War on Terrorism

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Wisconsin National Guard continues to aid Afghan farmers

By Tech. Sgt. Christopher Marasky
Provincial Reconstruction Team Kunar

KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan - As members of the International Security Assistance Force continue to help the Afghanistan government with stability and security, one key piece of terrain is the farmlands.

That's where members of Provincial Reconstruction Team Kunar's agricultural section, all members of the Wisconsin National Guard, come into play, as they use projects such as the 'demo farms' at the provincial and district level to teach Afghans new techniques for farming.

The Wisconsin National Guard's 82nd Agribusiness Development Team deployed to Afghanistan in early April 2012, and reorganized to become the agricultural section of Provincial Reconstruction Team Kunar in mid-May.

"A large portion of the people in Kunar are subsistence farmers, in that they live off the food they produce on their farms," said Maj. Fred Oehler, a native of Lodi, Wis. "Over 80 percent of the province relies directly on agriculture, the need to improve in that area is vital."

These farms are small plots of land in which the land owners agree to let the district and provincial leadership conduct training on, as well as to try, different farming techniques in an effort to spread the training throughout the province.

"These local land owners are opening up their farms to allow people to come and get some hands-on training," said Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Beron, a Foxborg, Wis., native. "We're showing people a number of different techniques, such as using green houses and intercropping, in order to show them more effective ways of farming, thus increasing yield and quality in the products."

In a country where the literacy rate is incredibly low, Beron said using projects such as the demo farms is of vital importance.

"Given the literacy rate, people can't really learn different farming techniques from books," he said. "So it's even more important that they have a location that they can learn these techniques with hands on experience to take back to their own farms."

Afghanistan has historically used demo farms in the past to teach farming techniques, according to Oehler.

"In talking with the District Extension Agents, we've been told that prior to the Soviet invasion in the '80s, demo farms were used by the Afghan people to teach farming techniques," he said.

Another area where the farms teach Afghan farmers improved techniques is in the pest management field, according to Staff Sgt. George Nagel, a native of Ogdensberg, Wis.

"One of the biggest challenges we face is that the farmers want a chemical solution to everything, much like we used in the U.S. back in the '40s and '50s," he said. "But there are a lot of problems that come with that, so we're teaching them natural solutions such as biological control and natural predators."

Due to the scarce resources in Afghanistan, pesticides are relatively scarce, something that forces the Afghan farmers to use natural solutions, Nagel said.

"While the lack of access to chemicals may be the cause, we're still seeing progress in their use of natural methods," he said. "As we've seen in the past, there are a lot of problems that go along with spraying a lot of chemicals on crops, so learning these natural techniques is definitely progress."

As with many of the projects the PRT is working on, much of the responsibility in the coming months will be transferred to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and the team is here to help with the transition, Oehler said.

"What we're stressing to them now is that we won't be supporting the demo farms financially in the future," he said. "But as we talk to the extension agents, we continue to stress their importance in teaching local farmers."

"We've seen a lot of success with increased productivity and increased prices for the produce at market using some of the techniques learned at the demo farms," Oehler said. "We're hoping that the government of Afghanistan will continue to use them as a platform for education in the future."

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