The view from Afghanistan's fields
The Nebraska National Guard is helping farmers in Afghanistan learn more effective agriculture techniques with the help of Vaughn Hammond, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension educator. Hammond is a specialist in growing small fruits and market vegetables and is about to return to Gardez City in eastern Afghanistan, where he spent five months last year.
Harvest Public Media’s Clay Masters sat down with Hammond for this Q&A while he was on a brief visit home.
To listen to highlights from the interview, click on the audio player above.
HPM: How did you prepare for this trip?
Hammond: Being completely of non-military background I had no idea how to prepare. I took cues from the National Guard. I went shopping for everything that I didn’t have and found out everything I had acquired wasn’t needed for the most part. It was mental preparedness as much as anything, wondering what it was like over there, wondering who I was going to meet. It was, of course, nothing like I expected. So preparation was pretty much going in there cold with all preconceived notions being wrong.
You spent some time in basic training?
There were about 400 people to go through this at Fort Bening -- it’s called CRC training -- mostly contractors and some military. But the majority were contractors. It was physicals, learning about cultural aspects of Afghanistan, learning worst-case scenarios if you happened to be taken hostage or something along those lines, how to make radio calls if need be. Just how to survive over there.
The infrastructure and technology of Afghanistan’s agriculture sounds almost archaic compared to the United States.
It very much is. They’re, I’d like to say, 100, 125, even 150 years behind us. And I have to preface that by saying where we’re at in Afghanistan, the locale is much different than some of the other parts of Afghanistan, so my experience is just with the Gardez area, or the Gardez province. But, again, they’re 100, 125, 150 years behind us.
They are small farmers, farming a jerab to two jerabs – a jerab is about a half-acre. So an acre is a pretty good sized ag producer over there. Everything is done by hand. Shovels, hoes … very little implements are used. It’s just subsistence farming at this point and they’re looking at an income of about $700 a year.
Given what you described, it’s almost silly to think that you could get the infrastructure over there up to what we have here in the United States. Is Afghanistan’s agriculture more comparable to what we might see in the local food movement in the United States?
You could equate it to that very much so because their production and marketing is all within their local community. Very few of the people we work with, the farmers, have ventured more than five miles from their farm in their whole lifetime. When they’re harvesting and selling it’s for their consumption and taking to their local market in their community, not even in the next community over, but the community they live in.
What was the mission you had when going over there?
The mission is, basically, to empower agriculture, the ag producers over there, the farmers. Farming is the primary source of income for that area. About 70 percent of Afghanistan’s Gross National Product is a result of agriculture -- that’s both licit and illicit agriculture.
They make no bones about it that illicit agriculture is one of their main income producers, or primary, for Afghans at this point in time. They’re trying to change that. That’s not necessarily what our primary mission was going over there – to take them away from growing poppies and marijuana – but (we focused on) how to become more profitable farmers in food production, grain production and meat production. Not necessarily to take them away, but to show them there’s a different way.
So we’re talking fruits and vegetables, not what we refer to as commodity crops.
Fruits and vegetables, but also wheat and corn is definitely a crop to be grown over there. They eat bread. That’s one of their primary food sources, bread. It’s called nan. It’s much like a very large tortilla, much thicker in nature. So a lot of wheat is grown.
Was this mission more working in the fields or working with the government and what would be compared to as extension offices out there?
Security issues really preclude us from working directly with the farmers in most situations. What we’re doing is working more with, as you said, what they call their extension agents.
We’re extension educators here, they call themselves extension agents there, which is nomenclature used in years past for us. They are directly government related, rather than university related. Extension in the United States is related to land grant universities, where over there it’s strictly government.
We also work with a lot of grower associations that have direct contact with the farmers and try to work with the association president …to teach them better ways, and they take it to the farmers.
You were almost trying to build their confidence up for long term planning. That’s not something that’s inherit in their agriculture system over there, is it?
Exactly. Historically, they are not planners. “In Shalah,” is a term they use – basically, “God’s will be done.” To get them to the point where they’re planning more than three to four days is very foreign to them because “God’s will be done. If it’s the way it’s to be it will be.”
Even planting – for us now it’s not uncommon for us to see corn being planted in April. I mean, everybody is “Boom, we’ve got to be in the field immediately.” For them, if it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t… so be it. So showing them how to plan beyond three or four days has been a major task.
Even something as basic as planting in rows, it sounds like.
Absolutely. They traditionally have broadcast planted everything… corn, soybeans, wheat, their garden crops, their vegetable crops, everything is broadcast planted. Just showing them that they can increase production by planting corn in rows and proper spacing for nutrition water aspects of that corn plant is completely foreign to them.
They will not switch over immediately, by any way shape or form. We have to show them a very little piece of success in order for them to see, and then success for two or three years, and then maybe they’ll adopt it.
Can you walk me through a day in the life over there in what you were doing day to day?
Over there we say that every day is Groundhog Day, because every day is the same in many ways, shapes and forms. The best way we can tell what day it is is by what’s being served in the chow line because that’s regimented.
Days are one of two things. We either have meetings on the Forward Operating Base (FOB) Gardez. At the FOB the day starts about 9 a.m., we’ll start to have people come in. Whether it be their extension agents, association presidents or community business leaders, (they) come in for meetings to start possibly planning for a future project. Generally, we have two or three meetings a day with these local folks.
In order for them to come in, they have to go through security. We have to go up and walk them through security. We’re a non-driving base, so everything has to be done by foot, so there’s about four to five miles of walking a day just getting people in and out. Get them through security, come in and sit down do the meetings. All of our meetings include an interpreter and whoever's working on the project.
The project we’re working on right now, were trying to get seed for greenhouse production. We recently completed a greenhouse at a (demonstration) farm we’re working on. Those meetings have been working with the DAIL, who is the lead agriculture government leader within the province. DAIL stands for Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, so he is responsible for provinces and agriculture.
(Meetings are often) his workers coming in requesting the seeds, telling us what seeds they want, and then we negotiate with them as far as showing them what numbers they need and what varieties. Variety is a foreign concept to them. We asked them “What varieties do you plant?” Doesn’t matter if its corn, wheat, soybeans, cucumbers, tomatoes, their response is “Local.” That means they’ve collected the seed from the year before and the year before and the year before.
It’s very difficult to have those meetings last more than an hour to an hour and a half, because everybody is completely taxed -- mentally taxed through the interpretation process. Of course we share tea -- and again this Afghan courtesy, anytime we go to meetings they provide us tea and some little snacks of some sort and that is expected of us also. Maybe a quarter of the meeting is directed towards niceties, conversations -- it’s not all business, that’s not how they do things. The first 15 to 20 minutes is just “How’s your family?” Even though you may have just seen them the day before, they still want to know how your family’s doing, if they’re healthy. And then you get into business.
If we go off the FOB it’s a week planning to do that. That takes armored vehicles, 28 security personnel. We go out in four or five vehicles, full body armor. It’s a whole different situation. Those last at the most two hours. If we’re really someplace we feel is secure it may last as long as four, but generally it’s a two-hour visit.
You’re going back over there next week. With the timeline of withdrawing U.S. Afghan forces, how much can be done to make any difference to this country’s agriculture infrastructure?
Quite a lot because there’s so much to actually do. If we can simply teach them about reintroducing organic matter into the soils, drip irrigation, incorporating manure into the soils, increasing soil fertility, using varieties, teaching them about row planting instead of broadcasting, raised beds – these things we consider basic agriculture in many ways. If we can just show them the benefits in the next three or four years, whatever it ends up being, it will make huge inroads. And if we can show them success for a couple years, hopefully they will carry that on to whatever happens in the future
Are the farmers responsive to this?
Mostly. There’s still that roadblock of “My father did it this way, my grandfather did, his father did it.” It’s getting beyond the pridefulness of the people, because they are very proud people. Once they see the successes and see an ear of corn that’s longer than 4 inches, then they say Ah-ha maybe this will work.
And they’re very skeptic of pesticides and anything of that nature?
It’s a very interesting concept. They do not want to use herbicides, insecticides, any type of pesticides if at all possible. They want to do it the organic way, which is something that is becoming more and more popular in the United States, (that’s) where they want to start now. So that’s an interesting concept to me. Even though they’re behind us in technology, in some ways, in some circles they’re ahead of us in other ways.
And that’s still part of the family tradition, planting organically.
They do not fertilize. Their only access to fertilizer, for the most part because they are so poor, is animal manure. Then the problem with that is they use that as a fuel source, so they don’t use it (for agriculture.) It is more important to stay warm and cook their food, so they don’t incorporate it, so the soil structure is very poor.
They don’t have an equivalent of the USDA checking out food before it’s sold, do they?
No they, do not. Food safety is something they could use a lot of help with. When they butcher, the butchering takes place before dawn, before 4 in the morning. There is no refrigeration and as soon as that meat is slaughtered it goes to the marketplace and hangs in open air. As people buy it they slice it off, cut it off, and sell it by the kilo. So, nothing refrigerated, it goes home and there’s no refrigeration at home. This goes back to (there being) very little electricity and lack of funds to maintain.
Are you hoping to implement these ideas with individual farmers? How are you really making the difference?
Teaching the powers that be, whether (they be) government, development center, the Gardez Garden Growers Association. To teach those folks that then realize the importance of progression and then show their farmers they’re working with these methods.