By Bethany Pint and Rod Swoboda
During a send-off ceremony at Camp Dodge north of Des Moines on July 1, Iowa Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge personally thanked the Iowa troops headed to Afghanistan for their sacrifice. The 60 members of the 734th Agribusiness Development Team of the Iowa National Guard are being deployed to Afghanistan to help Afghan farmers. The goal is to get the war-ravaged nation's food production system going again and to make it more productive and profitable for the Afghan farmers.
"While you make personal sacrifices, time away from your loved ones and putting yourself in harm's way, you will offer an incredible service to the Afghan people," Lt. Governor Judge said. "The agricultural expertise you have learned and honed over the years as well as the new training you have undergone is critical to food security in that war-weary region and it is an important step toward completion of the overall mission. As your former Secretary of Agriculture in Iowa, I know there is no one in the world better prepared to serve."
Judge told the families of the troops they will not be forgotten during the deployment. Earlier this year, the Iowa Legislature passed and Gov. Chet Culver signed legislation to make Iowa the first state in the country to act on all 10 of the Department of Defense recommendations on supporting deployed military members and their families. These include unemployment benefits for trailing spouses, child visitation rights, increased access to portable careers and educational benefits to military spouses.
Goal is to help Afghan farmers improve food producing methods
The Iowa team commander is Colonel Craig Bargfrede of Ankeny. "Our mission is to help Afghan farmers improve their farming methods in an effort to reduce rural poverty and raise farm incomes in that country," he explains.
The Iowa Air National Guard's 734th Agribusiness Development Team is made up of 60 Iowa Army National Guard and Iowa Air National Guard members who possess a wide variety of agricultural, construction, engineering and other skills. It is the first joint mission in the history of the Iowa Guard, says Bargfrede.
"We chose people with skill sets that could help with this mission," he adds. The Iowa team began training for this mission in January. This is one of the most critical missions in the U.S. effort in Afghanistan; to bring some modern agriculture and new techniques and some prosperity to rural Afghanistan.
The Iowa team has been engaged in very unique training
The Iowa team left Iowa on July 1, heading to Camp Atterbury in Indiana for its final training. "At Atterbury we will be completing our soldier readiness checks and training," says Bargfrede. "We'll then be ready to go to Afghanistan." He expects the Iowa unit to complete the training in Indiana in about 30 days. Probably sometime in early August the team will all be in Afghanistan.
The team has a lot of volunteers as part of the 60-member unit. "Pretty much the entire team was hand-picked as an all-volunteer force," notes Bargfrede. "They've been engaged in unique training this year."
Earlier this spring, the unit trained at Living History Farms on the edge of Des Moines and then at Iowa State University at Ames. "The training at Living History Farms was excellent, as was ISU's training," he says. "At Living History Farms we learned how to use farming methods that were used many years ago in the United States. We went back in time and learned about hand-labor and labor intensive methods of farming. That includes such things as how to lead oxen to plow and do fieldwork. Hitching draft horses, driving horses; those types of techniques that aren't used by modern farmers in Iowa anymore."
Technology in Afghanistan is limited; it'll be a step back in time
Is that what the Iowa unit will be working with in Afghanistan? Horses? Oxen? Will it be that level of agriculture? Pretty primitive compared to today's modern farming methods? "The technology in Afghanistan is very limited," says Bargfrede. "So it is basically stepping back in time, farming smaller plots of ground, doing a lot by hand and doing labor intensive farming."
Are the Iowa soldiers taking any seed with them? No, they aren't going to introduce biotech seeds to Afghan farmers, says Bargfrede. However, Bargfrede himself is taking a little sweet corn seed with him, planning to raise a patch of good old Iowa sweet corn to share with some of the Afghan people.
Once in Afghanistan, the Iowa team will take over for a team from California that has been in Afghanistan for much of the past year engaged in ag development efforts. The team from California has been in Afghanistan since September and has gotten the program started. They've already made contacts with many of the district ag officials in Afghanistan and have started working on a number of different projects. "We will be completing those projects," says Bargfrede.
What types of crops will the Iowans help Afghan farmers grow?
The primary crop in that area is wheat. "So we'll be focused primarily on helping them do a better job of growing wheat and improving their wheat yields," he says. "Afghan farmers also have a number of fruits and vegetables they grow in the area we are going to. Some of the best apples that you'll ever eat, for example are grown there. Pomegranates are another good crop they grow in Afghanistan. In addition to helping them improve their orchard management, we will be getting poultry projects started. That's a goal of ours on the livestock side, establishing small scale poultry enterprises with the villagers. That seems to have been very successful with them so far."
The idea is to get the Afghans to grow some higher value crops and improve their livestock and crop profitability, so the farmers in that country will quit producing so many poppies which are used for narcotics; certainly a "high value" crop. "The Afghan farmers are very good at growing wheat, apples and orchard types of food crops," says Bargfrede. "Their biggest challenge comes with storage and marketing. That's another area that we will continue to address and see what we can do to help them develop and improve their storage and marketing of the crops and livestock they produce."
That effort ties into one of the other areas the team has focused on during it's training this year in Iowa. Some members of the Iowa team visited and worked with the Amish community farmers in northeast Iowa. "We learned a lot from the Amish, including techniques and procedures such as how to build and use root cellars to store produce," says Bargfrede.