Today is Thursday, October 23, 2014

TN National Guard team to train Afghan farmers

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By MARK E. JOHNSON, Assistant Editor Tennessee Cooperator

Late this month, Tennessee will send a National Guard unit composed of 64 citizen-soldiers to Afghanistan for a year-long tour of duty.

Among those in this unit with somewhat of an unusual mission with be a West Wilson County National Guardsman, Dustin Rottero.

Rottero and others in this unit will complete training in the next few weeks and deploy to Afghanistan the same as hundreds of other U.S. military service personnel have done before them.

But unlike others the objective of his unit's mission is not to militarily engage the Taliban or chase Osama Bin Laden through the snowy peaks of Tora Bora.

Instead, the members of his specialized unit, officially the 1-16th Agribusiness Development Team, will be relying on their expertise in agronomy; fruit, vegetable, and livestock production; civil engineering; water management; beekeeping; and other aspects of farming to revitalize agriculture in one of Afghanistan's high mountain provinces.

"Part of the rebuilding concept in Afghanistan involves renovating the economy," says Col. Jim Moore, commander of the unit that is currently training at Fort Atterbury in south central Indiana. "In Iraq, it's different. Their economy is oil-based. But before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the late 1970s, the country's economy was 80 percent agriculture. Our mission is to help fill the gap left by an entire generation of Afghans who have been fighting wars for the past 30 years."

Rottero, a graduate of Wilson Central High School, and his fellow soldiers are a part of a cooperative effort initiated three years ago by the U.S. State Department to improve the local Afghan economy and help stabilize the region. Similar National Guard units from Missouri, Texas, and Nebraska have already served one tour, and Tennessee, Indiana, and Kansas are among states slated to follow.

Rottero, the son of retired National Guard Maj. J.D. and Mrs. Rottero, was a tight end and linebacker standout on the Wilson Central football team. He graduated from WCHS in 2005 and was a walk-on at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville before joining the National Guard.

Although his unit is not scheduled to deploy to the war theater until later this month, he has been on active duty training for his mission for several weeks.

Guard spokesmen say Afghanistan, roughly the size of Texas, is divided into 34 state-like provinces adding that the Tennessee unit will operate in Paktya, a high-altitude province bordered on the northeast by Pakistan.

Among the goods and crops traditionally produced in this area are wheat, apples, grapes, almonds, pine nuts, wool, and silk. But 30 years of war have not only interrupted the natural transfer of agricultural knowledge from one generation to the next but have also damaged the country's infrastructure, deforested large tracts of land, and caused severe erosion where small family farms once thrived.

The Tennessee National Guard unit plans to train local farmers on techniques ranging from grapevine and apple tree pruning to irrigation.

The unit's mission simply stated is to improve lives for years to come.

It's noted by one unit member that a successful beekeeping operation may help empower Afghan women. He says this could provide the mother of a household with money to spend on food and clothes for her family. A typical Afghan family earns $200 to $300 per year, and they could conceivably add $20 to that with income generated by a single beehive.

"We might make a significant contribution to their annual income and improve pollination in nearby crops, especially apples, which were once their main export. There are several sides to this mission," he adds.

According to the Guard, the average Afghan plot size is less than half an acre. Farmers there broadcast seed by hand and harvest wheat with an old wooden scythe. There are very few tools and likely no tractors. 

The Guard says its goal is to get Afghan farmers up to the level of our grandparents back in the 1930s and '40s when they had a milk cow, a few chickens, and a small garden.

In addition to general farming practices, the unit commander stresses that the agricultural cooperative model, particularly marketing co-ops, will be vital in the long-term success of the mission.

"Only 15 percent of the Paktya population have food security beyond 15 days," he says. "This means 85 percent don't know where day 16's food is coming from. If we can solve that problem, excess food and products can be sold at a marketplace or bartered for goods and services. What's not needed by that village will move to a larger one, which results in vertical integration.  This is where cooperative principles will be critical."

"It's very likely," the colonel says, that he and other mission leaders will be contacting Tennessee Farmers Cooperative and member Co-op representatives for help in setting up a cooperative structure during the deployment.

"I see the Co-op system as being a facilitator when my guys ask specific questions about setting up a cooperative-type organization that helps with marketing, storage, and other related issues," he says. "We all know that each Co-op is different because they are in different parts of the state. It's the same situation over there because each village will be different. But, as in Tennessee, the farmers will all need a method to sell their goods." The colonel adds that salesmanship comes naturally to Afghan villagers.

"These people have been selling stuff for 3,000 years; they know how to do it," he says with a grin. "They would probably be the smartest penhookers at any Tennessee cattle sale."

Stressing that the Paktya province is still an active war zone, Col. Moore says the mission is not without its hazards. Of the 64 members of the unit, each of whom is combat-trained, almost 40 are security forces who will accompany each subgroup on their daily travels.  "This mission is really what the National Guard is all about," Col. Moore adds.  "We are, literally, citizen-soldiers. We are farmers, engineers, and managers of businesses, and we are bringing that extra knowledge and experience that no one else can provide. And we're honored to be able to serve our country in this capacity."

Editor’s Note: Wilson Post staff also contributed to this article.

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