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Farm fields instead of battle fields

Staff Sgt. James Yellis herds sheep as members of the California National Guard's 40th Infantry Division, based in Los Alamitos, Calif., receive training in agricultural skills at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona for a a mission in Afghanistan. As part of an Army counterinsurgency effort, the 18 members of the Agribusiness Development Team (ADT) hope to diminish Taliban influence and reduce opium poppy production in Afghanistan by teaching farmers more efficient and productive ways to grow crops and raise animals.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Kabul, Afghanistan today. She's there for a big international donor conference: How to spend the $13 billion in aid that's been promised. The secretary's trip is all about civilian assistance, using it with the military to help stop the Taliban. The strategy actually starts long before troops actually get into Afghanistan, and in one case, with farming lessons, as Sarah McCammon reports from Iowa Public Radio.


Sarah McCammon: It's a warm and windy afternoon at a research farm near Iowa State University in Ames. Iowa National Guard Captain Pat Birgy and several other soldiers are learning to use narrow, metal tools to drill into the ground and pull out soil samples. Birgy is an accountant. But on the particular mission he's training for, there could be times he's called upon to get in the dirt alongside his colleagues.

Pat Birgy: So I need to learn this technique just as well as some of our soil guys that already know it on the team.

Many of his fellow trainees do have farming backgrounds, which is why they were chosen for this agribusiness development team of about 65 Air and Army National Guard members.

Staff Sgt. Ben Groth grew up on a farm and has an agribusiness degree. But he says that doesn't mean everything will be familiar.

Ben Groth: I was told it's gonna be like back in the Bible ages. There's no technology over there and it's gonna be extremely primitive.

The mission's goal is to help Afghans establish the infrastructure to grow enough food to feed themselves, and eventually export it. The National Guard has been sending similar teams to more than a dozen Afghan provinces since 2008. The Iowa team will replace a group from the California National Guard, which was the first in Kunar Province.

Among them is 1st Lt. Robert Parry. Speaking by Internet phone from Kunar, he says many Afghans live in such desperate circumstances that they're easy targets for recruitment by insurgents.

1st Lt. Robert Parry: When you have no money and you have no job, and the best you can do to feed your family is wheat that aren't going to come in for four months, going out and cranking a few shots at the Americans for five bucks, you don't have a lot of choices.

There's also hope that Afghanistan could one day become a market for American farm imports. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says he has more 60 staff members in Afghanistan working with the military and local citizens.

Tom Vilsack: If we can grow a middle class in Afghanistan and if we can create wealth and opportunities through agriculture, through their own exports, then eventually they will need more of our agricultural products. They may begin to consume more meat, for example. So that might increase beef exports, for example. So building a middle class through a strong agriculture helps our producers eventually by creating additional markets that don't exist today.

But some observers say it may be difficult for outsiders to win the confidence of Afghans. Rory Anderson is with the Christian relief organization World Vision.

Rory Anderson: Groups that are coming for short term can provide specific technical expertise -- but do they have the time to really spend the months to build the trust and to build the relationships? And then once you've built the relationships, it takes time to see the returns and the results.

Anderson says her group mostly hires Afghan nationals to work with their target communities. Guard officials say while individual units only stay about a year, they try to establish continuity between teams. Staff Sgt. Groth says he's a little nervous, but mostly excited, about the chance to use his farming knowledge in Afghanistan.

Groth: I think it's really great that we're going over as like a humanitarian mission instead of going over to kick in doors and kick butt or what not. It's exciting we're going to go over to help the people over there.

The Iowa Guard's agribusiness development team deploys to Afghanistan early next month.

In Ames, Iowa, I'm Sarah McCammon, for Marketplace.

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