KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan, Sept. 22, 2011 -- Approximately 60 Soldiers from across Illinois, as well as two Soldiers from Michigan and South Dakota respectivley, have been deployed to Kunar province since June with the Illinois Army National Guard's 1-14th Agribusiness Development Team.
The 1-14th Agribusiness Development Team, or ADT, which consists of a headquarters element, a security force platoon and a platoon of 12 agriculture experts, have been assisting the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, or GIRoA, in revitalizing and establishing a strong, growing and sustainable agriculture industry.
The Illinois team's mission is part of a broad effort that involves multiple National Guard ADTs from several states, each operating within its own province. The teams typically come from mid-western states, such as Missouri, Nebraska, Indiana and Iowa, which are known for agriculture production.
Col. Fred Allen, commander of the 1-14th ADT, said it makes sense for Illinois to field such a specialized team.
"Illinois was a great choice for a few reasons," said Allen. "We are one of the largest agriculture states in the U.S., both by population and production. This is also represented within our National Guard formations and the many citizen Soldiers who work full time in the agriculture industry. Illinois also has some of the top agriculture colleges in the nation, at both community college and university levels. It was amazing how many Soldiers we found in our ranks that had, or were working toward, agriculture degrees."
The Illinois Soldiers have educations and backgrounds in agronomy, plant and soil science, forestry, engineering, pest management, zoology and hydrology.
Allen said the addition of two Soldiers from outside Illinois, Lt. Col. Al Gorman, the agriculture platoon's officer-in-charge, and Capt. Adam Wiechmann, the team's veterinarian, complete the team's diversified skill set.
All this expertise is critical for ADTs to operate in a country where the agricultural sector has suffered setbacks in the form of a Soviet military occupation, a civil war and devastating droughts over the past 30 years.
Despite these obstacles, agriculture still accounts for more than 30 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product and employs more than 80 percent of the country's citizens. These numbers add up to make agriculture a vital concern when considering the future stability of this country.
For the Illinois ADT, the push toward stability has meant diving into projects that range from mentorship at demonstration farms and tree nurseries, to coordinating training events, supporting canal improvement projects and providing micro grants to farmers and agribusiness owners.
The team keeps all this effort focused through constant coordination with Afghan governmental agencies, such as the Provincial Directorate of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, or DAIL, said Sgt. 1st Class James Mayes, noncommissioned officer in-charge of the team's agriculture platoon.
"It's important that all our projects are conducted to the specifications of GIRoA," said Mayes. "After all, it's people such as the DAIL who are the most aware of what Afghanistan's citizens need and want. Just like anyone in the U.S. would keep their managers and directors updated on projects, we are always coordinating with the DAIL and his staff. "
He said coordination with the team's Afghan counterparts also helps keep an Afghan face on the progress being made.
"We have access to agricultural interns, cultural advisors and district extension agents that help us immensely in our work," said Mayes. "They act as our liaisons to the DAIL and to the individual farmers. We make sure they are part of everything we do so people can see that their government is playing a huge role in what's being accomplished."
Members of the ADT must also consider whether Afghan agencies will be able to continue projects on their own, said 1st Lt. Dan Clark, the team's plant and soil science expert.
"Our goal is to show GIRoA officials they need to concentrate on projects and programs that can be sustained," said Clark. "They need to move away from short-term victories and focus on long-term victories. If the Afghan government can't continue a program after Coalition Forces leave -- based on funding or personnel issues -- then that project should not be supported."
One way the ADT ensures sustainability is by using demonstration farms as testing and educational platforms.
"While showing Afghan farmers more efficient agricultural practices, these farms also provide extension agents a training model for other agricultural ideas that may be new to the region" he said. "This is important because the extension agents are the ones out there educating Afghan farmers and ensuring they have the tools to succeed after we are gone."
While training is one key element of the ADT mission, the team also promotes sustainability by providing aid to Afghan entrepreneurs who wish to start or expand agribusinesses that have a positive impact on the local economy.
"Focusing on agribusiness creates food that is more affordable, and therefore, increases food security," said Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Lueker, an agriculture processing specialist for the ADT.
"We can provide technical knowledge in the form of agronomy, pest management, resource management, veterinary care, marketing and cost efficiency," said Lueker. "We can also identify individuals with ambition and a good business plan, then reward those individuals with a one-time micro grant to start or expand their businesses."
He cited an oil pressing facility here as the type of agribusiness sought out by the ADT. The owner of the facility presses locally-grown seeds, such as sunflower and canola seeds, into cooking oil.
"His presence tells us many things," he said. "First was that someone had enough excess crop that he needed an outlet for it. Next, he had found a way to add value to the crop that was beneficial to him and the consumer. Finally, it shows us that technology is being transferred to even the most remote regions of Afghanistan."
Though it has not happened overnight, he said businesses like this indicate agriculture in Kunar province is on the right track.
Increased agribusiness, improved governance, a functioning agriculture extension program, better education and more efficient farming practices all allow members of the 1-14th ADT to see the fruits of their own labor and the labor of their predecessors.
By sharing their knowledge and building relationships, they hope to make agriculture one part of a more safe and stable future for Afghanistan.