Wheat was harvested using small hand sickles. Afghan farmers use everything from the plant, cut at dirt-level. The straw is almost as valuable as the wheat itself, used to “feed animals, make beds, whatever.

“They usually have a thrasher pulled by a tractor. Once a village has harvested its wheat, the thrasher will come through and charge everyone a certain amount per bushel. They take the wheat by hand and throw it in the thrasher. The thrashed wheat is piled up on the ground, it’s bagged and put on donkeys and off they go.”

Hafer was surprised at the number of tractors the villagers have. Many of the villages are so poor that the tractor is community-owned.

“They’ll take the tractor and work the land up, plant the wheat and then water it like we do rice. They have a tool that looks kind of like a snow shovel with a rope on the end. One guy pulls the rope and that’s how they make levees. They reform the levees once the field is worked up and then plant the wheat by hand.

“We tried to help them understand why yields were so bad. You could walk fields and see big wads of seed in spots with very little around it. But that was another thing we couldn’t come to a middle ground on.

“Then, once the seed is out, they flash flood the field. The water is dropped off and that’s how the wheat seed is germinated. They do it that way because it never rains – it rained twice while we were there.”

As for soil tests, Hafer backpacked a mobile soil test kit everywhere. Anytime he traveled to a new village and got the elders’ permission, “I’d go out and test fields or orchards right on the spot. Fertility was awful nearly everywhere – zero nitrogen, very low potash and phosphorous.

“I hated to categorize these villages in terms of strategic importance, but that was how things were set up. If a village was ranked high, I’d call and have the DAIL send in X amount of fertilizer and other necessities.”

Sometimes that fertilizer was trucked, other time flown in. The chances of a convoy being hit by a road-side bomb were so high, “you never knew if inputs being trucked in would make it. It was a crap shoot. But eventually we’d show the villagers how to put out the fertilizers.”

Demonstration farms

America is a go-go nation and citizens have been conditioned to expect quick results. Often to the team’s frustration, that wasn’t the case in Afghanistan.

“Over there, they want to talk about things, go slow. And they don’t just want to talk once, but five or six times. It can take months to get anything done.”

The demonstration farm in the south was set up in a nursery that had been started years earlier by a non-governmental organization.

“When their money ran out, they walked off and left it. I went in to set the farm up and lived with the Romanian infantry. We had a tractor, worked the land into shape and put a fence all around it. A building was renovated and we used it to hold classes and provide office space for the area Extension agent.

“There was also a school there, which was so important. The boys and girls were educated separately.”

The whole set-up was vital for the area. Besides learning to read and write, the children were also taught to farm.

“There is a big gap in the generation of Afghans due to the decades of war there. They’ve lost a lot of the fundamental knowledge about farming to violence.”

And, slowly, the team saw the tide turning; saw their efforts beginning to pay off. “Once the people saw we were there to help them and make this work, we were accepted and appreciated. Hordes of people would show up.”

When the team left, the southern demonstration farm was operational. The northern farm was in the beginning stages and will be much larger with areas for pasture management, alternative and drought-resistant grasses.