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Agribusiness teams help Afghan farmers find simple solutions

WASHINGTON -- The National Guard's Agribusiness Development Teams are promoting sustainable farming practices in Afghanistan and are an innovative way for Guardmembers to use civilian-acquired skills in the region, a Guard official said today.

The teams, which started out with one team from Missouri, have evolved to roughly a dozen dispersed throughout Afghanistan, Army Col. Marty Leppert told an audience here at the annual convention of the Association of the United States Army. Leppert oversees the program for the director of the Army National Guard.

"These guys have just done incredible work in the last two-and-a-half years," Leppert said. They have stimulated Afghan agriculture, he said.

For the teams, that means engaging with local farmers and helping them to get past many of their challenges, such as water and infrastructure issues.

"Eighty percent of Afghanistan depends on agriculture for its livelihood," said Leppert. "So it's incredibly important that if we're going to attack all the challenges and ills that involve Afghanistan it's important that we attack agriculture as a need."

The big focus has been on education and building capability, he said. But the number one issue is water.

"In Afghanistan, where there is water there is life," he said. "Without it, you don't farm, you really don't live. We really focused on that when we built the teams."

The goal is not to teach how to farm, he said, but to expand those skills that Afghan farmers do have.

"They know how to (farm). They need someone to help them with the more scientific aspects of agriculture," said Leppert.

ADT members are able to draw from a variety of resources to provide those skills, including many agricultural schools. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also provided resources to the teams.

"We have a great interagency partnership now," said Leppert. "The current plan is to embed USDA associates with us right on our teams. They will be with us now as an integrated member of the team, and they'll go through the training with us at Camp Atterbury and mobilize with our guys downrange."

The ADTs are mainly focused in the central and northeastern regions of the country.

"There have been a lot of questions as to why we're not in (the southern part of Afghanistan), because that's where a lot of the poppy and marijuana is grown. I can assure you we're not interested in competing with poppy and marijuana head-to-head, we're interested in getting after the 'fence-sitter' farmers ... those are the guys we're trying to influence."

Growing grapes can compete with poppy for providing a prolonged source of income.

"You can trellis grapes and make 10 times the profit that you can with poppy," said Leppert. "You grow corn and wheat together and make 10 times the profit than you can with poppy, but you've got to show them how, and you have to get the water there at the right time, at the right place, with the right seed and the right fertilizer. That's where we come into play."

There also needs to be a market for those grapes and corn and wheat, he said.

"Now we have to figure out a way to sell (the crops), so we have marketers on the team to help develop markets," he said.

However, before those crops get to market they need to be harvested, or, in the case of farm animals, slaughtered. But there was a lack of clean slaughterhouses and that was something that the ADTs helped to develop.

Texas and Missouri ADTs developed clean and sanitary slaughter facilities powered by renewable energy sources, he said.

"We found mechanical engineers in the Guard, who are able to teach the Afghans how to build wind turbines and help produce power for these slaughter facilities," he said.

But some of the solutions haven't been as high-tech, like teaching Afghanis to trellis their crops.

"Grapes are incredibly important in Afghanistan - raisins and table grapes," he said. "They lose 50 percent of their crop due to mold and rot. Simply trellising, leveling the land and using trickle irrigation will bring about a 50 percent increase."

And in the end, that's the goal, he said, to find simple solutions to the challenges faced by farmers.

"We're looking to take (the Afghans) from somewhere where they're at to somewhere where they can sustain (themselves) providing Afghan solutions to Afghan problems," said Leppert.
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