According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farming is the main source of income in Afghanistan with nearly 80 percent of the country’s population involved in crop or livestock production. This is in spite of only 12 percent of the land being arable, and only 6 percent of it actually being cultivated. Those are the official numbers. Unofficially, though?
“They’re 200 years behind us in terms of farming,” said Agricultural Extension Agent, First Lieutenant (1LT) Christopher Rees of the Army National Guard. “They’re still using donkeys to pull plows.”
That’s why part of the Army National Guard’s overall mission is to help improve the state of agriculture in Afghanistan. That way, as the U.S. troop drawdown continues, the Afghan people will be prepared to do things for themselves, more efficiently, with sustainable and profitable crops that can help lift people out of poverty and make them less likely to join terrorist organizations like the Taliban.
“Our goal over there is to work with government officials, to get them up to speed, and to provide mentoring,” 1LT Rees said. “They are very receptive to us. We are working with some really good officials.”
Contrast the situation in Afghanistan with 1LT Rees’ home state of Nebraska. You know that line in the song “America the Beautiful” about amber waves of grain? That’s Nebraska. It’s a state known for its farms, its crops, and its livestock. It should be no surprise that it’s also home to a host of agricultural support businesses providing farming supplies, fertilizers, and seeds, which is where 1LT Rees got his start.
Growing up in Iowa prior to relocating to Nebraska, he had worked for a seed company through high school and as a college undergrad studying Agricultural Business at Iowa State. He then went to the University of Nebraska to get his master’s degree in Agronomy and continued working at another company.
And he did all this before joining the Guard. That makes 1LT Rees the National Guard equivalent of a non-traditional student: he didn’t join the Guard until he was 31 years old. By the time he joined, he was already a college graduate, so he didn’t even join for the classic reason of accessing education benefits, though the Guard did help pay for some of his schooling. So what was it that could compel a man entering his 30s to enter a world dominated by recruits in their late teens and early 20s?
“Like many others, it started immediately after 9/11,” 1LT Rees recalled. “I thought about life and what I wanted to be. I decided that if anything like that ever happened again, I would join the service. But after a while I thought, why wait until something happens again?”
His brother, a National Guard member, encouraged him to consider the Guard, “So I spent some time talking to a recruiter and eventually enlisted in the Nebraska Army National Guard, did my Basic Combat Training (BCT) at Ft. Knox, and then went through OCS (Officer Candidate School).”
While he may have been older than other recruits, it also made him wiser and put him in a position his younger counterparts weren’t ready for: to volunteer for the Agribusiness Development Team (ADT) that would be deployed to Afghanistan.
“My background is in research,” 1LT Rees said. “Agronomy is the study of soils, field crops, and cropping systems. There is some biology, like plant and cell development and herbicides. I’ve done corn research and soybean research.”
This made him the ideal candidate for the Agribusiness Development Team, though 1LT Rees was quick to shift the focus off him and onto his colleagues: There were 12 people on his team, a 12-person headquarters section, and a 36 person security force that would set the perimeter that allowed Rees and his colleagues to work in relative safety.
“We dealt with very basic things, such as setting up meetings, providing funding for seeds, or just providing a lunch or pruners as an incentive for them to listen to what we had to say,” he said. “We dealt with a broad range of topics like watershed, agronomics, demo farms, forestry, and livestock.
“The mountains are so bare over there that we knew that if we got some trees planted, that would go a long way to help with watershed,” 1LT Rees said. “And one of the livestock team’s quick-hit projects was training women about how to care for livestock and poultry. That would give them [widows, single women] a better chance of living and sustaining themselves.”
And while the Afghans were very receptive to what Rees and the team were doing, he said, “Farmers are the same the world over: they want to do everything the same way their father did it, which isn’t always the best way. For example, we plant corn in rows because it results in a greater yield. They hand broadcast [scatter seed] into a field and wouldn’t do it our way until we showed them on a demo farm how much better it would be to plant in rows.”
Once they saw that corn planted in rows would improve their yield, they were more than willing to adopt the new way of planting.
1LT Rees was also lucky in that his wife was involved in the project, too. As an employee at the University of Nebraska, she was the liaison between his team and the University. So while she remained safe and sound at her office, 1LT Rees got to experience a little bit of home every time “… we had a question about something – if we wanted to know about wheat or insects or rangeland grasses – she funneled the questions to the right people and got back to us with the answers.”
Now back in the United States, 1LT Rees puts his training to use every day in his civilian capacity as a manager at a seed company and sees firsthand how Guard training can help anyone looking to diversify their skill set.
“As officers, we get to lead troops, set the example, and supervise people, but even Soldiers in the enlisted ranks get experience leading small teams or groups,” 1LT Rees said. “For me though, the most valuable thing was that it made me more focused overall, more disciplined – and the camaraderie is a big thing. There is an instant, common bond with other Soldiers.”