S.C. National Guard team teaches Afghans to farm

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COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Army National Guard agricultural team in Afghanistan has built teaching centers and reached out to help more than 300 farmers during its yearlong deployment, its commander said.

Col. Glenn Skawski said he is proud of his team, which is wrapping up its work and making way for the state’s third group to take over the one-year agriculture development mission.

In a recent video interview from his post in Afghanistan, Skawski says there’s plenty left to do, including helping farmers improve their crops and livestock and get their wares to market.

The unit arriving this month in Helmand Province includes Gov. Nikki Haley’s husband, Michael, on his first overseas deployment. The group of about four dozen soldiers has been training for a month at Camp Atterbury in Indiana.

“The important thing is, after we leave, the Afghans can take care of the training centers and the farmers can continue to learn and use them,” said Skawski, 52, of Anderson. “It’s become really successful.”

The 24-year Army veteran declined to exactly say where his unit has been based.

The unit’s security forces in the central Helmand River Valley region have been able to advise soldiers of potential conflict, he said, and the most common tactic has been to avoid certain regions for a period of time.

“Our objective was to come over here and help the Afghan government and Afghan farmers in developing their agriculture,” Skawski said, explaining that much of the nation’s agricultural infrastructure is still struggling to recover from decades of war.

The district agricultural training centers the unit has built have offices for Afghan officials and classrooms to teach farmers. Each center has about four to five acres given over to several training plots that highlight different crops or techniques.

The country is emerging from a decade of drought, so irrigation techniques also have been taught, Skawski said.

In addition, the unit has helped introduce trellises to grow grapes and taught how to set up small greenhouses to grow vegetables during winter.

The agricultural mission by the National Guard in Afghanistan began in 2008. Units from nine states have worked in the country since.

The overall goal is to help farmers turn away from growing poppies, which support an opiate drug trade and subsidize the Taliban, and instead build an agriculture industry that can help farmers support their families, Skawski said.

The greenhouses also help farmers cultivate vegetables during the harsh winter. The next step is to help them get their crops to marketplaces, which for years hasn’t been possible given the conflict in the region.

“Tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, cauliflower, and a lot of okra,” Skawski said. “There’s a high demand for vegetables in the winter. The high demand helps them get profits in their pocket.”

The unit also has helped Afghan officials set up an ongoing training plan for staff and a budget for the center.

“We are developing skill sets for the government officials and also for the farmers,” Skawski said.

Skawski said he was proud of the “citizen-soldiers,” who have given up their normal jobs to take on the Guard deployment. On the unit roster are farmers, experts in agriculture and business, and one veterinarian.

Skawski said the extreme poverty in Afghanistan makes him realize that there is still much to be done.

“Afghanistan has been poor for decades, and they have lost a lot of technical capabilities,” he said. “It’s a slow process. We’ve made some progress on the education side, and we hope that will continue.”

The commander said he thinks everyone in the unit is looking forward to being back with their families and “enjoying little creature comforts,” such as not having to walk hundreds of yards to use a restroom.

“We are staying vigilant, and taking it one day at a time, until we get back,” he said.

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