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Area soldiers serve on agricultural mission in Afghanistan

An Afghan grower watches over his almonds at the bazaar. Photo by 2nd Lt. Davin Fischer

ZABUL PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN -- Two local soldiers with the Minnesota National Guard were part of a foot patrol that brought them to an Afghanistan bazaar as part of their mission to aid agriculture there.

Agricultural subject matter experts and a security element from the Zabul Agri-Business Development Team, comprised of members of the Minnesota and Mississippi National Guards, conducted the patrol through the main bazaar in Qalat, Dec. 14, to survey shops and meet with vendors and traders of agricultural goods, according to a news release from the Minnesota National Guard.

Though looking for similarities and practices held in common with their Midwestern roots, agricultural experts from the team have consistently found key differences between the way business is conducted in Afghanistan and back home.

"Comparing stores here and back home there's obviously quite a difference," said Lt. Col. Ken D. DeGier of Echo, team agricultural section leader.

"Prices are not marked and haggling is the preferred system of arriving at an agreement between consumer and vendor."

The team spent the majority of its time in the bazaar visiting one of the larger almond markets, trying to determine pricing and the economic flow of one of Zabul Province's staple crops. Members of the team discussed value chains and the process by which almonds are harvested and brought to market with the almond merchants, many of whom reclined on the merchandise they had carefully laid out on mats in the open courtyard.

"This is very different from the system we're accustomed to back home," said DeGier. "When entering a co-op in the U.S., the prices are posted for each crop. If a farmer wants to sell his corn that day, he receives the posted price. That being said, the market here is working. All parties involved are satisfied."

The team's main task after surveying markets will be to assist the Afghan Department of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock in ensuring that goods from the rural parts of Zabul make their way to functioning markets as effectively as possible.

"What we're finding is that, in many cases, the farmers in rural parts of the province have a subsistence mindset," said DeGier. "Often they'll have a surplus, but no way to bring that surplus to market, so the wheat, almonds or mulberries will rot in the field."

It's a daunting task, but the concept of agri-business development teams is to work with the Afghan Government, Afghan National Security Forces and Coalition Forces and work to stabilize areas through a combined effort, one of which is improving agricultural practices and systems.

Though a different world, some glaring similarities still exist. Shops on the street sell hot breakfast and lunch, steaming fresh rice and hot tea to customers that stand together talking about the day ahead, much like main street diners in the U.S.

"I usually go with eggs over easy, toast and coffee so that's a little bit different, but the concept is the same," said Agricultural Deputy Section Leader Maj. Joe P. Berube of Litchfield.

The Zabul team partners with the Afghan ag department staff and other partners in conducting agricultural outreach and activities throughout Zabul Province. The agri-business development team concept is a National Guard initiative to utilize the civilian agricultural skills of Guard members throughout the United States. team 3 is one of 11 such teams operating in Afghanistan.