U.S. troops preparing for deployment to Afghanistan are learning about that country’s grape production and the importance of small-scale farming to its citizens, thanks to a Washington State University Extension viticulturist.

Michelle Moyer, a WSU statewide viticulture extension specialist, has developed a presentation for the national eXtension Grape Community of Practice (GCoP) that offers troops a general introduction to vine biology, how grapes are grown, potential threats to grape production and specifics of Afghan grape production. An organization of 87 grape production professionals from 31 states and Ontario, Canada, the GCoP will distribute Moyer’s presentation to its members at universities and government agencies for their troop training efforts.

Reducing negative impact; improving economy

"Specific information on Afghan grape production is important for developing cultural and production sensitivity in deploying U.S. troops,” Moyer said. "Grapes are the leading horticulture crop for Afghanistan, but their production systems are not like those U.S. citizens would be accustomed to seeing.

"By providing information regarding what our troops might encounter while on the ground in Afghanistan, we can reduce the likelihood of a negative impact on production for this very important crop,” she added. "This sensitivity is critical in rebuilding economic and agricultural stability that is necessary for the overall long-term stability of a country.”

(For more, see: US military succeeds in fields of the Taliban)

Predominant crop

Forty-eight percent of the fruit-bearing land in Afghanistan is dedicated to grapes, said Moyer, a WSU assistant professor, who has a Bachelor of Science degree in genetics and plant pathology, and a Ph.D. in plant pathology. Much of those crops are grown for personal consumption as table grapes and raisins, not for commercial use. Because most Afghan vineyards have higher rates of fungal disease, yield is typically low.

One major difference between Afghan and U.S. grape production is the absence of trellising for grapevines. Grape plants are most often grown as bushes or use old trees as a trellising system.

"Just because a vine is growing up a tree does not mean it is not a part of the local production system,” Moyer said. "While rudimentary, it is a common practice to trellis vines on any structure available, if they are trellised at all.”

Water supplies demand extra care

Irrigation, provided by canals, lines or furrows, is the most crucial factor in Afghan grape production --requiring the greatest care from in-country U.S. troops, Moyer stressed. Soldiers should be extra careful to not contaminate or disrupt water supplies.

"You don’t know what is drawing from a water source downstream of your activities,” she said.

Primitive growing conditions

Afghanistan’s primitive growing conditions for grapes mean less chance of recovery should vineyard damage occur. Injuring vine buds and shoots hurts farmers’ yield that year, but trunk injuries will hurt farmers for several years to come. Recouping those losses may be difficult.

"I would hope that as a result of this type of training, our troops will be able to recognize the importance of small-scale farming in countries like Afghanistan and realize that production systems can differ greatly among different agricultural regions,” Moyer said. "But they all still have the same bottom line: to provide food and a livelihood for a country’s citizens.”

Army requests training

Personnel at one Washington state U.S. Army base have heard Moyer’s presentation. On March 28, Washington State Pest Management Resource Service Director Catherine Daniels provided the information to soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) near Tacoma. The troops were scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan in mid-April.

First Lt. Brian Rodriguez, Attack Company, 2-1 Infantry Battalion, said company leaders requested the presentation to not only educate soldiers on Afghan grape production techniques, but also on ways for soldiers to keep from damaging grapevines and to spot grape diseases.

"The pictures [Daniels] provided for the presentation were very accurate to what we are seeing here every day,” Rodriguez said. "I definitely notice my soldiers taking great care when moving through the grape fields, making sure not to step on the vines. Because of this, we have avoided a lot of villagers coming to our tactical infrastructure with claims of damaged grapevines.”

Tons of raisins

Daniels also described Afghanistan’s raisin production, especially the country’s raisin-drying facilities, or khanas. Some soldiers had seen similar, older facilities in other JBLM presentations that were used as insurgents’ hiding places or attack points, she said. Daniels talked about these structures so soldiers would know what their interior looks like and what the relative value of the raisin crop drying inside would be. One khana can hold up to six metric tons of raisins, potentially valued at $12,900 USD.

"The value surprised them,” she said. "In trying to integrate within the local Afghan community, the army may possibly be asked to pay for damages if one of the raisin-drying facilities or its contents gets damaged in a firefight. I wanted them to understand what it means to the farmers to keep those facilities intact and their contents undamaged. The safety of the soldiers is paramount, but if the United States wants to help the local Afghan population stand on its own feet, it’s also reasonable to compensate the farmers for income lost as a result of battle.”

GCoP Project Director Eric Stafne, an assistant extension professor of fruit crops for Mississippi State University, presented Moyer’s guide to the Mississippi National Guard on May 1.

"Michelle’s presentation is a great baseline to work from,” he added. "It is this type of collaborative process that the GCoP is based upon — it reduces redundancy and increase the knowledge base for our audience, as well as ourselves.”