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Counter-insurgency via farming

By Staff | Jun 4, 2010

Maj. Loren Adams, left, teams up Lt. Col. Dave Lewis as they work through the soil sampling exercise Tuesday at the ISU ag education center near Boone. Adams and Lewis are two of 60 National Guard members selected for the Agri-business Development Team that will deploy to Afghanistan later this summer.

BOONE – At the Field Extension Education Laboratory, operated by Iowa State University, a unique group of “students” on Tuesday learned about soil fertility and crop production.

This group takes the term of non-traditional student to a new level. The students are laser-focused. The attitude is all business. Instructors’ jokes earn little more than polite chuckles. The dress code is desert camouflage.

The students were members of the Iowa Air National Guard’s 734th Agri-Business Development Team, which is made up of more than 60 Iowa Army National Guard and Iowa Air National Guard members. They bring to the classroom a wide variety of agricultural, construction, engineering and other skills. They are scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan’s Khunar Province later this summer.

Their official mission statement is “to conduct agricultural development planning, assessment and support activities in Afghanistan that expand legal agriculture and agri-business, services, markets and education to reduce rural poverty, increase employment opportunities in agriculture services industries, improve agriculture education and strengthen Afghan government institutions.”

That translates into civilian jargon as helping Afghanistan farmers get better yields for their crops and improve livestock herd health, primarily goats, to be both self-sustaining and be profitable at the marketplace.

John Sawyer, an ISU agronomist, provides instructions to members of the Iowa National Guard for taking soil samples. The Guardsmen will serve as the Agri-business Development Team in Afghanistan, working with indigenous farmers.

“This is counter-insurgency,” said Capt. Peter Shinn, from New York State, who served as media liaison for the ag team. “We want to help them (farmers) be able to provide for themselves and not have to accept Taliban funds to shoot at troops.

“Plus we help them feed themselves and have something left over to sell. That’s one way to create security over there.”

An Iowa Guard first

According to Col. Craig Bargfrede, of Ankeny, who is the team’s commander, this is a first for the Iowa National Guard, in that members of Army and Air Guard units will be conducting a joint operation of this scope.

Bargfrede said he handpicked the 60 team members. ” I guess I take all the credit or the blame,” he said. Taking a list of objectives and projects to accomplish, Bargfrede said he matched up Guard personnel who had backgrounds in either farming, ag financing, animal husbandry, agronomy, weed and pest management, and ag business.

Col. Craig Bargfrede Commander, ADT

“Wheat is the center of gravity in Afghanistan,” Bargfrede said. “They harvest on average 19 bushels per acre. This is their staple for subsistance.

“At the end of the day, we hope to help them increase yield.”

On Tuesday, while reporters circled with cameras, microphones and note pads, the Guard members, none below the rank of sergeant major and most commissioned officers, were practicing taking soil samples in a demonstration plot of corn.

Master Sgt. Darla Sheasley, who lives in Everly, 10 miles west of Spencer, has a background as a veterinary technician. She’s an animal husbandry specialist for the team.

Lt. Scott Rottinghaus is a full time farmer near Waterloo. He raises hogs and grain – corn/soybean crop rotation. “I love farming and I love the Guard,” Rottinghaus said. “And I get to put both together.”

His team role is to help Afghan farmers with pest management. He said the task to help the indigenous farmers would be to help change their mindsets, within the context of their culture. Most farmers in Afghanistan, Rottinghaus said, maintain a wheat-wheat-corn rotation.

“They have no access to chemicals,” Rottinghaus said, “They do all their weeding by hand. And they have a lot of (grain) spoilage, because they have no on-farm storage.”

The team has a general sense of the issues they’ll be dealing with, but it’ll the role of Lt. Col. Dave Lewis, of North Liberty. Lewis, the team’s deputy commander, will be meeting with village elders and determining the specific issues to be addressed.

“But the big plan,” Lewis said, “is to improve their lives.”

Four-day training

ISU is handling the ADT’s field training, a process taking four days stretching through the remainder of the week, said coordinator Brent Pringnitz, an ISU program specialist. The course will cover hands-on demonstrations of basic crop and animal production practices most at the Field Extension Education Laboratory, a teaching and demonstration facility between Boone and Ames.

The training process also included some classroom instruction in April conducted by ISU Extension specialists in agriculture and life sciences and veterinary medicine.

“This is unique training experience for us,” Pringnitz said. “But I think it’s one that Extension is well suited for.” He said ISU is constantly asking how it can help farmers improve and overcome mindsets to reach that goal, which is exactly the challenge awaiting the Guardsmen in Afghanistan.

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, ext. 453 or by e-mail at kersh@farm-news.com.

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