August 04, 2010

SIUC will train soldiers to assist Afghan farmers

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Roughly 60 soldiers headed to Afghanistan next spring will focus on farming, not fighting, after getting some hands-on training at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

The newly formed Illinois Army National Guard Agriculture Development Team will learn about animal health, nutrition and handling; soil quality and testing; basic crop production; and forages and vegetables suitable for Afghanistan in workshops set for Aug. 17 and 18 at the University’s farms. They will use this knowledge to help farmers in the largely rural, border province of Kunar in northeastern Afghanistan.

Media Advisory

Reporters may talk with Col. Fred W. Allen, commander of the Agriculture Development Team, and SIUC training organizer John W. Groninger, between 12:45 and 1:15 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 17, in the SIUC Student Center food court. Reporters are welcome to accompany the team to the workshop following the lunch break, set for 1:30 p.m. Those interested in attending the workshop only should be at the Student Center no later than 1:10 p.m. Those who wish to attend other sessions or who have questions about the training may contact Groninger at 618/967-7318.

“The National Guard has been sending agriculture teams around the world since the 1970s, but it’s new for Illinois -- we’re still recruiting people,” said 1st Lt. William D. “Dan” Clark, an SIUC graduate student in plant, soil and agricultural systems and the team’s planning and operations officer.

“In country, we will operate somewhat like an extension service, offering information and support for basic agronomic practices. It will be up to them whether they take it and run with it.”

Back in January, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that the administration had decided to make agriculture its top priority in Afghanistan.

“Typically, agriculture will employ 80 percent of the people while taking care of one of the essentials of life,” said Col. Fred W. Allen, Illinois team commander and in private life a Delavan native with a grain and livestock farm.

“That contributes to the overall strategic objective of having a stable government and a stable society, while making it harder for the insurgents to recruit.”

While most members of the new unit have expertise in some area of agriculture and previously have served overseas, the combination of agriculture and Afghanistan is new to them. That’s where SIUC’s College of Agricultural Sciences comes into play. College faculty members have been involved in a series of projects aimed at rebuilding Afghanistan’s agricultural sector since 2003.

“One of the things I have learned in Afghanistan is that it’s hard to anticipate what people will need and what you will have to do -- you are really operating without a playbook,” said workshop coordinator John W. Groninger, who, with forestry colleague Charles M. Ruffner, worked in Afghanistan last year with a National Guard agriculture team. (Read about that project here.)

“We hope these workshops will give them some degree of comfort about their ability to provide the resources that will help the Afghans rebuild.”

While the workshops will give team members basic information on a variety of topics, workshop instructors also will serve as a resource for the unit once it starts work.

“They can provide ‘reachback’ service so if the team runs into problems in country, we can either solve it ourselves or refer them to someone else who can,” Groninger said.

That ‘someone else’ might be closer than you’d think. SIUC’s current work in Afghanistan, a multi-university, cross-disciplinary project that aims to improve farming through better use of land and water, has produced a bumper crop of contacts within the country.

“This will allow us to link the unit up with people there -- not only Afghans but people from other countries working in Afghanistan on a long-term basis,” Groninger said.

The August workshops will be followed by a second set sometime before the team sets to work in Kunar next May.

“What I’d most like to see is that the units are able to hit the ground running and have realistic expectations of where they can accomplish the most good,” Groninger said.