BAGHDAD, Iraq - Members of the embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team III (ePRT) attached to the 1st "Ironhorse" Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Multi-National Division-Baghdad attended the grand opening of the Rabee fruit and vegetable packing facility in Adhamiyah June 14.

The Rabee packing shed is the first modern fruit and vegetable packing facility in Iraq, said Stockton, Calif. native Glen Keiser, the ePRT leader. "It will allow farmers to receive more value for their efforts. The produce will be properly cleaned, packed, stored, and transported to different markets around the country."

The Rabee packing shed has introduced advanced post-harvest handling methods for larger fruit and vegetable production in the Adhamiyah, Taji and Istiqlaal areas of Baghdad.

Post-harvest handling is the stage of crop production immediately following the harvest and includes cooling, cleaning, sorting and packing. The instant a crop is removed from the ground, or separated from its parent plant, it begins to deteriorate. Proper post-harvest handling will significantly slow the process of deterioration and increase the final quality of the fruits and vegetables, whether sold for fresh consumption or for use as an ingredient in a processed food product.

According to Inma, a branch of the United States Agency for International Development, by adopting modern post-harvest handling methods local growers will not only address strategic shortfalls of quality home-grown fruits and vegetables, but will also create jobs for a large part of the of the area's rural workforce.

"The packing shed serves as a model for future packing sheds around the country," said Keiser. "Inma has almost completed a second packing shed in the Taji area, and plans on building three more in the urban Baghdad area. I find this very encouraging and exciting; and see this as an agricultural advance for Iraq."

Most packing facilities in Iraq are currently inadequate. Poor packaging techniques contribute to 60 percent of the fruits and vegetables that are damaged beyond consumption. This is due to farmers generally lacking post-harvest skills, proper storage facilities and technology required to transport produce over long distances.

Farmers typically used plastic bags or buckets as packaging containers before the facility was constructed. The containers were then hauled to markets on the back of trucks. Slow transportation coupled with a lack of refrigerated trucks resulted in loss of produce.

Keiser commented that the packing shed will not only help farmers, but also benefit consumers by enabling them to purchase quality produce at a fair price, even if they don't live near a growth area.

"This project that we are about to open represents cooperation between people and it is a gift from American people to Iraqi people," said Sheikh Ali Mejbel-ghreeri, the Rabee fruit and vegetable packing shed owner, "we hope that it will be the first initiative and not the last regarding this area in order to enhance the [lives] of the Iraqi people."