Soldiers partner with USDA to improve Afghan agriculture

Sunday, April 01, 2012

In Afghanistan, agriculture is the culture.

Soldiers of the 401st Civil Affairs Battalion, an Army Reserve unit from Rochester, N.Y., are hoping to solidify their roles as cultural experts with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and some of America’s top agricultural universities.

"Civil Affairs is there to help them, to work with them, or draw them to resources they may not have had access to," Capt. Nathan Neuman, from Buffalo, N.Y., civil affairs team leader, said.

Neuman said he is optimistic this training will help his team provide real help to the Afghan population in Helmand Province when they deploy this summer.

Ryan Brewster, with the USDA’s fragile market economies division, said about a year ago, marines returning from Afghanistan came to the USDA and requested standardized training for people working in agriculture in Afghanistan.

That’s when the USDA developed ADAPT, or Afghanistan Pre-Deployment Agricultural Training.

The USDA hopes that by developing a unified agricultural solution for the nation, where 85-90 percent of its inhabitants are farmers, civil affairs teams can help improve the economy and livelihoods of many Afghans, as well as build trust and confidence in the Afghan government.

The intense training takes place at California State University Fresno and is taught by professors who are not only experts in their field, but also have practical experience in Afghanistan and many other countries.

This iteration of the course brought together the 401st and marines from the 2nd Marine Civil Affairs Group, Camp Pendleton, to learn how to improve the Afghan way of farming.

The instructors are familiar with the Afghan way of farming, having seen it firsthand, and according to USDA officials that is a key contributing factor to the success of this course.

In the past, solutions have been short lived because they were unsustainable.

Hany Khalil, a professor at California Polytechnic with experience in Afghanistan, explained that simple western solutions – like water pumps for irrigation –seem like an easy fix at face value, but the reality is much different.

"They don’t have the spare parts, and when they break down they can’t fix them, and then you have all this equipment that we’ve bought rusting and no one is using them because it wasn’t a sustainable solution," Khalil, who has extensive experience in Afghanistan, said.

Khalil and his colleagues have been working together to create sustainable solutions for Afghans, which are tailored to each region of the country.

"They have to be Afghan solutions, it can’t be a U.S. solution," Khalil stressed.

Adding, "And, that’s a difficult task to do, because here we know what to do and it’s easy to assume everything on the ground is operational. It takes a lot of time to make the right interventions that will be sustainable in the long term."

By examining each region separately with a panel of subject matter experts who have first-hand experience there, identifying sustainable solutions for Afghan farmers becomes an easier proposition.

"Sometimes it’s using solar dryers, or introducing a different variety of vegetables or crops," Khalil said.

The instructors call these solutions "easy wins" because they can help the civil affairs teams earn some credibility.

Paul Sommers, the program manager for ADAPT, has 35 years of experience in 55 countries, including Afghanistan, and knows these civil affairs teams will need to earn the trust of the Afghans before they can even begin to hope to make change.

"Farmers all over the world may not know the latest computer applications, but they know their land, and they can tell right away if you know what you’re talking about or not," Sommers said.

The instructors showed the students that something as simple as using a chain link fence with a heavy chain on top will help till the soil, which will greatly increase the chances of seedlings sprouting, yielding a much larger harvest.

"The Afghan farmers are some of the poorest on earth in an unbelievably difficult farming environment. Finding little changes or tweaking something they already do can have big results for Afghans," Sommers added.

Whatever the specific solution may be, the training also emphasizes that civil affairs teams don’t necessarily have to be agricultural experts like the professors from whom they are learning.

A simple introduction to the wide gamut of already available resources will go a long way.

California may seem like an odd choice to host a training program which is focused on Afghan farming, but the number one fruit and vegetable producing state in the U.S. is closer to the war torn country than one might think, agriculturally speaking.

Fresno’s terrain mimics the Helmand Province area and Cal Poly in San Louis Obispo, simulates the more mountainous eastern regions of Afghanistan, explained Khalil.

"There are a lot of programs doing what we are doing across the country, but because California really simulates what goes on in Afghanistan, I think we have a huge advantage in terms of showing them the practical components.

"While the lecture components may be very similar, being able to go out into the field into conditions which are very similar to Afghanistan, I feel, gives us the upper hand in this kind of training," said Khalil.

According to Neuman, the hands-on training has been greatly appreciated by the 401st Civil Affairs teams.

"I think most Americans in the military and in general, don’t have agricultural experience. I know I don’t," he said

Adding, "Getting us hands-on training really helps to cement this into us."