Missouri National Guard members again headed to help Afghan farmers

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 | 4:57 p.m. CDT; updated 5:07 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 30, 2008

For the second time in just over a year, a group from the Missouri National Guard will go to Afghanistan to help farmers learn advanced agricultural practices to improve food production.

A contingent of 64 Guard members, Missouri's second agribusiness development team, leaves today for premobilization training in Nevada, Mo.

"Ultimately the goal is to help the agriculture industry in the Jalalabad area help make their lives easier and more productive," said Capt. Tammy Spicer, a spokeswoman for the Missouri National Guard.

The Guard hopes to send the second team overseas before the end of the year. The new team will replace the current team of 50 Guard members, who will stay in Jalalabad until the second team arrives.

Sometime in early November, the team will head to Camp Atterbury in Indiana to continue its training.

"That number could become smaller depending on how the training process goes," Spicer said.

 A drought and the continued war in Afghanistan have made it difficult for local farmers to raise crops on land that is barely appropriate for farming. This has led to concerns about a food shortage this winter.

Only about 15 percent of Afghanistan's land is arable, and only 6 percent of that land is actually cultivated, said Manjula Nathan, a plant sciences professor at MU.

The agribusiness development team, however, is not responding directly to a particular crisis.

"I think our program is a little more strategic than a specific food shortage for this winter," said Lt. Col. David Boyle, the team's commander.

The program is more long-term, he said. Sending Missouri's  agribusiness team to Afghanistan to help develop a wide range of agricultural practices will prepare the country for potential problems in the future.

About 10 members of the team are administrative managers, 12 are agriculture specialists and the rest are security personnel "because we are in the middle of a war," Spicer said. 

Maj. Timothy Hartman, a large-animal specialist with extensive farming experience, worked with the Afghan army during his deployment from 2004 to 2005.

"There wasn't a lot of progress made with the average Afghan," he said. "That's my goal, to help the average farmer or businessman to improve the country. That would alleviate a lot of security issues and take away from Taliban influence."

Maj. Denise Wilkenson, the team's executive officer, has worked with livestock and has a blend of business and agriculture experience.

"Because we are in Missouri, most people have some agriculture in their backgrounds," Spicer said. Even those designated as security personnel have some experience with farming and livestock. 

Boyle emphasized a connection with the community back in Missouri.

"If we tap the resources in our community, we can begin to expand an enduring mission to develop the agriculture industry in Afghanistan," he said. The unit's goal is ultimately to establish a partnership between Missouri and the Nangarhar province.

An important objective of this mission is to "make sure each and every one of our soldiers return to their families," Boyle said.

The first team was deployed to Afghanistan last November and has been working with the Afghan people to improve irrigation, food storage and slaughterhouse practices.

The pilot program was originally developed in conjunction with the National Guard, MU and the Missouri Farm Bureau. A mix of agriculture experts and security personnel began working with Afghanistan's Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation & Livestock to make Jalalabad, which is near the Pakistan border, a more technologically advanced and productive agricultural region.

The first team has also specifically introduced Afghanistan to new methods and technology, including solar wells for irrigation, sustainable alternatives to current subsistence farming methods and solar power as an electricity alternative.

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