agricultural practices to a region of Afghanistan that could one day be considered the bread basket of that corner of the globe. To date, more than 1,000 National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have deployed in 18 agribusiness development team rotations.

The agribusiness development teams are similar in many aspects to the State Partnership Program, which has partnered state National Guard organizations with foreign militaries to exchange best practices and cultivate relationships. Wisconsin has such a relationship with Nicaragua. Even though the United States is still prosecuting a war in Afghanistan, the key to success for an agribusiness development team is to grow relationships with Afghan farmers. This means the Wisconsin team will train to bridge cultural differences in order to successfully interact with Afghan farmers. The goal is to help Afghan farmers identify local solutions to local agricultural problems.

Feucht said he hoped to maintain relationships with Afghan farmers after his team returns to Wisconsin. "This would plant a seed for follow-on programs," he explained.

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