About 60 S.C. National Guard soldiers have left for Afghanistan to help local farmers grow bigger crops and raise healthier livestock.
In a sense, the soldiers will serve as agriculture extension agents — except they'll be in uniform, wear helmets and body armor, and carry rifles.
In fact, part of the troops' training involved working alongside Clemson University extension agents and taking classes on soil science, crop production, livestock management, and food microbiology and preservation.
They also trained at the school's Sandhill Research and Education Center in Northeast Richland, learning agriculture-related chores.
The S.C. Guard unit's Afghanistan assignment is "just another extension mission," said Mac Horton, Sandhill director. "When someone says they need Clemson's help with an agriculture issue, it's our obligation to help."
South Carolina is among a dozen states taking part in an agriculture development program the Pentagon launched in 2008 and assigned to the Army National Guard.
Providing technical expertise to Afghan farmers is key to the military's effort to win the hearts and minds of the people. Officials say a successful agriculture mission can bring stability and prosperity to Afghanistan.
Agriculture makes up about a third of Afghanistan's $12.9 billion-a-year gross domestic product and provides nearly 80 percent of the country's jobs.
Military leaders also say if Afghan farmers can profit from raising crops like wheat, barley, corn, rice and grapes, they will be less likely to grow poppies. Opium, extracted from poppies, fuels the country's illicit drug trade, fosters widespread corruption and helps finance the Taliban.
The S.C. National Guard unit was specially formed about a year ago for the agriculture assignment. Its soldiers represent just about every unit in the Guard - from infantry to combat engineers to communications.
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