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Two acres, eight farmers: a demo farm saga

Capt. Peter Shinn, Combined Joint Task Force 101

Photo by Capt. Peter Shinn 
U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Don Kuehl of Jackson, Minn., says farewell to Shah Mahmood, the Sarkani District subgovernor, following a meeting at the Sarkani District Center, Dec. 27.

KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- 12.29.2010 The Iowa National Guard’s 734th Agribusiness Development Team is concerned about the potential impact a two-acre demonstration farm could have on the Afghan farmers currently using the land at the proposed demo farm site, near the Sarkani District Center in Kunar province.

During an ADT site visit in November, three farmers were planting alfalfa on the land earmarked for the demo farm. They said a total of eight farmers depended on the proposed demo farmland to grow forage to feed their livestock.

U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Don Kuehl of Jackson, Minn., the Sarkani District project manager for the ADT, met with the three farmers at the proposed demo farm site last month. At home, Kuehl works with U.S. farmers nearly every day in his role as a crop insurance broker, and he felt strongly about minimizing any negative impact the demo farm might have on the Afghan farmers he met.

“We want to make darn sure we’re not doing more harm than good,” Kuehl said, “so I wanted to help the farmers and the Sarkani District officials come to an agreement about using a portion of the proceeds from the demo farm to offset any losses the farmers might have.”

Kuehl, through an intermediary, set-up a meeting with the affected farmers, the Sarkani District subgovernor and the district agriculture extension manager for Dec. 27. However, when Kuehl arrived at the meeting, only subgovernor Shah Mahmood and Sarkani District Agriculture Extension Manager Mangal Khan were there.

After an animated discussion between Mahmood, Khan, the intermediary, two interpreters and Kuehl, it became clear neither Mahmood nor Kahn knew who the farmers in question were, nor how many were actually working the land set aside for the proposed demonstration farm. Still, the group quickly reached consensus that the affected farmers should be indemnified for any losses caused by placement of the demo farm on the land they work. Mahmood and Khan also promised to identify the affected farmers and arrange for Kuehl to meet them.

Kuehl, Mahmood and Khan then discussed the structure of the proposed demo farm, and agreed on the size and placement of two separate greenhouses. Mahmood and Khan were especially enthusiastic about the prospect of growing fresh vegetables during the winter.

“The farmers here do not know how to grow vegetables, but they bring a much higher price during the winter,” Khan said. “With these greenhouses, we can teach them how to grow vegetables they can take to market for more money.”

After discussing outstanding irrigation issues confronting the district, Kuehl agreed to consider underwriting the rental of an excavator to clear the intake of a major canal. However, he insisted Mahmood get three bids for the work first. Mahmood readily agreed, noting “when we shop, we go to three stores before we buy anything.”

Mahmood also expressed gratitude for the ADT’s help in improving agriculture in his district. He shared a vision of the future involving the ADT’s return in a more leisurely role.

“I hope you provide us enough help so you can leave here and return to your country,” Mahmood said. “Then, you can come back here in a few years as tourists.”

For Kuehl, the meeting delivered something of a mixed message. On one hand, he was “surprised the district officials didn’t know who was farming their land, especially since the farmers told me they were paying taxes to do it.” On the other hand, Kuehl has no doubt about the sincerity of Shah Mahmood and Mangal Khan or their commitment to the people they serve.

“I was very encouraged by the district leaders as to getting the demo farms and greenhouse established, and I anticipate getting tremendous results from the training of both the district officials and the Afghan farmers,” Kuehl said. “That way we can accomplish what we set out to do: help the maximum number of people here improve their life.”

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