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The View from Here: Italy helps in soil reclamation

Mike Gangwer Published on 04 February 2010

The work of agricultural development requires coordination with many levels of government and non-government organizations.

Recently, I spent a week at Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq. This is a trip report of my visit there and my engagement with the Italian government.

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The U.S. is not alone in the developmental world. Many European and Asian countries are present in Iraq, and as our coalition partners, they join in the overarching effort of bringing back to this region the extraordinary agricultural vitality that once was the Fertile Crest.

The work is not easy or the effort would be done. Progress is a difficult metric to measure, but the Italians are finding that metric with a unique model here in Iraq.

The Mittica Training Facility, or MTF, is located next to this large air base. While owning a relatively small footprint, the concentration of training facilities is quite convenient for the Iraqi scientists, engineers and technicians coming here for training.

A portable hospital is one of the newer components. The hospital is closely aligned with the larger one in An Nasiriyah. Doctors and technicians come here for training, then implement that training at their hospital in the city center. Much of the training is centered on trauma and emergency medicine, but recently additional emphasis of women and children medicine was added, a reflection of the needs here in Dhi Qar Province. The facility is staffed by doctors from Italy rotating in and out of a four-to-six-month cycle.

The bulk of the training effort here at MTF is agricultural, however. A greenhouse was opened earlier this year. The resident horticulturist is examining salinity levels of supplemental irrigation water and the crop response of certain vegetables. This is enormously important here in Iraq. Land reclamation is expensive anywhere in the world, so one strategy for growing high-water-content crops like cucumbers, egg plants, and tomatoes, is finding the variety group that can tolerate higher levels of salt in the soil and water. Once identified, these varieties can be used on saline soils and irrigated with increased levels of total dissolved salts on existing fields. Seeds can be distributed to farmers in this region with some assurance of reasonable crop yield.

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There is a small milk processing facility here. The portable equipment will be relocated away from Mittica soon; a rural town has been chosen for its installation and as no surprise, the town has several small dairy farms nearby.

As with much of the world, having drinking or potable water is a huge constraint. Yet the Italians have purchased about 50 portable reverse osmosis units. The unit is built on a tandem axle trailer and is complete except for the power source. An engineer checks each unit at least once per month, replacing filters, fixing pumps, and rebuilding hoses. Each unit will supply about four to six gallons an hour, so the water is used strictly for potable use, as drinking water. In each location, an Iraqi technician is in charge of operation and maintenance, and the overall safety of the equipment.

There is a date palm processor here too. Palm dates are an important cultural crop here in Iraq. The processing of dates into candy ingredients is learned here, and I was told this entire unit will be moved to a date palm region area. And with it will go trained technicians.

One of the first components here at the MTF is the soil testing laboratory. Interestingly, the Italians have trained several dozen technicians in laboratory methodology. There are few functioning soil laboratories here in Iraq. However the effort by the Italians at ramping up the capacity of a few University labs here is appreciated by the Iraqi farmers. Almost all of them use inorganic fertilizer but at a standard rate based on historical guidance, and not, unfortunately, a soil test analysis and fertilizer recommendation.

My role here was discussing the training program with the development of an instruction model so Extension personnel could interpret the data from these analyses. I often state that just measuring something, in this case a soil chemistry parameter, is of no value until we understand how to use that value. Our beneficiaries are, of course, Iraqi farmers. We hope they will make better fertilizer purchase decisions, thereby saving money and protecting the environment…no different than our land grant university model in the U.S.

I am also developing a list of equipment. I have a recurring question from USDA agricultural advisers for soil testing information, all the way from building their own laboratory to having access to an existing laboratory like this one here at the MTF. The list will be distributed to our staff and they can find funding for equipment purchase and technician training. They will also train the Ministry of Agricultural Extension personnel so they can directly engage the landowner.

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The unity of effort here is newsworthy. You hear and read about joint efforts across the international spectrum, and right here, just off base in a couple-acre-size training site, we have a collection of international scientists and researchers working together. The end goal is improving agricultural yields, increasing quality control of produce, having drinking water for potable use, and having access to medical care for the basic human needs of living.

This is hard work and takes an enormous amount of coordination. The act of engagement is both diplomacy and development. As I left my billet and said goodbye to Guiliano, Federico and his wife Barbara, they invited me to their city in Florence, Italy, if my path should take me there.

More importantly, we agreed to meet again, and further our efforts at rebuilding this country. I waved to them as the U.S. Army helicopter lifted off from the tarmac, but they were already gone…back to Mittica and back to their students.

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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