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National Guard farmer-soldiers helping ag development efforts in Afghanistan

2012_0808_Afghanistan
Army 1st. Lt. Andrew Webster, project manager for the Kansas National Guard Agribusiness Development Team, and Ismail Dawlatzai, Afghanistan's director of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock, distribute fruit bearing trees at the Alingar Agriculture Extension Center in February. Around 2,400 saplings were given to approximately 200 elders from villages around the district. (Army National Guard/Spc. Leslie Goble)


By KIM de BOURBON

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — American farmer-soldiers are making a small difference in Afghanistan, part of the National Guard’s agricultural development efforts in the war-torn country since 2007, Air Force Capt. Peter Shinn told those attending an Agriculture Media Summit luncheon here on Tuesday.

Peter Shinn

Capt. Peter Shinn
“Agriculture is absolutely vital to stabilizing the Afghanistan economy and security,” said Shinn, noting that 75 to 80 percent of the economy there is farm-driven. “When people don’t have enough to eat, the result is conflict.”

Shinn, public affairs officer with the 734th Agribusiness Development Team of the Iowa Air Force National Guard, spent almost a year in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. He is a former Nebraska-based Brownfield Ag News radio broadcaster.

Volunteer Army and Air Force National Guard teams of farmers and ranchers, soil specialists, veterinarians, construction and watershed management experts from more than a dozen rural states have been rotated in and out of Afghanistan as part of a group calling themselves “The Dirt Warriors,” he said. Each team includes a contingent of National Guard staffers and is assigned a security detail, which Shinn described as “four armored vehicles and 16 of your closest armed friends.”

National Guard units from Wisconsin, Mississippi and Kentucky are there now, he said, and a unit from South Carolina is getting ready to go. Missouri, Nebraska, Minnesota, Texas, Kansas, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina and Oklahoma are among the other states that have sent National Guard ag teams.

The teams work with local governments to help them set up demonstration farms, vaccinate livestock, plant trees, and provide training to farmers.

“Tying local experts to the local farms is key,” Shinn said, noting a disconnect and distrust in Afghanistan between the populace and what has been an uncertain and unstable government.

Only about 12 percent of the land there is arable, Shinn said. Wheat and corn are the staple crops, with fruits, nuts and wine grapes also important. Goats, sheep and cattle are viewed as a source of wealth, with the average farm only about one acre.

Among the challenges are depleted, sandy soil, a lack of refrigeration and infrastructure, the absence of sanitary standards, and the fact that women – who are in charge of caring for a family’s livestock – are prohibited from leaving home on their own and getting educated. The Guard uses female soldiers to engage local women whenever possible in its training efforts.

Veterinary outreach – making local veterinarians available for livestock vaccinations, for example – has proved valuable, Shinn said, as it helps build faith in the local government.

The team has also paid local citizens to clean out blocked canals to improve the flow of water, he said. Although paying people to do the work they would normally do on their own anyway seems odd, he said “cash for work” is an important tool in counterinsurgency efforts.

“Putting a shovel in their hand is better than the Taliban paying them $50 to put a rifle in their hand,” Shinn said.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is involved in Afghanistan’s agricultural development, he said, and among other efforts has distributed about 10,000 small tractors to farms that are largely unmechanized.

The long-term goal, Shinn said, is that the local village elders learn how to train their own.

“What we did is no match for what they needed,” Shinn acknowledged, noting that the need for electricity, running water, waste-water treatment, sewage systems, garbage collection and health care is “overwhelming.”

“I know we’re drawing down [troops], but there’s a lot left to do,” he said. “Still, I think we’ve been able to make a small difference there. They will never be a stable, prosperous ally without help.”

Asked what the long-term prospects were for actual change, Shinn said it ultimately will be a political decision. “Congress needs to take an interest,” he said.