Rebuilding Agriculture in a War Zone
Afghanistan's Kunar Province, is a world away from the flat Midwestern Plains that Army Major Loren Adams calls home. Fresh out of vet school, Adams joined a practice in New Liberty, Iowa. By the year 2000, the then 40-year-old Adams decided to make a change. He joined the Army Reserve and soon was deployed around the world doing veterinary work.
"Our team worked with dogs, did food inspections for all the meals the military eats, and we were involved in civil affairs [working with civilians in war zones]," Adams explains.
He was the sole veterinarian with the 734th ADT that landed on Afghan soil in July 2010. Adams knew there was much to do. A previous Guard unit had begun work on vaccinating and worming animals in the area. "So I just tweaked the program, and we hired local vets and began work to educate them on the importance of vaccinations and food security," Adams says.
His daily routine varied. Adams started a rabies-prevention program that eventually vaccinated 1,400 dogs. He began speaking around the province, meeting with public health directors, veterinarians and students.
Other days found Adams conducting seminars on herd health, nutrition, surgical techniques and the importance of animal post-mortems. "We also treated thousands of animals [with vaccines and dewormers], ranging from sheep and cattle to dogs," he says.
The team's veterinary technician focused on start-up poultry businesses for Afghan women. Adams assisted her in educational seminars to teach basic animal health -- "simple veterinary techniques, how to treat for parasites and diseases," he says.
Adams found the Afghan veterinarians eager to learn, no matter where they were. One day he showed them how to neuter a dog from the back of a pickup truck.
The Iowa ADT team returned from the Kunar Province this past June. Despite the team's efforts, Adams left frustrated. "People there are so poor, they're just doing what they can to survive," he says.
But in an area mired in war, Adams still sees reason for optimism when it comes to veterinary advances. "I think back to America before automobiles, veterinarians largely took care of the horses," he says. "It wasn't that long ago that people started to recognize the importance of vaccinations, and vets began to take on a greater role in the U.S."
FARM AWAY FROM HOME
Scott Rottinghaus' 2010 crops were harvested without him. The 30-year-old farms 3,500 acres of corn and soybeans, and raises hogs, with his father and uncles outside Waterloo, Iowa.
But during this particular harvest, Rottinghaus was on the other side of the world teaching Afghans to farm. When Rottinghaus graduated from college and joined the National Guard in 2002, he never dreamed he'd combine agriculture with his military background.
The 734th ADT comprised 60 soldiers, 34 of whom were security forces. (Adams served on the team with Rottinghaus.) The unit was nicknamed the "Dirt Warriors" by their commander and trained with Iowa State University and Purdue University ag specialists.
He may have been thousands of miles from his Iowa farm, but Rottinghaus says he felt a world away when it came to farming innovations used in Afghanistan. "There are very few tractors, and they're usually lent from farm to farm in order to till the land," he says. "Everything is harvested by hand, and corn isn't planted in rows; the seed is simply scattered and then lightly tilled in."
Once there, "Our main goal was to set up demonstration farms in the districts we covered," says Rottinghaus, whose areas of expertise included production agriculture and pest management. "We showed the Afghans how to effectively grow wheat and corn to sustain themselves, and we worked with the local government officials to find land [and] set up farm plans and proper irrigation. We got a good plan set up."
Rottinghaus' team returned home in the summer of 2011. But as he goes about his daily farm chores, he says it's hard not to think about what he left behind in Afghanistan. "We made some good steps forward, but it's going to take a lot of time."
ONE LAST MISSION
U.S. Army Sergeant Major Lorn McKinzie had already put in his retirement papers. The Oklahoma native had spent his entire career as a military man—27 years, with a decade on active duty. But a job description piqued his interest.
"A job had come available with the 2-45th Agribusiness Development Team," McKinzie explains.
"I asked if I could pull my retirement letter. This was the way I wanted to go out."
The military may have been his calling, but agriculture was also in his blood. "You didn't grow up in Oklahoma if you didn't have some sort of ag background," he says. His father raised cattle, and McKinzie was brought up through the ranks of 4-H and FFA, later raising swine.
Prior to the team's deployment, they spent months preparing. Much of the training was spent with The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation of Ardmore, Okla., an organization dedicated to assisting producers and conducting research to enhance agricultural productivity worldwide. Training included vegetable and crop production, water management, livestock and grazing management practices and soil sampling.
The team also spent three weeks training with Oklahoma State University. Four graduate students from the college were assigned to the team to answer any agribusiness-related questions the team had while deployed. "They played an instrumental part in our team's success," McKinzie says.
In September 2010, the ADT set foot on Afghan soil. McKinzie's job was to create missions for his teams and attend local government meetings to get a sense of protocol. The work came with some immediate bureaucratic quagmires and learning curves. "Each ag project funded that cost more than $5,000 had to have a government contract," McKinzie says. "My soldiers were the ones who had to learn to write them. From start to end, we were also trying to teach the locals to write their own contracts to get their own approval."
The team's missions varied from week to week. One day they might work with the local beekeepers' association. Another day might find them at a tree nursery, meeting with district subgovernors, checking on current contracts or teaching locals about soil conservation.
One of the team's biggest goals was education, McKinzie says. "We focused on getting agriculture back into the local schools at an early stage and then linking them to the universities.
"We can teach 40 kids in a school how to set up a poultry business by giving the school chickens, coops and feeders," he continues. "Unfortunately, if we give students the items to take home, the Taliban can take those things away. What they can't take away is the knowledge we've given those students."
They also distributed 60,000 saplings in the spring to help with soil conservation, 72 metric tons of wheat seed and 72 metric tons of urea for 2011's winter wheat crop.
Irrigation is another challenge the team tackled. "The water source depends on how heavy their winters are," McKinzie says. "They have some methods to catch water runoff from snow melt, but it's very limited." The team worked in conjunction with USDA to build check dams and holding ponds.
At the end of deployment, the team had awarded 42 government contracts, and ag education was being added into school curricula at least one hour a day.
A month and a half before the team's August 2011 return, McKinzie was in a helicopter flying to Kabul. As he watched the landscape below, "I noticed that over a lot of other areas, there was so much brown and lots of bare soil," he says. The provinces where the Oklahoma National Guard had been were in sharp contrast to those neutral tones. "It was bright green," he says. "I think we had a huge impact on wheat production, distribution of trees and soil conservation.
"There's still tons to be done, though," adds McKinzie, who's now a civilian, "but I'm proud
of what we've done; I think we well surpassed the goals we set."
Editor's Note: Since 2008, the National Guard has sent Agribusiness Development Teams (ADT) to Afghanistan. It's a dangerous job in a country whose landscape has been scarred by war, ravaged by drought and famine, and overrun with poverty and political corruption. Improvised explosive devices are a constant threat, and the sound of gunfire echoes in the not-so-distant hills. There are also other, more basic challenges to contend with: lack of proper irrigation, no electricity grid, poor education and outdated farming practices.