Team set to teach Afghan farmers

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 9, 2011 - 7:32 PM

After 30 years of war and Taliban rule, the agricultural industry in Afghanistan faces many challenges, from weaning farmers off opium production to getting products to market on a reliable transportation system that isn't contingent on warlords deciding who gets through.

So what can a bunch of Minnesotans bring to that picture?

The Minnesota's National Guard's 135th Agri-Business Development Team, including a veterinarian, a hydrologist, and a livestock specialist, will deploy to Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan in October with a yearlong mission of providing education and support to farmers. Using civilian skills unique to the National Guard, the teams have been operating in parts of Afghanistan since 2008.

The Minnesota team will include six female soldiers who are expected to help widows in the region, the most disadvantaged group in the province.

"Our female members can get into places and talk to people where our male members cannot," said Col. Eric Ahlness, the team's commander. "There's all sorts of well-intended programs that have gone out that have been implemented by men that failed because they didn't understand what was going on in the households."

For two days in August, the team was given instruction on the developing agricultural cooperatives from some people who should know: Inver Grove Heights-based CHS, the nation's largest producer-owned cooperative. Among the instructors was Ghafar Lakanwal, Afghanistan's minister of agriculture in the mid-1980s, and Jill Ewald, who grew up near her family farm in southern Minnesota and now is operations manager for the family's international agricultural management and production business, which includes a presence in Afghanistan.

Ahlness went even further outside the box for other help, seeking out an Amish farmer experienced in working without modern amenities. It will help in a place where 40 percent of the region lacks electricity.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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