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The View from Here: How can we modernize our farming system?

Mike Gangwer Published on 07 October 2009
I am off-post for just over two weeks. Our USDA Agricultural Adviser, Jon Melhus and I are working in a southern province as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Together, we are delivering a soil and irrigation water management course for a group of 17 provincial representatives from three ministries: agriculture, water resources and higher education.

Jon was prepared with the purchase of 60 soil moisture sensors, and a very nicely developed agenda. My role was reviewing the basic biosphere model, including water flow into the atmosphere through the plants from the soil. Our classroom portion was three days for a total of about 15 hours.

Generally, I teach using a white board and color markers. I am not the best artist, but drawing pictures and flow diagrams as we move along a particular topic works well in a group setting. Participants usually draw the same form on the white board, and actually the drawing helps them understand the concept.

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I am not a fan of the now-popular PowerPoint presentation. They have their place, but too often a speaker uses them as a crutch for too much material. Many files are full of text rather than images or artwork. The PowerPoint file can be printed out in various formats and this is certainly an advantage for the participants. I encourage drawing and note taking, and generally nearly all participants leave these courses with a well-used notebook.

The province here in southern Iraq is quite a distance from Baghdad. The land here sits on the border of the Arab marshes. Flying over the region in a helicopter provides a great view of the landscape diversity.

Where there is enough water, the marshes are renovated. We see marsh plants, a wide variety of birds, and many water buffalo, one of the most valuable animals here. Where dikes and diversions have removed water the landscape is desert-like, the stark contrast to the blue and green of the marshes. Often the contrast is abrupt.

Farmers grow rice when land is near surface water. Barley is grown on marginal lands with a less-than- constant supply of water. Barley is also grown on the more saline soils here, as this cereal is relatively tolerant of salts. Our participants ask many questions, with the typical one like this: “How can we modernize our farming system?”

All of the participants expressed the desire to have better tools, have access to good scientific publications, and have a relationship with international scientists and agronomists. Interestingly, I hear this everywhere: the desire for international engagement.

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One constraint is the limited number of Arabic language publications. Regional Research Centers like ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) in Aleppo, Syria, help fill that void. I visited that facility in 2006 and to this day consider it one of the premier facilities in the world.

What may not come as a surprise is the comment by these gentlemen that young people are no longer interested in farming. They want an urban way of life in the city. In fact, many farms here are vacant, simply not farmed, and one reason is the lack of interest by the young people here.

Perhaps one initiative is the modernization of the agricultural system and that is our topic in the course. The basic infrastructure here is largely nonexistent. The assessment of intrinsic soil fertility is by visual observation rather than sampling and extraction in a soil laboratory. There is no similar USDA soil survey so farmers can select crops on the basis of soil texture and drainage.

There are few Ministry of Agriculture weather stations (Campbell Scientific research-grade), so farmers do not have access to evapotranspiration water consumption on a crop field. And there are few modern types of equipment although irrigation pumps are found along the banks of nearly all surface water canals.

They provide lift only...the standard irrigation method is flood irrigation. There is good news. The class participants eagerly ask for additional training, which would include the use of some monitoring instruments. To begin, my premise is we must understand the processes in the field by taking empirical measurements.

This means estimating soil fertility, water withdrawal, antecedent soil moisture, and crop yield as a function of nutrient applications. Basic agronomy and irrigation water management concepts, but we have a start. On our last day, we held a laboratory exercise at the Amarah Research and Extension Farm. We toured the facility. The Iraq scientists and researchers proudly showed us their facility, including a brand-new research-grade weather station.

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They are learning how to us it. What they have not yet determined is what to do with the telemetry, the data from the multiple-instrumented device. I wrote above of the soil moisture sensors Jon had purchased through the PRT. We dug a bore hole at 15- and 30-centimeter depths (6 and 12 inches) and installed two Decagon soil moisture sensors.

These devices are built on the principle of electrical conductivity; drier soil has greater electrical resistivity, thus when measured as ohms the sensor can tell us something about the relative antecedent soil moisture. They were fascinated with this little device and the handheld ohmmeter used to measure the conductivity.

Already the wheels were turning...the extension director decided installing several of them in the hoop structures (greenhouses) would be wise. In fact, during our visit more were erected. Tomatoes and other vegetables will grow in these plastic-wrapped structures. Introducing precision irrigation water management through the use of these sensors and perhaps an Atmometer (my suggestion to them) will be enormously helpful for optimizing vegetable and crop yield and minimizing water use.

Good teaching should include more than just a classroom lecture. Teaching concepts and models in the classroom on a chalkboard, whiteboard, or PowerPoint is fine, but then going to the field and actually installing a device that will empirically measure some parameter is real technology transfer. Like the thousands of field days held in the U.S. as part of our land grant university system or Agricultural Research Service, and certainly the private sector too, demonstrating new technology in the field is essential. This can be done anywhere.

Our four-day class ended when the group began discussing where the remaining sensors would be installed. And who would read them. I stated that what counts is not the number itself, but how we interpret that number in the context of crop production. At the end of the day, we know that just instrumenting a crop field and taking a reading is not enough...what counts most is understanding what to do with that number in the context of the entire field.

This was our ultimate objective. If we are successful, someone in this province makes better irrigation water management decisions by going to the field and interpreting the resistance of electrons moving to one pole from another in the Iraqi soil. We will have made a difference. PD

Mike Gangwer
USDA Adviser

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