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|1109 PD: The View from Here: Creating vibrant agriculture for Iraq|
|Columns - Mike Gangwer|
|Monday, 20 July 2009 03:35|
The work in Iraq is in many ways like the work anywhere else.Determine where there are constraints, develop a plan to remove them and then implement the plan. Here, at the Ministry of Agriculture in Baghdad, we are using this model.
The typical role for all diplomats in a developing country is two-fold. One is the obvious, build personal relationships with our colleagues having similar interests. For us, it is production agriculture. The second is just as important ... getting a sense of the lay of the land. That means inventory and evaluation. Practically, it means getting out of the office and seeing with eyes on the ground what is actually taking place. Human and resource intel is extremely valuable, and the best of it is on-site inventory and evaluation. All NRCS employees, of course, know that even though we have sophisticated mapping and imagery software, we still need to put the boots on and go look.
I have been on post here in Iraq for just over four months. My assignment is therefore one-third over. During my visits to different provinces, or better described as governates, the topic of soil fertility is often mentioned as a constraint to improving crop and vegetable yield.
Iraqi farmers do not have routine access to extension personnel capable of pulling soil cores, submitting them to a laboratory and then interpreting the fertility data. Most Iraqi farmers can buy (with some Ministry of Agriculture financial support) two forms of inorganic fertilizer, urea (nitrogen) and DAP (diammonium phosphate). What they do not know is how much to apply, if it is even necessary and what application method will minimize losses. Often, I have visited fields that sit side-by-side and the only difference between them is a fertilizer application. And often, I have been told that a farmer has no concept of potential nutrient imbalance in the soil; that is, that after a few growing seasons there may not be enough nutrients in the soil for plant growth.
Soils in Iraq typically have organic matter contents much less than 1 percent. Most of the soils in the Mesopotamia Plain, the fertile region of alluvial soils between and near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (including Baghdad), have been farmed for 10,000 years. The addition of organic matter as crop residue is rare. Animal manures are even rarer given the lack of forage production. The primary cereal crops are barley and wheat; the main vegetable crops are tomatoes, melons and salad leaf greens.
More than 80 percent of all land is irrigated, generally by flood systems, but there are a large number of pivots, especially in northern Iraq. We are currently in our second year of a major drought, certainly lowering typical crop yields where water is not available for field application.
Put this all into some summary and the need to improve both irrigation water management and soil fertility is obvious. As a systems scientist, my role here is developing the models that will remove constraints for optimizing the yield potential. We have many engineers developing new (to Iraq) methods for irrigation water management. We look no further than the highly efficient irrigation methods from countries like Jordan, Israel and Egypt. In each, there are huge irrigation infrastructure systems applying supplemental water on growing crops using deficit irrigation. Most include fertigation and chemigation on the pivots.
Obviously, if a crop farmer is investing (with the financial help of the Ministry of Agriculture) in irrigation equipment, then concurrently he should also invest in a soil fertility program.
I recently spent the afternoon with four of my colleagues at the Ministry of Agriculture. These scientists are responsible for basic soil fertility research, extension and analysis here in Iraq.
We spent the afternoon talking about greatly improving the fertility model. For these kinds of huge tasks I like to use the U.S. military concept of Effects-Based Operations, or EBO. Simply stated, what does the end product look like, how will the benefits be measured and what are the possible constraints?
For this model, I proposed the end product be an extension worker, employed by the Ministry of Agriculture, helping the Iraqi farmer understand the soil fertility sheet from a soils laboratory, including identifying the source, form, timing, rate, placement and method of application. One constraint may be that fertilizer is not available. This constraint will be pushed to the Ministry of Agriculture and the central government can make adjustments. Another constraint might be the extension worker needs additional basic training so he or she can understand the fundamentals of soil chemistry and physical properties.
We also lack one key inventory item, and that is the evaluation of soils laboratories here in Iraq. We were told there are 10 of them under the Ministry of Agriculture’s management, uniformly distributed throughout Iraq (in the major cities). As you might expect the challenges for me to get to some of these laboratories is enormous given the security constraints for U.S. government diplomats. Yes, we are targets and that threat has not gone away. Traveling here under Chief of Mission (U.S. Ambassador) control is difficult and challenging. Yet we can and do often work outside the embassy compound, but these trips require a huge commitment by our Diplomatic Security Office.
But we have to go look. Often, anecdotal evidence from our USDA employees in the field, who have actually visited a laboratory or building, report back quite a different story than what I hear at the Ministry of Agriculture. After all, the effects of wars more than decade’s old have taken their toll. We do not rebuild an entire infrastructure in just a few years.
Our recent meeting is the first step. I have built this work of developing a national soil fertility program into my business plan. This plan is essentially a list of tasks that I will complete while on assignment here in Iraq. Perhaps a better word to use is “attempt” to complete.
I often claim that for those of us in these war-torn locations trying to put a country back together again, we work only in a “can-do” environment. There is no room here for those who say “that cannot be done.” The stakes are pretty high. When asked, why do this? Why help get Iraqi agriculture back on its feet? The short answer is really two-fold. One, reduce the huge reliance Iraq has on imported foods and feeds, and probably more important, to employ people in a vibrant, profitable industry.
Here is one final story, and it is a sad one. I have asked many sheiks here, those that do farm, and generally at my age or older, if their sons or daughters are working with them on the farm. In almost every case the answer is no. The reasons include going off to be a soldier, no modern equipment and no encouragement from anyone to make farming a career. And much of Iraqi agriculture is government-controlled rather than market-based in the private sector.
The Prime Minister of Iraq, Nuri Al-Maliki, seeks to change all of this. To do so, we have to introduce new models of development in Iraq. At the meeting in Baghdad at the Ministry of Agriculture, we did just that. PD