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The View from Here: Reporting to you from Maysan Province, Iraq

Mike Gangwer Published on 18 September 2009
I am spending nearly two weeks in Maysan Province in Iraq. The province is in the southeastern portion of the country, next to Iran to the east and the Arab marshes to the south. The Tigris River flows through the province.

I am delivering training. Our class is 15 provincial officials from the Ministries of Agriculture and Water Resources.

They are all men with college degrees; none of them speak English well. Our course includes both classroom and field work. The work of development in countries like Iraq is difficult.

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Iraq is not yet completely stable in terms of security. Our movements off-post, in this case a forward operating base, are still in Humvees and MRAPS as personnel carriers. I have multiple missions done and several yet to do.

For instance, I will be visiting a sugar cane factory and plantation site. My job there will be two-fold: determine a protocol for estimating soil fertility through 30-centimeter-deep sampling, and then ground truth the installation of several center pivots in the planning stage.

The USDA Agriculture Advisor asked me to deliver training. He is a civil engineer by training, with experience in irrigation facility design. What we are doing is putting the management of the design into the training. I am teaching irrigation water management as well as soil fertility.

We have purchased some field equipment for them. Basically, we teach the concepts in the classroom and then install them in the field. We are in our hottest month in Iraq now, and so we have limited the field work to a minimum.

Especially given the fact our missions include a full platoon of maneuver force infantry soldiers, standing in the hot sun for a few hours is not wise. Many of our class members are asking for sophisticated equipment. I take them down a different path.

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Typically, I take the simple approach of basic instrumentation. Our soil moisture sensors are operable in saline soils up to eight deciSiemen per meter. The device measures electrical resistivity as ohms after a few millivolts is sent to a buried probe in the soil. The device has no moving parts.

Yes, I am often asked why not buy a data logger and microwave unit for collecting telemetry. The project costs soar, as well as the complexity of managing the system after we leave the region. Generally, I approach instrumentation this way.

Install a large number of them across many fields for a few dollars per field, instead of an expensive system of just a few fields. Not everyone agrees, but we do have to show some return to the U.S. government investment in equipment and I opt for the simple.

In fact by extension, I often am asked for software funding and satellite data layers for Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. I rarely agree. There is merit, of course, in sending the technician to the field. There, he or she cannot only record a datum or group of data, but ground truth the number as well.

Remote sensing has its place, but ultimately the user of this technology must know if the data are reasonable for the on-site conditions. The Iraqi scientists and engineers are well trained; they understand the static and dynamic processes of change at the field level. They do not have the tools, however, to measure these changes. And my attitude is beginning with the simple instruments, which get the technician in the field.

Today for instance, I asked the participants to determine the volume of water for an irrigation application on a 10-day cycle. The field parameters of evapotranspiration and changes in volumetric soil moisture over the 10-day period were provided. I showed them a data set from two instruments, a soil moisture probe and an Atmometer.

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Interestingly, they could not complete the exercise until as a group they realized one set of equipment showed the changes of antecedent soil moisture over time and the other instrument estimated water withdrawal rate per unit time. Together, the data sets prescribe the volume of water (cubic meters) and the cycle rate of irrigation.

The instrument cost per field site is just under $500. The soil fertility program here is broken. The only laboratory is south of the province, and it is a suitcase version of a chemistry set. Generally, the Maysan participants tell me that they do not need soil fertility analysis. They can look at the soil in terms of crop or plant performance and predict the fertility status.

This is correct to an extent. Yet I posit the systems approach. If we are fine-tuning the irrigation program with scheduling that is nearly in the realm of precision farming, then we can properly evaluate soil fertility in the laboratory if our long-term effect is optimizing crop yield. And it should be.

As so often in my career, here is another example in a province very near Iran and bordering the Arab marshes, of some fine-tuning of basic farming practices, which will significantly increase crop production. Developmental work is exactly in this context.

We sort through the complexity of cultural practices and historic norms. We find the root problems instead of the symptoms, and then seek a cost-effective fix. For our group here at this training, improving irrigation water management and soil fertility assessment together will vastly improve their productivity...and hopefully quality of rural life.

I still have a few days left here at the FOB. A few more lectures and some more field work is scheduled. But with each passing day in Iraq, I am constantly reminded how so grateful our U.S. citizenry should be with the huge return on investment of the land grant university system.

I am essentially, here in Maysan, like the university extension worker out training the trainer. In fact I was that extension worker some years ago at Oregon State University. Farmers and landowners ought to not ever take for granted the huge success of the extension service and the experiment station network where research is done and delivered.

For me during this two-week assignment, I often reflect to myself that my formal education at three land grant universities is manifest right here...in the desert sands and Arab marshes of Maysan Province, Iraq. PD

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