Lt. Scott Shirk of Emmetsburg was part of an Agri Business Development Team that spent a year in Afghanistan. He related his experience working with the Afghan farmers to the audience gathered for the Veterans Day program in Emmetsburg last Monday.
"Throughout my year, we could visually see farmers implementing new farming practices on their own land that they had learned at education sessions on the demonstration farms," Scott told his audience. "It was real exciting for me to see these changes being made."
Scott is Platoon Leader at the 194th Field Artillery, based out of Algona. He was deployed to Afghanistan from July 2012 to July 2011 with the 734th Agri Business Development Team. They were stationed in the very northeast corner of Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border.
AGRICULTURE IN AFGHANISTAN -- Lt. Scott Shirk (right) of Emmetsburg presented a program the Agri Business Development Team that spent a year in Afghanistan. He is pictured talking to Roger Picray of Emmetsburg.
The general in charge of the mission hand picked his team. "He picked his team out of all the soldiers that had agricultural skill sets that he felt would be important to the mission," said Scott.?"With me being an agronomist and working for Max Yield Cooperative, I got chosen for the job."
Among the team were a veterinarian, forester, water specialist, agronomist (Scott), a couple of farmers and an accountant.
"We were handling a lot of money, so he kept the books," Scott explained. "We also had a security force to watch out for us while we were out talking with the locals and working with the farmers."
Before Shirk left, he did some research on Afghani-stan:
- Population estimated a 32.7 million
- Home to a number of ethnic groups
- Very mountainous and dry
- Only 6% of Afghanistan is cropable
- Temperatures range from 32-degrees in winter to 115-120-degrees in summer
- Precipitation: 10 to 12 inches per year in the form of snow
- Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth, with more than 53% of the population living under the poverty line
- Opium is the country's most valuable export
-Afghanistan imports much of its food and energy
-Agriculture is 90% of the labor gorce, with an unemployment rate of 40%
Education was the key to the Agri Business Team's work with the Afghan farmers.
"For them to rebuild, a lot of local farmers, and a lot of local businesses were uneducated when it came to agriculture," said Shir. "They were still trying to do farming practices that their grandparents did. They were not moving forward."
One of the biggest projects the team did was a demonstration farm.
"We wanted a place for local farmers to go to learn new farming practices," he said. "I started working with a local farmer who lived right next to our district center so we could use the district center for classrooms. The local farmer was real happy that someone was there to help."
Shirk stressed that every project they did needed to be sustainable.
"They needed to be able to run these projects after we left," he said. "The private dealer had to be able to make money to reinvest it or they had to come up with their own funds."
The orchards of pomegranates and oranges take about four to five years to produce. So, in between those orchards they intercropped with wheat, so the farmland was being used. When that was harvested, they planted watermelon that could be taken to the local town to sell.
Twenty-percent of the produce would go back into the farm the next year.
"We also did several farm plots where we taught them how to grow corn in rows," said shirk. "That sounds a little weird, coming from Iowa where we know how to grow corn. They were hand seeding corn like they were seeding grass. They'd work the field, throw the seed out, work it in six, seven or eight inches deep and then expect it to grow."
The team also built green houses for vegetables. The climate is warm enough they can grow vegetables year around in the green houses.
The team also taught the farmers about irrigation.
"We were spending a lot of time with the local farmers, but we couldn't get there enough,"?he said. "We hired two Afghan college students as interns and they were great. I still talk to them today through Facebook and they still have a lot of questions."
They also started working with an Afghan college.
"The college instructors were really good with agriculture," said Shirk. "We started working with them and established some training, education centers for the extension agents. It was pretty hard for them to give advice when they didn't know anything either."
The team set up a five-day education session fot the extension agents. The college instructors came to the demonstration farm and they had classes on irrigation, orchards, vegetables and other ag topics.
"What I required was to go out and have their own sessions with local farmers," said Shirk. "It worked out really good. In the year we were there, we had three of these sessions and the extension agents wer really happy to know we were helping them. They were getting knowledge so when the local farmes came to them with a question they had an answer."
Shirk described his year in Afghanistan as a "huge success". They established seven demonstration farms and had countless educatoin sessions.
The Iowa team was replaced by a team from Illinois to carry on the work in the farm community of Afghanistan.