Freedom to Farm

December 12, 2008 06:00 PM
 
It's never been clearer that American farmers are truly blessed to work the land. Halfway across the globe, farmers in war-torn Iraq have faced economic hardships and violence—all while trying to rebuild their agricultural industry, says Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, Chief, Public Affairs, Communication Division, Strategic Effects, Multinational Force–Iraq.

The country's agricultural production stems from Taji, the area of rich land north of Baghdad, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. To the west is barren desert and to the north are dense mountain ranges. For those reasons, Smith says, "Iraq relies on the center of the country to support the agriculture base.

"About 30 million acres, representing 27% of all Iraq's land mass, can be cultivated,” Smith explains. "That land, though, as you fly over it today, is not what it had once been. There was certainly lots of activity in the past. But unfortunately, the lack of investment from the Saddam era in the 15 years since the last Gulf War, and of course the past five years, has really crippled the agriculture industry.”

Iraqi farmers are still in a transition from a state government that provided all of their resources to building a market-based economy. Wheat, rice and corn are the predominant crops in Iraq. Other crops include barley, sunflowers, vegetables and date palms. The livestock industry centers on sheep and cattle production.

Back to basics. The No. 1 issue in Iraq's agricultural system is the water supply. "You can't drill for water here—you can drill for oil, but not water. All of the water in the country, including irrigation for crops, must be fed through man-made canals and pumps. You can't depend on rainfall to provide water for crops to grow, as there is so little of that,” Smith says.

The man-made canals come right up to the farmer's land. The farmer then pumps the water into irrigation canals for his crops. This practice relies on electricity, also an economic hardship for farmers.

"Farmers are hurting at the most basic level. As the water gets fed down these canals, it is often stolen by illegal tapping of the canals, as well as the conditions of the canals themselves,” Smith explains.

Keeping the canals clean and weed-free is also vital to supplying southern areas with water. "It isn't something that can be done by hand,” Smith says. "It's a very mechanically labor- intensive process to clean out these canals.”

Farmers are also responsible for moving water back off of their farmland. The water cannot set in the canals because the salinity of the water will destroy the soil. Underground silt pipes bleed the water off and drain back out to the canal, much like tile systems in the U.S.

"Every few years, those tile systems clog up and the pipes have to be cleaned out,” Smith says. "In the past few years, there hasn't been an economy to do that. The Iraqi people will have to make some real investment in the irrigation distribution system just to get the water moving.”

When Smith toured farms in Taji, he visited a sheik who is a multigenerational farmer. In his family, the sheik is the only male figure left, as his two brothers died fighting in a war. The sheik showed Smith his wheat field, which consists of a couple dozen acres. He owns one tractor that no longer works, so he has to rent equipment, which is costly.

A major factor for livestock producers is the lack of feed mills. There is no feed mill to grind feed for sheep or cattle—producers must rely on imported feed. "That increases the cost of raising sheep or cattle tremendously,” Smith explains. "One of the first things they are trying to do here is build local feed mills, so as grain farmers harvest their crops they can take it to these processing facilities.”

Even if Iraqi farmers did have easy access to livestock feed, they would have few places to take animals for slaughter. There are no stockyards in Iraq, and the economy is not equipped to sell on a price-per-pound basis.

A large part of agriculture in Iraq is vegetable production. Smith says the problem isn't so much getting products to market as it is the packaging and processing facilities are unable to turn raw produce into food products that the Iraqi population can use in a timely fashion. Currently, most fresh produce is imported into the country because local produce often spoils before customers are able to consume it.

Fight to farm.
The country's areas of violence are in the same geographic area as agriculture. "Iraq is still very much entrenched in a war here,” Smith says. "There is significant risk of violence in moving products along the road. We're a long way from an Iraqi farmer being able to load up a truck with his harvest and drive to town to deliver to a market without considerable risk.”

The sheik Smith visited on his tour of Taji farms is forced to organize security volunteers to protect his village, fields included. The day Smith was there, the sheik's son was taking a nap. When Smith asked why, the sheik replied that his son had spent all night standing guard in front of their house.

"It's hard to think of sending your son to the end of your road and having him sit there with a rifle all night guarding against someone coming onto your property intent on doing harm,” Smith says.

Freedom to live. The heart and soul of an Iraqi farmer is very familiar, Smith says. "They are hardworking people, family oriented, goal-oriented and independent. Much like our American farmers always have been.”

Smith remembers the sheik that he visited. "He is a very proud man, and a very influential man in the area where he lives, Taji.” Yet, as powerful as he is, he doesn't own any equipment because Iraq doesn't manufacture machinery. It all has to be imported, which is expensive. Until farmers in Iraq begin to make money, it will be difficult to buy the equipment they need.

"You can see the challenges here.” Smith says. "But I did not feel they were looking to get out of this business. They weren't looking for anything except a bright way forward.”
Bring in the Iron
Without machinery, Iraqi farmers are merely spinning their wheels. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Defense's Task Force to Improve Business and Stability Operations in Iraq purchased 200 New Holland tractor kits from CNH International. The purchase also included training for workers at a tractor assembly facility in Iraq. In addition to numerous contracts with the U.S. Military, CNH has had the opportunity to fulfill multiple contracts to benefit Iraqi farmers. In 2006, CNH, along with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), refurbished 2,772 tractors for Iraqi farmers. Also in 2006, CNH and USAID developed a training program to improve and update the skills of Iraqi personnel involved in the agricultural equipment sector. In 2005, CNH shipped 60 New Holland combines and 180 tractors to the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Municipalities.

Economic revolution.
Iraq's gross domestic product (GDP) is largely fed from the oil industry. The agricultural industry accounts for only 6% to 7% of the GDP, but it is the second largest contributor. While it represents only a small portion of the GDP, the agricultural sector employs approximately 25% of the Iraqi population. Oil, though not as labor-intensive, still produces the majority of Iraq's wealth.

To help encourage growth in the agricultural sector, Iraqi government officials have teamed with civilian organizations and companies, universities and Extension agencies to bring new opportunities and increased educational resources to Iraqi farmers.

"There is a minister of agriculture in Iraq and a small network of Extension-type programs to support farmers,” Smith says. "There are a lot of grant programs that the minister of agriculture provides. There also are assistance-in-kind programs for seed and fertilizer.

"There have been many other investments made by other partners, the U.S. being one of those. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been invested in the agriculture industry, a big part of that in the area of irrigation.”

The focal point for reconstruction is provided by provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs). These groups are made up of about 30 people, both military and civilians from different parts of the U.S. government, most often agriculture and transportation. Stateside, Lt. Col. Harvey Fitzgerald teaches agriculture at South Dakota State University. In Iraq, he leads one of 28 PRTs. Smith says that in many cases, PRTs try to use local Iraqis to help solve their own country's problems.

"In the end, it's going to be Iraqis solving Iraqi problems, not some army colonel,” Smith says.

"Looking back to the 40s and 50s, American agriculture was much the same way—not a lot of heavy equipment, it was basic simple farming. That's where these people are at. We are talking about a very simplistic agricultural society that relied on labor, hard work and water that was fed to them through canal systems. Access that water was given to them, also during the Saddam era, seed was given to them, supplies were given to them. All of those systems that were given to them are gone now. They are starting an economy-based agriculture system from the ground up. They are getting a lot of help from U.S. agriculture personnel, as well as non-government agriculture organizations, Extension and ag universities, to help them begin laying a ground work for the agricultural society.”



You can e-mail Sara Brown at sbrown@farmjournal.com.





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