SHAR-E-SAFA, Afghanistan - When they arrived at the farm in September, the Mescal detachment of the Mississippi National Guard Agricultural Development Team 4 knew they had their work cut out for them. It appeared that the most abundant crops growing were weeds that nearly choked the modest enclosure located off the main road in Shar-e-safa, Afghanistan.
The farm was established as a demonstration farm intended for local farmers to learn improved agricultural practices. The Mississippi ADT quickly surmised that there wasn't much being taught by the jumbled mess they surveyed.
Two months later, young pomegranate trees stand in orderly rows, a pumpkin patch is ready for harvest and a field is ready to be prepared for a planting of winter wheat.
Staff Sgt. Dean Fennell, an agricultural specialist with the ADT, is interested in growing the wheat seed sold by the government of Afghanistan alongside the wheat seed that farmers typically buy from neighboring Pakistan. The question is whether the Afghan farmer hired to work at the demo farm is just as interested.
Even speaking through an interpreter, it's hard to miss the genuine interest Fennell shows in the proposed experiment. The idea is to plant both wheat at the same time and grow them side-by-side under the same conditions to see if there is a difference between the two.
Standing alongside the field they are to plant, Fennell and the farmer discuss the project. The Afghan farmer agrees. He, too, is interested in seeing the outcome.
Second Lt. Philip Cleek, officer in charge of the ADT's Mescal detachment in Zabul, attributes much of the change occurring on the farm to the trust his command has placed in the team's ability.
"The last team that was here wasn't really allowed to do anything," Cleek said. "Their command wouldn't let them, and the Afghans wouldn't do anything without help."
The Mescal ADT4 detachment is not afraid to get its collective hands dirty and willingly works alongside the Afghans in order to demonstrate proper agricultural techniques. But it's really up to the Afghan farmers to get the job done.
The operation of the farm's rotor-tiller is a good example of the Mescal detachment's style. After showing the Afghans some routine maintenance for the machine, Fennell pushes it out to the field, starts it up and begins turning over the earth. He easily makes three or four passes up and down the field's length before calling to the Afghan farmer.
Through an interpreter, Fennell explains how the tiller is used then hands it over to the farmer for his turn.
When the farmer takes the tiller, what had looked easy moments ago with Fennell at the controls now appears difficult as the farmer struggles to dig the blades into the earth. The machine is pushed out in front and the farmer, stretched out behind, leans heavily on the handles.
Fennell steps in to assist and the farmer quickly relinquishes control but Fennell shakes his head.
"You don't have to push so hard," Fennell says though the interpreter. "Let the machine do the work for you."
This type of hands-on approach appears to be paying off at the farm, but the other possible cause for the change at the farm is what some might call "tough love."
"We had a hard time when we first got here convincing them to work," Cleek said. "We had to fire some people."
Despite the seemingly rough start, the combination of methods is clearly working to produce a productive farm and interested farmers.
Before the ADT leaves for the day, one of the farmer's sons asks a question: Can he plant alfalfa after the pumpkin patch is cleared?
"He wants to plant stuff on his own?" Cleek clarifies with the translator.
The translator nods his head.
"Whoa," Cleek smiles, nodding at the young man.
It is the Pashto way of agreeing that the suggestion is a good idea.