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0806 PD: The View From Here

Mike Gangwer Published on 07 August 2006

Reporting from Bagram, Afghanistan . . .

The construct of plant growth can be described as very simple or rather complicated. Today, I write of my work in terms of crop production in the developing world. The theme is transferable wherever people live, till the soil, plant seeds and harvest all or portions of a plant for food or feed.

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For a group of my soldier friends, I asked them a question, but I did not give them an answer. Except that they may view this photo, or in the case of the Kapisa Civil Affairs (CA) team, stand at this very spot and reconcile what they see.

For the complicated construct, we scientists can stand here and divide what we see into two realms. One is energy flow (flux) and one is water or hydraulic flow (gradient). I could spend hour after hour working through these processes. I could link them together. I could, if I chose, instrument the fields here and actually derive empirical measurements. That would be costly, and I am not here for that task, although I would love to do so. I do not know where to buy a Class A Evaporation Pan (however, we could make one…).

So we take the simple approach. That is, in the developing world, what might our task really be? What is the single question (or perhaps multiple questions) that needs an answer? Since we are taking the simple construct, let me begin with only one question (the very one the CA team solved)?

“What are the attributes about what we see in this photo that are worthy of keeping, and then, what are those that we could improve?” In my work here and in other developing countries, this is essentially what we do. We take inventory. Given our training, we decide what is working, or worthy of keeping, and what is not. Thus, we define an objective for our work.

Take a close look at the photo. In a mountainous region in this part of Afghanistan, specifically in the Kapisa Province, there are two distinct parts of the landscape. One is mountainous, which is largely devoid of any vegetation. The other is alluvial floodplain soils. Here, there is an abundance of life. Yes, water and eroded-then-sedimented soils mean life and fertility.

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If we are to live somewhere in a landscape, there are three essential requirements: sunlight, the ultimate source of light energy; water, that molecule that sorbs into and out of life; and soils, where amongst the particles are minerals that can be desorbed and moved and transported by water. In the floodplain before us, there are all of these. And so people live here, just out of the floodplain. Why? So valuable are these soils that people live on the mountainside. If they chose to live on the level terrain (the valley floor), a flood every 10 years would destroy their homes. But the lesson learned long ago was, and is today: Protection of valuable soils will help endure a civilization. (To wit, that we should lack land use protection laws in the rain-fed mollisols and alfisols of the Midwest.)

Notice the treeline that meanders in the further reaches of the floodplain. Here there is surface water, a creek. There are no pumps here. There is no electricity. There are ditches and earthen control structures. Farmers can direct water towards every crop field in this photo. The fields are flood irrigated with water that travels from an upslope ditch (behind where this photograph was taken) beneath a road then into the network of diversions. These have been here for hundreds of years.

The question so far has included attributes that are worthy of keeping. There is another one that my CA friends did not see, at least initially. That is biodiversity.

Woe should a Western- trained advice giver stand here and want to change this. For that has happened. That is, remove all the individual crop fields and implement a crop rotation based upon corn and soybeans and wheat. Bring in a machine, a tractor with a disk or a combine.

I suggest the answer to why this scene is worthy of keeping is based upon biodiversity. That is, the multiple crops and harvest periods with some trees near the surface water (creek) provide an ebb and flow that minimizes the opportunity for a particular pest or fungi, or nematode or bacterium, or insect or caterpillar, to become so established that pesticides and herbicides are required. In the scale of walking the fields and examining the plants themselves (one cannot do this by looking at the photo unless topically), there is little evidence of plant disease. Such a scene may be described as a very large garden, covering dozens of hectares. Actually, these fields are owned by different families. A typical land base (one farmer) is .25 hectare per farmer, less than an acre (.6 acre). Hence, the patchwork fieldscape that is so lovely. Note that one field is tilled. The remaining wheat fields will be soon, as the farmers plant their summer crop after winter wheat is harvested. Many farmers have already cut the wheat, laid it in rows of bundles, and some have piled them high, waiting for thrashing. This final step is usually done by animal plodding and then wind separation. There are few mobile mechanical thrashers in Afghanistan.

What then am I going to do here?

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Farmers buy urea (N) and diammonium phosphate (DAP) fertilizer at the local marketplace. The commodities are imported from Pakistan. And while these fertilizers may be questionable in terms of true nutrient content, we do know that farmers are applying them without knowing if they are needed. In taking inventory, I learn there are no memories of soil fertility work done here or anywhere else I visit. Farmers have been told nitrogen and phosphate will improve crop yields. But to what extent fertilizer is added in terms of timing and rate is not known.

So I will use a field soil fertility kit, a suitcase-sized chemistry set, made by Lamotte Company in Maryland, to assess baseline fertility.

That is a qualitative assessment of existing fertility that will answer the question: In relationship to the capacity of a soil to grow a crop at a yield goal, what is the existing fertility? Once these values are known, then farmers can adjust timing and rates of N and P. These adjustments help maintain enough fertility so that irrigation water is not wasted by moving through a plant, yet too few nutrients are transported into the plant.

Such an adjustment may save farmers money and may reduce N leaching into surface water or below the root zone.

There is one more suggestion I will provide: Plant legumes. Note in the photo that few legumes are planted or that almost all the crop fields are winter wheat. Planting legumes or pulse crops help all three components of soils; the chemical, physical and biological properties all are improved.

In sum, we have ordered a half-dozen Lamotte Soil Fertility Kits. I will train Afghanistan Department of Agriculture employees in each of three provinces to use the kits and interpret the data. Then they can help farmers decide the form, rate and timing of fertilizer and its applications.

Most of all, the inventory of soil fertility assessment will be learned and recorded. Farmers will make better fertilizer input decisions, and technicians will provide a service for the local community.

This is our role – capacity building. We are working ourselves out of jobs, and when I leave my assignment in seven months, these kits remain and so will the knowledge that will help the Afghan farmer. We have even budgeted for several refill kits.

Perhaps the day will come when Kabul University provides a national soil testing service. This service would include the quantitative assessment of soil fertility and then appropriate fertilizer recommendations. That day is not here yet.

So this is our work: to take small steps, bringing the reach of knowledge one step closer. Thus, the yearning of an interim scientist in Afghanistan is the passion of a soon-to-be scientist that calls Afghanistan home. Home to these Afghan scientists are these fields, these small tracts, these beautiful patchworks of life’s inorganic into organic cellula.

In this way, I am grateful for the privilege of being here. PD

Mike Gangwer for Progressive Dairyman

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