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NEWS | Oct. 27, 2010

Guard's agribusiness teams work to provide sustainability

By Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy, National Guard Bureau

WASHINGTON, - No matter the size of the project, the ultimate goal of the National Guard's Agribusiness Development Teams is to increase the sustainability of the Afghan people, two Nebraska Army Guard members told attendees here at the annual conference of the Association of the U.S. Army on Oct. 25.

Master Sgt. Colin Jones and Staff Sgt. William Jones deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 as part of the third ADT to deploy.

ADTs are composed of National Guard members, who come from a variety of military skill sets. However, the core of the team is composed of servicemembers, who on the civilian side draw from a multitude of agriculture-related fields and expertise.

While they were the third team to deploy overall, they were the first such team in many of the provinces they worked in, said Master Sgt. Jones.

Because they were first in those areas, initially there were more questions than answers.

"When we arrived in Bagram (Air Base), we were not really sure of what we were going to do," said Master Sgt. Jones. "We had an idea of what we were going to do in country, but making contacts with everyone when you're going into it blindly, especially a mission as important as the one we were, (was daunting.)"

Initially, the teams contacted outside agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Master Sgt. Jones.

Through those agencies they were put in contact with local leaders and village elders.

"We had to meet with the key (local) leaders to find out what their true needs were and what we needed to do to meet those needs," said Staff Sgt. Jones.

Because the team was responsible for an area roughly 10,000 square miles in size, said Master Sgt. Jones, those needs varied throughout each of the four provinces the team was responsible for.

Once it was established what the needs of local farmers and leaders were, figuring out what projects were needed and where to start was the next hurdle.

"Getting projects underway, as we found out right off the bat, was rather daunting," said Master Sgt. Jones. "Anything on a smaller scale of about $2,500 or less, a small impact project, we could conduct pretty easily."

With larger scale projects, said Master Sgt. Jones, that meant the green light need to come from higher up, with some needing approval from the division commander level.

But, the projects all had one large goal behind them, which was to" increase some kind of sustainability for the Afghan people themselves," said Master Sgt. Jones.

Farming techniques, however, differed widely between Nebraska and Afghanistan.

"During our initial assessment, we had to figure out how the Afghan people were working their land," said Master Sgt. Jones. "Most villagers will plow their fields with a single-bottom plow and two ox.

"Honestly, my grandmother told me about this stuff for years and years. You know what, when I saw this, I called my grandmother, who is 99 years old, and said I totally understand now."

However, said Master Sgt. Jones, just because the technology was dated didn't mean it was a bad thing. It just required the team to adapt other farming techniques to the way the local farmers worked.

"The thing we had to understand was, this is actually working," said Master Sgt. Jones. "What we decided to do was we were going to complement what these farmers are doing already. They're working the ground, but instead of bringing in a big John Deere four-wheel-drive tractor with an eight-row planter, insecticide, fertilizer boxes and all that sort of stuff, you've got to do something that complements what they have."

That meant working with animal-driven farm implements as well as introducing different crops into the area.

"We did some fruit tree re-establishment in the area," said Staff Sgt. Jones, adding that include apricots and almonds as well. "Those were very big projects that were making (local farmers) a lot of money. They either were transporting it and marketing it out t o (other countries) or they were selling it in the local villages."

Farmers also were introduced to different ways of growing crops in order to achieve greater yields.

"Grape vineyards were another big project that we ran there," said Staff Sgt. Jones. "The best grapes and raisins I've ever eaten was in Afghanistan. But, we had to teach them how to properly raise grapes. The first grape field that we saw they were all on the ground, so we had to come up with trellising projects."

Some projects the team took on alleviated other issues not related to agriculture.

Excess grain and crops were often stored in the homes of the local farmers, said Master Sgt. Jones, and when space ran out there often local schools were used.

"More than once, and I couldn't believe it myself, but as we were cruising around the countryside you'd see all these chairs sitting outside of school lined up nice and pretty, dress right dress, and that's where they conducted their classes," said Master Sgt. Jones.

Grain bins were donated by Nebraska farmers and then shipped to Afghanistan. Once in Afghanistan, however, security concerns prevented the Soldiers from assembling the bins.

As a way around that, and to pass on other skills, local farmers were taught how to assemble the bins.

"There is a process to put these things together correctly," said Master Sgt. Jones. "We were able to get classes conducted and then they went out into these regions and set these grain bins up."

In the end, though, the Soldiers often learned just as much from the local farmers and left with a new appreciation for working the land.

"These are smart people," said Master Sgt. Jones. "They can take nothing and build something. It was great working with them."