The American military is expanding its efforts to rebuild Afghanistan's agriculture after decades of war left the nation's farm-based economy in ruins.
Once a major exporter of dried fruits, nuts and exotic crops such as pomegranates, Afghanistan is now known mainly for growing poppies for the opium trade.
Many farmers who knew how to successfully raise food crops were killed or fled the country during the past three decades, said Col. Martin Leppert, who oversees the Army National Guard's Afghan agribusiness effort from offices in Arlington, Va.
"Imagine if everyone who was a farmer got up and left Kansas _ we'd have to re-teach those people who are still there. That's what we're trying to do in Afghanistan," Leppert said.
The military began sending agribusiness units to Afghanistan in early 2008. They now work in 14 of the nation's 34 provinces, where they are trying to improve irrigation and water management practices and bring new ideas to farmers who eke out a living much as American farmers did 150 years ago.
A 63-member Indiana Guard unit returned last week from an 11-month mission to Khowst province, which borders Pakistan. A second Indiana unit is already in place in that province to carry on the farmer education work.
Col. Brian Copes, the commander of the 1-19th Agribusiness Development Team, said a big part of the unit's 11-month mission was training agricultural extension agents in each of the province's 13 districts to better perform their jobs.
Each agent learned to use a $2,500 soil-testing kit left in his care to enable him to test local farmers' soils to determine how much fertilizer or other treatments their land needs.
Sgt. Maj. Scott Bassett, one of the unit's 15 agriculture specialists, said soil tests in the province revealed many farmers are using more than twice the amount of fertilizer needed on their fields _ and over-application is reducing yields.
The unit trained 50 farmers in each of the 13 districts in new approaches, such as how to irrigate fields using drip hoses that deliver water to crops while conserving the precious resource during the region's long dry season.
To show the benefits of using less fertilizer and other new methods, the unit is paying one farmer to grow half of his crops Afghan-style and the other half the American way.
When that farmer's fields are harvested this year, the hope is the advantages of the new methods will be readily apparent to him and his neighbors.
"They're all subsistence farmers, so anything they grow is what's going to feed their family for the year," said Bassett, 46, who grew up on a ranch in Nebraska and now lives near Waldron, Ind. "Having that much at stake, you wouldn't expect them to try something new unless it's proven."
Copes said he expects the most immediate impact of his unit's work to come from tools they gave farmers to boost production from the peach, apricot, apple and other fruit trees planted on their small farms _ which are often only 1 to 1 1/2 acres.
Farmers were shown how to properly prune their trees to maximize production. Each farmer got a tree saw, grafting knife, a metal bucket and 2 pounds of lime to mix with water and paint onto the trees' trunks to ward off pests.
"They'll get a greater quantity of fruit and a better quality of fruit, and ideally they'll produce enough so they can sell a bit and see a modest increase in income," Copes said.
The unit also trained wheat farmers to use hand-cranked spreaders to more evenly distribute seeds and boost their production. The farmers have been spreading seeds by hand.
Copes, a fourth-generation farmer who lives in Shelbyville, Ind., said about half of his unit's members were there to make sure the unit was safe from insurgents. Even so, the unit's vehicles struck a half-dozen makeshift bombs. Luckily, no unit members were injured.
Leppert said eight agribusiness units from California, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas are in Afghanistan, while units from Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Tennessee are readying for future missions.
The units are not working in Afghanistan's prime poppy areas, but he said they can help fight the opium trade by showing farmers considering it the potential of other crops.
"They'll figure it out themselves once there's enough Afghans making money growing apples and wheat," Leppert said.