For many years Afghanistan was known for its vigorous agricultural production. The country grew more wheat and fruit than it could consume and exported the surplus.
Terrible changes began in 1979, with Soviet helicopters thundering across the sky and mortar fire shattering the peace.
The Soviet invasion triggered years of terrible upheaval that destroyed not only much of the agricultural infrastructure but also the knowledge that provided its foundation. Afghan agriculture was bludgeoned back to primitive conditions.
This reversal has been so great that in 2012, most Afghan farmers “are barely subsistence farmers,” said Lt. Col. Lynn Heng, commander of a 58-member Nebraska Army National Guard unit — Agribusiness Development Team No. 2 — that spent nine months in Afghanistan during 2011-12.
“When you have 30 years of war and lose a couple of generations of farming knowledge, this is what happens,” Heng told The World-Herald last April, when his team returned from their mission to help Afghan farmers.
Now, more than three decades after that period of turmoil began, Midlanders are among the Americans who have been helping the Afghans slowly regain farming knowledge. A new report from the Pentagon looks at the range of conditions in Afghanistan, and the section on agriculture describes the importance of the farm sector to Afghanistan’s well-being.
“Approximately 80 percent of Afghans’ livelihoods are directly linked to agriculture,” the report says. “Agribusiness development is a key driver to increasing overall economic growth and per capita gross domestic product of the rural population of Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan has been fortunate this year that above-average precipitation has helped boost crop yields significantly, the report says. As a result, the country has greatly reduced its cereal imports.
There’s been progress on other ag fronts too. Afghanistan this year has achieved “an increase in livestock births, greater milk production, enhanced food security and improved household nutrition.”
Among the issues that Americans have been helping Afghan farmers with, the report says, are wheat and vegetable production, orchard and vine crops, grain storage trials, productivity improvement, marketing and post-harvest storage.
U.S. support has helped Afghans establish more than 211,000 orchards that have exported 120 tons of fresh fruit.
One of the main obstacles to further progress is limited access to credit. And an inadequate supply of water, the report says, is “the major limiting factor in Afghan agricultural production.” More efficient use of water is a major focus of U.S. advisers.
There’s an odd omission in the Pentagon report: It speaks at length about the activities in Afghanistan of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it fails to mention the ag-related work by National Guard teams such as those from Nebraska and Iowa.
These Midlanders have focused on many of the problems highlighted in the Department of Defense report. Since 2009, Nebraska has sent three National Guard teams to Afghanistan as part of the ag-support effort. Assistance from Iowa’s Army and Air National Guard has included the Guard’s 734th Agribusiness Development Team.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln helped out, too. Its agricultural extension agents helped train the Guard team, and UNL Extension educator Vaughn Hammond went with Heng’s team to Afghanistan, helping with issues including beekeeping, fruit production and composting.
Last spring, Heng, Hammond and their colleagues returned home from their mission. Gov. Dave Heineman told them, “Your mission helped ensure the stability of a country and its people that have seen difficult days.”
The governor’s words ring true. Midlanders can take pride in helping plant these seeds of knowledge. May their fruit continue to yield progress in that troubled land.