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The View from Here: On the move in Iraq

Mike Gangwer Published on 30 October 2009
I am in travel status as of this writing. With increasing frequency, I am drawn to military locations outside Baghdad.

We have nearly 20 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT’s) in Iraq, and about two thirds of them have USDA advisors. Often, they ask for help. The general protocol is arranging travel through the State Department and then if not available, through the U.S. military.

We travel by helicopter or ground convoy. The ground convoys include a mix of equipment, but all are armored to some degree. The rotary wing assets are the preferred mode of transportation. For instance, I can fly to one of the large military bases in southern Iraq from Baghdad in 90 minutes; by ground convoy, the trip could take an entire day.



Recently, my colleague Dr. Jessie McCoy and I worked several missions together, a combination of State and Defense led missions. Without getting into details, suffice to write here that travel in Iraq is extremely challenging for any U.S. government employee on official business. But we do travel and there are huge benefits for our having made these trips.

As USDA ministerial advisors (four of us here in Iraq), we teach the ministerial leadership the process of governance, mixing the tenants of science with the Rule of Law concepts of civil service, honesty and transparency. But we are just as effective when we can actually leave Baghdad, travel to the rural areas, and talk with the provincial leadership.

Generally the provincial leadership includes the Provincial Development Council, or PDC. And within this Cabinet-like government entity is an agricultural committee, staffed by Iraq government employees and a few from the private sector. This group evaluates much of what happens agriculturally in the province, assigns tasks based on a general design, and then finds the funding to implement these tasks.

Like any government hierarchy, there is a mixed relationship with the central government, the ministries located in Baghdad, and the ones here at the local level. Often, the local agricultural committee complains about a lack of attention or lack of adequate financial support from Baghdad.

I visited a Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) Extension Station yesterday as part of the PRT mission conducted by the U.S. military. Here in Iraq, extension service employees work for the Agriculture Ministry and not the Ministry of Higher Education (analogous to our land grant university system). This experiment station is quite well furnished with a number of crop and irrigation projects underway. They have a staff of about 30 employees; about half are scientists and engineers.


They are embarking on a huge hoop greenhouse project, of galvanized pipe covered with plastic. Vegetables will be grown here; the most popular are tomatoes followed by eggplant and bell peppers. We installed some equipment here along with delivering some technical training.

Interestingly, nearly the entire staff felt that what they wanted most was a relationship with a regional research facility. Several of them had been to the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or ICARDA, in Aleppo, Syria. Readers of this column may remember my own visit to ICARDA in November 2006. Nearly all staff has Internet connectivity with e-mail addresses. I would rate their support from Baghdad (Ministry of Agriculture) as good.

McCoy and I also visited a veterinarian clinic on the outskirts of a relatively large city. The clinic was a series of buildings but very little inside them. However, the PRT here had funded a generator and cold room so animal vaccines could be stored on site. And, the clinic has a very useful mobile veterinarian laboratory sitting on a one ton Toyota truck. They use this vehicle largely for making rounds in the far away regions, conducting vaccinations and evaluating animal health. The mobile lab is not equipped for surgery but can do some diagnostic work.

One of my missions here included a follow up from one made about six weeks ago. An NGO agronomist (from Brazil) asked for an evaluation of crop land for growing salt sensitive cereals and perennial grasses. We pulled soil samples from nearly a dozen fields and then sent the bulk soil to a soil fertility laboratory operated by the Italians. Dr. Enrico, an agricultural scientist, and I discussed the sample fertility data, and just this afternoon I met with the agronomists here at a Military FOB, or Forward Operating Base.

They were pleased as the soil salinity levels were in the range of 1-2 dS/m electrical conductivity, certainly within the range of the crops they wanted to grow. We sat in an air conditioned trailer here on base, discussing these data, and then talking about their farming practices. The military would not schedule a mission for me this time, so the agronomists came here.

Our conversation included an econ officer from the State Department and a business officer from the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. The reader will certainly appreciate the international flavor of this developmental work. And we work with military units from at least a dozen countries.


I must write, however, that many of them are here for months only, and of course even the U.S. military is working through the redeployment tasking, the steps of going home and shipping most of the material home too. We depart this FOB in two days, and then spend two days at another large military base.

McCoy and I each have a mission scheduled on consecutive days, then we fly back to Baghdad shortly thereafter. After about six days on Post, I am off again to another PRT. The agricultural advisor there has a handful of tasks for me, including a formal lecture on soil fertility and irrigation water management, then three missions in the field. We are visiting a beef feedlot and evaluating feed quality; visiting a MoA Extension Station and discussing experimental design for a salinity/cultivar trial, and then talking with faculty at a small agricultural college.

Finally, many of us noted the recent death of Dr. Norman Borlaug by thinking about his enormous contributions at cereal grain breeding. The scientist from Iowa received many accolades across the entire globe. In fact the main headquarter building at ICARDA in Aleppo is named after this scientist. Fortunately I heard him speak at Michigan State University campus about six years ago. Whilst moving slowly and appearing somewhat frail, when he spoke of the huge challenges ahead for agricultural sciences, in essence he asked each of us to go into the world and continue his work. As he did, his eyes sparkled and certainly, his voice towered over all in the auditorium.

Often, whilst out on mission doing agricultural development, I think of his words, and they help sustain me during times when the effort is particularly difficult. PD

Mike Gangwer
Foreign Ag Service
Soil and Water Ministerial Adviser in Iraq