For Missouri National Guard, Afghan fight is for better farming

McClatchy NewspapersJune 22, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Fertilizer, pesticides, animal breeding skills and water control: tools and talents that seem better suited for a farmer than for a soldier.

Except in Afghanistan, where the Missouri National Guard has pioneered a new strategy for countering terrorism.

The 61 soldiers and airmen in the Guard’s Agri-Business Development Team are battling the Taliban by finding ways for Afghan farmers with little access to fuel to refrigerate their crops and market what they grow.

And rechannel streams to better irrigate their fields.

"They're just free-running and do a lot of damage to farmland," Sgt. Jason Ledbetter, 36, of Raytown, said about the streams. "Their irrigation system looks like it has been around since Napoleon."

Not exactly the stuff of battlefield storytelling. But the task could be just as vital as the tons of new military hardware that will come as the U.S. troop surge makes its presence known.

Maj. Denise Wilkinson, 38, of Vienna, Mo., the team’s executive officer, said it performs its own kind of counterinsurgency against the Taliban.

“We hope to win over the hearts and minds of the people,” Wilkinson said.

It will be no easy task. Several Guard members said they often encounter suspicion and mistrust. Or worse.

Spc. Daniel Lee of Overland Park, a 22-year-old mine-resistant vehicle driver, had a close call with a roadside bomb just outside the entrance to the base.

“All of the sudden there was a loud explosion to my 10 o’clock,” Lee wrote in an e-mail. “So I hit the gas to get out of the kill zone. It was a life-changing experience that I’ll never forget.”

The injuries to the crew were minor, just cuts and bruises. But it was a reminder that while agriculture is the mission, there’s still a war going on.

“This team has the exact same concerns as every unit over there: They want to get back alive,” said Capt. Tammy Spicer, a spokeswoman for the Missouri National Guard.

Agriculture accounts for about one-third of the Afghanistan economy — excluding poppy production — and 80 percent of all jobs. But three decades of war have been ruinous. The 10-year Soviet occupation destroyed a lot of the fertile landscape.

Opium remains a chief export. But in places where it has been largely eradicated, such as Nangarhar province on the Pakistani border — where the Missouri Guard team operates — many farmers have few resources to fall back on.

Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri champions the agribusiness team as an example of the kind of “soft power” that he thinks the U.S. needs to employ more often.

Missouri already has sent two teams into the country since the pilot program began in 2007. A third is in the works, and interest has spread to units in at least a half-dozen other states. An agribusiness team from Kansas also is over there.

“The Kansas National Guard is ideally suited to take on missions like this,” said Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, Kansas adjutant general.

Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn, director of the Army National Guard and a Missouri native from the Bootheel, came up with the idea a few years ago.

The Guard partnered with the Missouri Farm Bureau, the University of Missouri and Lincoln University to develop the plan and picked soldiers whose backgrounds would be suitable.

Ledbetter, for instance, had been employed in pest control. Besides working on the watershed, he is helping to develop a cattle deworming program.

Wilkinson, the unit’s executive officer, who grew up on a farm, now raises horses, cattle and chickens.

Sgt. Jennifer Dipley, 29, of Festus, Mo., studied pre-veterinary medicine in college. She is helping build veterinary clinics to treat livestock. There’s also an agronomist, a soil science expert, a hydrologist and an agricultural marketing specialist.

Most of the Guard, though, provides security.

The president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, Charles Kruse, a retired 26-year veteran of the Guard, said the agribusiness team epitomizes “the concept of the citizen-soldier.”

Dipley agreed it’s a worthwhile effort, noting that “it may be in small increments. But how do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.”

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