Unit will teach farm techniques to Afghans

When his unit arrives in southeastern Afghanistan later this spring, National Guard Maj. Greg Worden's mission won't be to fight, but to plant.


Worden, of Martinez, is a mission leader for the 201st Agribusiness Development Team, which has spent the past year training to teach Afghan civilians how to better grow, irrigate and ultimately market their food.

"After two generations of war, some of their hydrology is destroyed, and they have to learn to maintain and rebuild," said Worden, whose unit is training at Fort Stewart near Savannah.

Worden said the goal will be to orient the Afghan farmers toward a market-based approach, instead of subsisting on the apples and wheat mainly grown in that region of the country. Essentially, he wants them to make more money.

"You want to increase the yield per square foot," he said. "You want to improve the hygiene of what they ingest to get them from a sustainment economy, where they are just growing what they can eat, to an international market economy, which is where they were heading in the 1960s and early 1970s."

Worden uses the example of cool storage of apples -- a simple technique that could extend the lives of the farmers' crops.

Refrigeration is out of the question because of a lack of electricity, so farmers must sell their crop as soon as it is grown. In southeastern Afghanistan, that means farmers sell apples to people in Pakistan, who turn around and freeze them, only to resell them back to the same farmers once the growing season has ended. Worden's unit will teach those farmers to store their apples underground, in a well ventilated cellar-type atmosphere. That way, they can extend their selling season without electricity.

"Cold storage requires electricity and technology," he said. "Cool storage is something an average Afghan without an engineering degree can do. Dig into the ground and have proper ventilation and they can store their apples for a long time."

Other techniques that have been used in our country for more than 100 years include canning and drip irrigation.

Many of the men and women training for the mission are farmers, picked for their skills in American-style farming practices that Army officials hope to teach the Afghans, 80 percent of whom rely on some form of agriculture for their livelihood.

Many of the men and women in his unit hail from Augusta, Martinez and Evans.

"A lot of our soldiers are agricultural specialists," he said. "They have farms; they've worked on farms; so they have institutional knowledge the Afghans won't have."

Those who don't are learning.

In February, the unit visited the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences for a weeklong course on modern farming techniques. Worden said the training over the past year has taught the members of the unit to spot diseases in plants and how to increase the crops' yield per square foot. They also learned how to take a goat's temperature and how to vaccinate and remove worms from cows and sheep.

Perhaps most exciting, Worden said, is their work learning the basics of beekeeping.

In Afghanistan, beekeeping is traditionally reserved for women, and their program involves a female initiative designed to teach Afghan women to make a better, cleaner product to sell in hopes of giving them their own livelihood.

"Say you went to a store and had a choice between two jars of honey, and one had honey that was leaking out of the lid and no label," he said. "The other had no honey leaking and a nice label. You would buy the one that looked better. You would buy the honey that didn't have the wax still floating around in it."

Decades of war have stunted the Afghan economy's growth, and Worden said this is the United States' chance to help them turn it back around.

His unit continues to prepare for deployment. A departure ceremony will be held at Fort Gordon on April 25.