UW experts help troops prepare to help Afghani farmers rebuild

Wisconsin National Guard troops boned up on agriculture, from A to at least W, when they spent the last week of July at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They also got a pocketful of names and phone numbers to call if they need more information once they get to Afghanistan.

Over the space of five days, Members of the 82nd Agribusiness Development Team learned about topics ranging from aquaculture, bees, kebabs and kidding to pomegranates, poultry, veterinary care and water management. They came to campus for an “Ag 101 course” designed to help prepare for their spring 2012 deployment to Afghanistan’s Kunar province, where they will work with farmers and other rural residents on projects aimed to boost agricultural productivity and reduce poverty.

The course included more than two dozen talks and tours presented by experts from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), UW-Extension and other state and federal agencies. The program was developed at the National Guard’s request by staff of the Babock Institute for International Dairy Research and Development and the Arlington Agricultural Research Station.

“It’s an excellent program that’s tailored to where we’re going. It’s been a lot of information, but it’s been of tremendous value,” said Colonel Darrel Feucht, a UW-Madison graduate in biological systems engineering who commands the 82nd ADT. “Best of all, we’ve been given resources here that we can call upon while we’re there if we run into issues we need to solve or troubleshoot.”

The soldiers will have their work cut out for them, noted a number of the CALS experts who studied up on Afghani food and agriculture in preparation for the course.

“Afghanistan doesn’t have a lot of developed soils, meaning they’re not very productive,” says Matt Ruark, who spoke to the troops about soils and fertilizer. “Most of the soils map of Afghanistan shows rocky terrain and desert. However, the area this group is going to is the best in the country—it has the most developed soils.”

Things haven’t been easy for the Afghanistan’s nascent fish farming industry, the troops were told by aquaculture specialist Terry Barry of the CALS animal sciences department. In addition to the myriad challenges that usually go along with starting up this kind of enterprise, Afghani fish farmers have had to contend with grenades pitched into the ponds, thefts of fish, and a cut-off of feed shipments.

Soldiers will also have to be careful about what they do and don’t eat, explained Beth Button, an instructor in the food sciences department, who helped lead a workshop on Afghan foods and food safety.

“As part of their community-building efforts they will be invited to dinner in Afghan homes,“ she explains. This puts them at risk of food-borne diseases, caused by pathogens to which local residents have likely developed resistance, she says. “We wanted to them to come away knowing how to participate in the meals with confidence and gusto, so they won’t offend anyone but also not get sick.”