Several years ago, unable to quash the Taliban with bullets alone, military brass figured they’d try a different approach, one that would bolster the agrarian roots of the desperately poor in southern Afghanistan.

That’s how, in 2010, the Agriculture Development Team One – a joint Air Force/National Guard counter insurgency effort – came to be surrounded by the chaotic ruckus kicked up by thousands and thousands of sheep and goats. Word had spread like wildfire through the mountainous desolation: the Americans would vaccinate and treat herds. The hand-to-mouth populace latched onto the golden opportunity and the team worked for days on the animals.

In the year-plus the team spent in Afghanistan’s dangerous Zabul Province it was a scene that would repeat itself many times.

The team, largely composed of Mid-South men, arrived in Afghanistan in February of 2010. A troop surge was ongoing and it was early March before they reached their base, which proved to be nothing except a bare patch of ground a bit over 7,000 feet in elevation. Tents were pitched, generators brought in, everything built from scratch.

Some 50 miles from the notorious Pakistan border, the base was in a historical area. About a mile away sat a castle built for Alexander the Great – certainly nice, but small consolation weighed against the near-constant threat of violence.

The team

David Paul Hafer is a young east Arkansan raised in a farming family south of Helena. He was even younger when, after earning a degree in agricultural business and farming for a few years, the events of 9/11 spurred him to join the National Guard. He rented the farmland out and was sent to Iraq in 2008. When he returned home, Hafer joined the agriculture team bound for Afghanistan in 2010.

Also on the team was Addison Taylor, who’d been raised on an Arkansas rice farm in Jefferson County’s Altheimer. Taylor was managing the family farm when, he says, “We were notified about the deployment at the end of October and would start training on our mission in November for departure in January. We had short notice to get our affairs in order.” 

The team consisted of “guys who came from all sorts of agricultural backgrounds: agronomy, animal science, poultry, whatever,” says Hafer. Prior to leaving, “we went through an intense, week-long training program with the University of Arkansas Extension Service. It was saturation sessions, getting everyone up to speed on whatever field they’d be covering once we were in-country.”

Once there, Hafer and colleagues spoke with “Special Operation guys. ‘Here’s who we are, here’s what we’re doing.’ They were very happy to see us because they didn’t have enough to offer the (locals). They needed to build up some goodwill. They’d walk into a village and the residents would say ‘okay, now what?’

“Once our team hit the ground, though, they were able to tell the villagers ‘we’re the Special Forces. Plus, we have these guys who are going to help you with your farming. If you have any problems, visit with them and they’ll help you fix it.’”

Strategic planning and assessments of terrain and local populations followed. “None of it was anything like we’d previously planned or trained for,” says Taylor. Locals were illiterate and “none of the people knew what was even on the other side of the river from them. At the same time, we were being pulled in many directions by all of the units in the battle space, from U.S. Special Operation guys to the Romanian Army.”

Hafer found unexpected benefits from having sweated with the Extension Service during summers while attending the University of Arkansas. Asked to put together projects to help educate Afghan farmers, he drew on that work.

“I was asked to build a couple of model farms while in Afghanistan. These were demonstration farms – one in the south part of the province we were in, one in the north.

“I tried to pull everything the university does – sort of cobbling together all the verification projects and the like – and put it on one little farm to show the Afghans. We had everything from grapes to wheat to chickens.”

Then, the team planned to put together an education center on the demonstration farms, a place where Afghan farmers could receive up-to-date farming advice. “We envisioned it as kind of what we do with Extension agents in the States.”

Optimism mixed with difficulty

Optimism was high but difficulties abounded.

“It was tough because the education system there is not comparable to the West,” says Hafer. “A college degree earned there is probably equivalent to a ninth-grade or high-school education here. That’s a great divide to overcome.

“Things were tough for multiple reasons. One, the security where we were at was lacking. If we weren’t in the most dangerous place in the country, it was second-most. That meant getting Afghan ‘Extension agents’ to work with us was a feat in itself, never mind matching up educational requirements we knew were needed.”

Along with one of the Air Force personnel, Hafer and Taylor decided that in addition to the demonstration farms they’d put together a series of agricultural seminars.

“We developed a plan to go to as many of the 13 districts that we could to get the Afghan government officials out there,” says Taylor. “We came up with the idea from the medical seminars that the Special Forces guys did to teach the locals. We took the idea and made it fit for agriculture … and it lasted the rest of the tour. We would go and do a recon of the area and speak to the locals in a town hall-type setting, called a ‘Shurra,’ about three weeks before we would have the seminars.”

Suicide bomb threats weren’t uncommon and, Taylor says, more than once “some of the locals we were working with got kidnapped. It was bad for the Taliban to have the Afghan government helping the locals and we met resistance at many of the events -- both attacks on us and the Afghans.”

At one point, team members traveled to the university in Kabul and spoke with professors and Extension agents.  “We said ‘we’ll send Chinook helicopters to pick you up and we’ll fly you wherever we need to go in the province,’” says Hafer.

Whenever possible, the idea was to put an Afghan face on the team’s efforts, allow the Afghans any glory. Every district in the province has a center where elders and tribal chiefs hold court. Those are where the team put on two- and three-day seminars and pushed the leaders to the front.

Presentations were provided on all sorts of crops. “Maybe we’d have an expert on pomegranates, which is a major crop there. If a farmer came in and was having trouble, hopefully the lecture would help him. Then, they’d sidebar after the lecture and get advice about their specific situation.”

Hafer found the lack of roads and isolation of Afghan village life hard to comprehend. The agricultural seminars were a simple way to bring villages together. “Honestly, some of these folks could see another village in the distance. But for their entire lives they’d not travel over and meet them -- live and die and never even know who their neighbors are.

“Things are very primitive. These villages are out in the middle of nowhere. One village we walked into, the people thought we were Russians.”

Afghan bureaucracy

Navigating entrenched Afghan bureaucracy was also a struggle for the team. Two men they quickly learned to keep happy: the DAIL (Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock) at the provincial level, and the MAIL (Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock), Afghanistan’s top agricultural official.

“We had to run everything through these guys. If you tried to do something without going through the right channels, you’d shoot yourself in the foot. They’d sandbag you and corruption is rampant. It’s incredibly corrupt over there. It took us a while to find people we could work with.”

Still, the team’s work progressed.

“Towards the summer, we were hitting the agricultural seminars heavy. And if a farmer stayed through the whole seminar, we’d give them X amount of vaccinations, tools, all kinds of things they’d never have been able to afford on their own.”

It was a bit of dilemma deciding what sort of aid to provide the Afghans. “Some of the humanitarian organizations would give a tractor or generators and other types of modern equipment,” says Taylor. “That wasn’t a good idea. If you gave them something like a tractor, it would break down and they have no part stores to fix it and had no education of how to even start. It also would cause problems by creating a welfare type dependency – ‘why buy it or build it, when the Americans will give it to us.’ It also showed favoritism and made locals targets for the Taliban when we left.”

The team decided to provide locals with tools. Doing so meant “we could educate them on the proper and best uses of the tools, like back pack sprayers and vet supplies,” says Taylor.

Wheat was a large focus of Hafer’s. “The seasons in Afghanistan are like ours – they also plant wheat in the fall. In that respect, we didn’t have to do any work-arounds. Of course, there were other crops we weren’t as familiar with like pomegranates and almonds.”

It became readily apparent that the Afghan’s crop genetics were poor.

“They don’t know to keep the best seed to replant and eat the poorer seed. They did the complete opposite. They’d eat the best wheat and plant the garbage. This had been in practice for so long that the genetics were very bad.

“We went searching for a new wheat variety that would fit their needs. They have a bad rust problem and in order to deal with it, we had a variety flown in and established a wheat distribution program. If we couldn’t truck the variety to villages, we’d put it in helicopters and fly it to them.”

At the same time, the team educated the villagers on the importance of proper wheat farming. “They typically planted wheat and barley together and wondered why the two weren’t performing. Well, one crop was competing with the other. They accepted that sort of advice.”

But some things the Afghans wouldn’t change. An example, says Hafer, was simply to trellis grapes.

“They wouldn’t trellis, period. Grapes there are grown on long earth mounds, draped over them.

“We talked a farmer into allowing us to take a small spot of his grapes. We cut the mound out from under them and put them on a trellis. By the end of the season, those grapes looked three times better than the rest.”

It didn’t matter.

“They told us ‘we put in so much work on the mounds, we’re going to keep doing it that way.’ Those are the situations where you just shrug and move on.”

Meanwhile, the Afghan’s irrigation methods were “very, very efficient” – a good thing after a decade-long drought.

“They make use of a system that is thousands of years old that incorporates ‘karezes.’ That’s a series of vertical shafts in a row that usually start next to a mountain or on a mountainside. Believe or not, one guy goes into those shafts and they dig a horizontal shaft beneath the vertical shafts all the way to end. Water then collects in those shafts – usually associated with a spring.”

Cisterns are also built up. In a village there is usually a central irrigation system. From that, there will be five or six canals connected. All day long, men sit at the central hub timing the water flow.

“Every family receives a certain amount of water for their orchard or whatever through one of the canals. When their time of running water is over, they pack the canal with mud and break open the barrier to another canal so that family can get their share.

“It’s amazing. I’d almost swear they can make water run uphill. Water was so precious and they wasted none.”

Harvest and soil tests

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.

Toughness and resilience

Despite barely escaping some “hairy situations,” Hafer came to admire the Afghans. He says they are “toughest people I’ve ever seen. You could see it in their eyes. They are incredibly resilient.

We’d be 10,000 feet up a mountain, shivering in the freezing cold and barely able to stand it with all this special clothing on. The locals would be standing outside in sandals, without coats, smoking cigarettes. We’d just shake our heads and think ‘How on earth is that possible?’”

Hafer has shaken hands with the Taliban. “They typically dress better than the locals, look healthier, and are usually bigger. You could tell they wanted to do us in, and would have if they could get around all our guns. They knew we’d smoke their heads.”

The team also worked with many Mujahedeen fighters that took on the Soviets in the 1980s. One, Rosie Mohammed, had a great-great-grandfather who was a king.

Rosie, says Hafer, “had the stroke and had been one of the bigwigs when they were fighting the Russians. It was gentlemen like Rosie that had stepped up to the Taliban and said ‘we’re sick of this. You won’t let our kids go to school. You’ve held us down and we’re tired of being stupid. You’ve had your chance and now we’re going to work with the Americans.’

“And Rosie’s village drove the Taliban out. It can be done.

“The mission we were on was so important because the whole country revolves around agriculture. And it’s not over -- the mission is ongoing and we need to support it.”

The original agriculture team was replaced by a second from Arkansas: AR ADT 02.

“We were glad to see their faces after the long year and tried to set them up for success … so they could continue to execute the missions that worked,” says Taylor. “We didn’t want them wasting time trying to do things that others back home had told them worked. ... We helped shape the way that the Coalition forces approached the winning of hearts and minds and really helped (the Afghans) build up agriculture, something that would last long after we were gone.”

Whole-farm management

Following their work in Afghanistan, the agriculture team returned home in February of 2011 and integrated back into regular life for a couple of months.

Since then, Hafer has been working with fellow team-member and Arkansan, Addison Taylor.

Addison’s mother, an estate planning and agriculture attorney in Fayetteville (who is also the daughter and wife of cotton farmers), “had been toying with the idea of putting together a company that would cover the whole farm management picture,” explains Hafer. “Some companies do only certain aspects of farm management. She wanted to put together something that would specialize in everything under one roof: state laws, ag laws, farm management and the rest.”

Hafer was asked to fill the senior farm management position at the newly-formed Farmland Strategies.

“Addison had seen me work overseas in many environments and I’d seen him. We know what each other is capable of.

“So, this summer we started with the ASFMRA (American Society Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers) farm management track. It takes about three years to get – it isn’t easy to achieve and they’re rightfully proud of it.”

Taylor and Hafer also earned real estate licenses and are working on requirements to become accredited farm managers with the Society.  

Since then, “we’ve been out beating the bushes. Starting something from nothing is not easy. It can be a bit overwhelming at first. But the thing is, in Afghanistan we really did start something from nothing (so this is not) new to us.”

dbennett@farmpress.com