Agricultural development team
working to boost Afghanistan’s crop yield
By James Warden, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Friday, April 17, 2009
BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Master Sgt. John Herron was
visiting a remote part of Afghanistan’s Panjshir
province when a group of children came running up to
him. That in itself wouldn’t be unusual, except that
he hadn’t been to this area before and the children
knew exactly who he worked for. They recognized the
ear of corn on his unit patch and knew immediately
that Herron and the other Nebraska farm boys he works
with were the American soldiers who’d been helping
Afghan farmers grow more food.
The corn on the National Guard unit patch is a
coincidence, but the Afghan children are right to see
the National Guard unit as the vanguard of an
initiative to boost Afghanistan’s food production.
Agriculture is the main source of income for the
majority of Afghans, yet it has so far received a
miniscule portion of the country’s development money.
Much of the money that has gone toward short-term or
unsustainable projects such as distribution of seeds,
tools, and fertilizer.
The Nebraska farm boys with Forward 28 Agribusiness
Development Team are part of the military’s effort to
change that. The Bagram-based team became the third
ADT to start work when it arrived in Afghanistan in
October, following teams from Missouri and Texas. The
five teams now in the country will grow to 11 teams by
the end of the summer.
The National Guardsmen bring with them
specialization beyond the usual advisory
qualifications. Everyone on the 51-member team
volunteered for the job, with the seven Guardsmen
serving as advisers all having some form of farming,
ranching or other agricultural know-how. One of them
is even a beekeeping expert.
Focus on the long term
Their military capabilities give them an ability to
move around the country without drawing manpower from
other units, while they have the technical knowledge
to proffer advice on the most complex subjects.
"We can actually sit down and talk about the
physiological makeup of a plant. I’m not sure they
teach that at the War College," said Master Sgt. Colin
Jones, the team’s top noncommissioned officer. Jones,
now a full-time Guardsman, was once a farmer and an
The team focuses on education and long-term
projects. A representative plan calls for teaching a
small group of Afghans how to spray for pests without
harming plants or helpful insects. The team will help
the Afghans for a season, but the focus will be on
teaching them to build a business that will pay for
itself in seasons to come.
Even direct agricultural help is more long term.
The unit has partnered with a nonprofit to distribute
10,000 cherry trees and 10,000 apricot trees, said
Herron. Along the way, they’re teaching the farmers
how to graft, so they can grow the orchards even
bigger. The project is predicted to quadruple the
income of participating farmers.
The Bagram team has so far spent a comparatively
modest $3 million because of its focus on doing only
sustainable projects. Team members say they could
easily spend $15 million if all they cared about was
"We could just go crazy," Jones said.
They face formidable difficulties, though. Afghan
farmers lack technology such as refrigeration that
allows American farmers to avoid dumping their product
on the market all at once, said Sgt. 1st Class Eldon
Kuntzelman. Pakistani buyers purchase Afghan produce
when it’s ready for harvest and store it in their own
country. When Afghanistan starts to run short of food
later in the season, the Pakistanis ship the produce
back to Afghanistan and sell it with a large markup.
‘Back in time’
"It is truly like stepping back in time," Jones
said. "The first guy I saw planting his field with
oxen and a plow, I wrote my grandma saying I knew what
she’s talking about."
Years of war have also prevented experienced
farmers and ranchers from teaching the best procedures
to the next generation. Vaccinations are haphazard.
Grapes are grown on the ground instead of on
trellises. Ranchers deworm cattle by digging a hole in
the ground, filling it with the medicine and walking
the cows through the solution — a process that
American ranchers a hundred years ago would recognize.
Kuntzelman said he’d consider it a success to help
the Afghans reach a 1930s level of proficiency. They
even plan to teach the Afghans to build simple,
pioneer-era root cellars to keep their produce fresh a
bit longer until permanent refrigeration facilities
can be built.
This isn’t a fast process. The fruit tree project
won’t produce cherries and apricots for two more
years. The farmers will plant wheat between the trees
in the meantime, but it’s not always easy convincing
people accustomed to the vagaries of war to plan for
the future. Livestock herders, for example, often
allow their animals to eat all the grass on the field
rather than leaving some of it to reseed the area for
"These people live for now; they don’t live for 10
years down the road," said Staff Sgt. Joe McMurtrey.
The team is also slowed by the area it covers. It
is responsible for Parwan, Panjshir, Kapisa and
Bamiyan provinces — the largest area among the ADTs.
This has forced them to focus on improving a
concentrated area and hope that subsequent teams
expand their efforts.
"In some aspects, they’re still trying to figure
out what to do with us," Jones said.
The challenges haven’t dampened the spirits of
these farm boys, though. They’re happy just to spend
their days sharing tips with Afghan farmers. "It’s
almost like hanging out with your buddies back home —
instead of having a beer, you’re having tea, or chai,"
Farming receives little aid
Agriculture is the main source of income for 70
percent of Afghans, according to Oxfam International,
an anti-poverty organization. But years of war have
cut the amount of irrigated land by 40 percent since
the Soviets invaded in 1979.
Huge portions of the population are vulnerable to
food shortages, while their heavy reliance on grains
means many have protein deficiencies. Meat is low
quality and many animals are underfed.
Despite these problems, agriculture has so far
received a miniscule portion of Afghanistan’s
development money. In January 2008, Oxfam estimated
that $300 million to $400 million of the $15 billion
in aid that Afghanistan received — a paltry 2 to 3
percent — went toward agriculture development.
At the same time, much of the money that was spent
went toward short-term or unsustainable projects such
as distribution of seeds, tools, and fertilizers,
according to a National Defense University study.