When Sgt. 1st Class Darrell Rowe’s Army bosses told him they were sending him for a week of beekeeping and tree pruning here in the San Joaquin Valley, he was irked.
“My first reaction was, what the hell would I be doing with agriculture?” said Rowe, 32. “What does a combat man have to do with crops?”
After all, Rowe has served two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. This week, he is scheduled to leave Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash., for a nine-month stint in Afghanistan.
But it is one thing to have seen the land and another to know how to work it.
Familiarizing soon-to-be deployed service members such as Rowe with basic information about Afghanistan’s crops and farming traditions is precisely the point of a one-week training program developed by the U.S. Agriculture Department.
This is boot camp where soldiers are more likely to learn about manure than about M-4 rifles with grenade launchers.
Military officials send recruits from across the country to Central California because it shares many agroclimatic characteristics with Afghanistan — fertile valleys, semi-arid plains and mountains — and can serve as a kind of geographical laboratory.
“We can replicate on our demonstration farm exactly the types of conditions these troops will find on the ground,” said Bill Erysian, director of Agricultural Development for Afghanistan Pre-Deployment Training, or Adapt, a program based at California State University, Fresno.
And, with the exception of Afghanistan’s opium poppy production, the two locales grow nearly all the same crops.
“The first time my plane landed here it felt familiar,” said Navid Sediqi, an agronomist from Afghanistan and one of the course instructors. “I saw pistachios, almonds, wheat, pomegranates, grapes. These are the same things we grow back home.”
Looking for opium alternatives
Since 2002, the United States has spent more than $1 billion on Afghanistan’s agricultural sector, in part to create markets and options for farmers other than growing opium poppies. Financed by a $2.9 million grant from the Agriculture Department, the Adapt training codifies what had been ad hoc efforts by various branches of the U.S. military to train recruits in agriculture. Some of that earlier training occurred in locations bearing less likeness to Afghanistan, such as Wisconsin.
The grant is one of several the Agriculture Department has made to land-grant colleges in the Central Valley in recent years, tapping into the region’s farming expertise. The department gave more than $16 million to a consortium of universities led by the University of California at Davis to help build up Afghanistan’s agricultural extension system and create an online repository and smart phone application called e-Afghan Ag. The site and app provide information for civilians and combat troops trying to find solutions to agricultural problems they encounter in Afghanistan.
In late March, about 25 recruits from across the military — including members of the National Guard, Army Reserve and Army Civil Affairs — spent a week here learning the basics of subsistence agriculture, such as how to keep vegetables from spoiling without refrigeration and how to transplant grape cuttings.
An afternoon demonstration on how Afghan farmers dig irrigation ditches with shovels left Rowe in a reflective mood.
“If we see a guy out at night digging with shovels, that is a threat to us, he might not be alive in the morning,” he said, explaining that insurgents also use shovels to bury improvised explosive devices along paths and roads.
Showing why farming is important
For many of the trainees who had previously been deployed to Afghanistan, a lesson on pruning pomegranate trees brought memories not of ruby-colored clusters of fruit but of overgrown orchards with communication antennas strung high on bushy branches by insurgents.
“Pomegranates,” one groaned.
“We’re not going to make anyone a farmer in five days,” said Ryan Brewster, the Agriculture Department’s Afghanistan desk officer. “But what we can do is teach them about agriculture, and why it’s important to the average Afghan.”
As much as 80 percent of Afghanistan’s population relies on subsistence agriculture. Until the early 1970s, the country’s farmers produced grain, fruits and nuts for domestic consumption and export. But in the more than 30 years of conflict since the Soviet invasion in 1979, much of that agricultural know-how and basic infrastructure has been lost or destroyed.
Much of the financing for agricultural projects began streaming into the country after 2009, when Richard Holbrooke, then the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, announced a shift away from poppy eradication efforts. Those efforts, he would later say, had “pushed poor farmers into the Taliban’s hands.” Instead, the United States would emphasize building roads and fostering market-based alternatives to opium poppies, such as exporting raisins and pomegranate juice.
About 50 Agriculture Department extension agents are in Afghanistan, but some experts feel the emphasis on agricultural development and farming literacy came too little, too late.
“Until 2008, we were not funding the war in Afghanistan,” said Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has advised the U.S. military on its Afghan strategy. “It takes 12 to 18 months for the money to flow into the country. We basically did not have the surplus ability or assets to handle agriculture.”
Many of the trainees here learning to subdue honeybees with smoke and to seed a field with wheat berries had modest but sincere hopes for the week.
“This training gives us the knowledge to at least not mess things up,” said Capt. Christopher Kennedy, of an Army Civil Affairs battalion out of Webster, N.Y., “when what we’re trying to do is help.”