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The View from Here: Research and experiments will add value in Iraq

Mike Gangwer Published on 12 April 2010

The work of research and experimentation is important for production agriculture. Advances made arise from discovering new methods, greater efficiencies and solving problems related to constraints. In this article, I write of our efforts at renovating a field station so farmers can increase crop yields and improve their families’ quality of life.

Farmers in the West, and especially in America, know the value of land grant university experiment and research stations. Here in Iraq, the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) administers many such stations. This may seem odd, but the Ministry of Higher Education simply provides the training component for employees soon to be conducting research at these stations. The extension service in Iraq is administered by the MoA as well, and it is a fact that nearly all of the MoA stations are combined efforts of experimentation, research and outreach or extension.

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Several weeks ago, we (USDA Foreign Agricultural Service) met with our colleagues from the MoA and the Ministry of Water Resources. We asked them what kind of renovation would they choose if we could finance such a large project. They identified two stations, both south of Baghdad and both are located in the fertile Mesopotamia Plain.

Together, we developed a research proposal. I have recently visited both stations. The Al Wahda Station is rather small, about nine hectares or 22.3 acres. Drainage of saline soils is a primary research objective, although there are several plastic hoop structures with vegetables growing on the facility.

The Al Sewara Station is much larger. At 165 hectares or 409 acres, its focus is centered on growing foundation seed varieties for wheat and barley. The station manager, Dr. Abdul Kareem Hasan, tells me they would like to investigate land reclamation strategies for mitigating saline soils. This is an over-arching objective here in Iraq and in much of the arid world. The existing subsurface drainage tiles are woefully inadequate and they are plugged. We dug up the last meter of the outflow pipes as they emptied into the drainage canal, and they were all plugged with sediment. They were installed about 25 to 30 years ago. The buried pipe is perforated plastic but has a diameter of about 10 centimeters or four inches.

Hasan suggested we flush these old tile systems using a flushing device. We suggested installing a new tile system. The laterals are 50 meters or 162 feet apart, again, woefully inadequate for drainage. As of this writing we are searching for a tiling machine or a tile plow, but we also want a GPS system so the system is installed correctly.

The MoA will install three center pivots on this station. Addressing the salinity leaching strategies is built into the experimental design. For the field-size (10 hectares) plots, we will leave a small portion with no drainage as a control. I talked Hasan and his staff into accepting this as part of the project, making the case that side-by-side field studies were valuable if only one variable is changed.

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Interestingly, Hasan is thinking a lot these days about minimum tillage and even no tillage, especially for one of the staple crops here – winter wheat. Generally, winter wheat land is disced once and then planted; few fields are actually moldboard-plowed. One reason is the lack of residue. After wheat harvest, the plant residue is used for animal feed, bedding or other use; I have yet to see it remain on the crop field. Hasan will be purchasing several no-till drills for this work.

There is a Campbell Scientific Weather Station (CSWS) on the facility. Hasan and I are working on an irrigation water management study that will use the Decagon EC5 soil moisture sensor for determining antecedent volumetric soil moisture (as a percent) and the ETGage Atmometer for reference evapotranspiration. These two simple instruments will be calibrated using the CSWS (ET) and then a direct measurement in the soil laboratory (soil moisture).

I have suggested that in our experimental design we include three additional measurements so we can explain intake rates and saturated flow of water into and through the soil matrix. We will be measuring, therefore, textural class (sand, silt and clay) using the hydrometer method and moist bulk density using the direct method of soil core extraction of a known volume.

Irrigation water management at the applied level at this station will help farmers understand the three most important factors for water application, regardless of system type: timing, volume and rate.

Further, Hasan is interested in exploring the topic of deficit irrigation for summer crops, including barley. But the most interesting research topic is that of medicinal plants. I did not know this, but the MoA does grow and sell medicinal plants grown on certain stations to the pharmaceutical industry. These sales generate some income for the station and are, in fact, quite profitable. Such crops are grown on the best soils at the station, with a lot of hand care like thinning, pruning and weed control.

The remaining research area is very important for this part of Iraq, that of plastic hoop structures. Resembling greenhouses, yet a fraction of the cost, the hoop structure is just a series of curved pipe covered with plastic sheeting. They are built at the beginning of the growing season and removed about four months later. These are the four coldest months, November through February. However, some structures remain into the spring growing period, too.

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Hasan is interested in precision applications of water and nutrients. These facilities have drip irrigation systems and some have fertilizer solution tanks that feed the plants through the irrigation emitters. Three vegetables are popular here in Iraq and these three are generally somewhat tolerant of saline soils: tomato, cucumber and eggplant. Culturally, these vegetables are served with rice as the main dish. Nearly every week I have an Iraqi meal whilst in travel status and the centerpiece of the meal is rice with these vegetables.

What makes this project particularly rewarding for us is the USDA requirement that the government of Iraq, in this case the Ministry of Agriculture, contributes a matching dollar value for each dollar we are investing in this project. As you might expect, we have a cooperative working relationship as both governments are investing in this renovation work on the two MoA stations.

As of this writing I have been in Iraq for nearly 13 months. Given the mission requirement of renovating these two stations and a few other projects not yet done, USDA extended my tour here until mid-June. I surely thought I would be home now. However, home is Iraq for the next three months or so, and my overall objective has been diplomacy and development. Couple that with the requirement of overseeing the expenditure of money spent on these renovations – I have work still to do here.

So do 39 other USDA employees here in Iraq. We all engage and help rebuild Iraqi agriculture one project at a time. Collectively, we are making a difference. Every one of us hopes that in the near future, our Iraqi colleagues come to us and say, “Thank you for your help, we will take it from here.”

Then we can all come home. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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