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The View from Here: Sacrifice extends homewards as well as overseas

Mike Gangwer Published on 29 October 2010

In the many years writing this column, now just a year short of two full decades, I have written of expeditionary work. By my last count, the effort and energy spent in a dozen countries along with situational analysis are described here. As a young farm boy, FFA member and college student in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I fully expected to farm the rest of my life.

I left the farm, however, in 1989. That year was my Waterloo, my abyss, yet I survived. Thanks to Oregon State University and my good friend Mike Gamroth, I was hired as an extension faculty member (animal sciences department). Further, my profound relationship with my dear friends Monte Graham and Bruce Wilson, then of SCS and now both retired from Oregon NRCS, set the stage for what would become the learning years of my early career.

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In the not-too-distant past (2005), the call of service came to join the expeditionary work in Afghanistan. My friend and supervisor at the time, Kevin Wickey, and his boss, Ron Williams of Michigan NRCS, acknowledged this expeditionary desire, and for the next year I worked and lived in Afghanistan. And then a further call came (2009), this time for a 16-month appointment at Embassy Baghdad. This one was just completed in mid-June.

Since that time I have been assigned to the Civilian Response Corps (CRC) as one of eight active members from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I have written a couple of articles about this organization, making the case that the CRC is a whole-government approach to anticipating national security problems around the world, and then developing strategic plans for mitigating them, usually in the form of planning recommendations to our policy-makers in the executive branch of the U.S. government.

In the last three weeks, additional events have added new chapters for me on this journey.

At the recent awards ceremony at the Whitten Building in Washington, D.C., our USDA secretary, Tom Vilsack, talked with about 20 of us that had completed recent assignments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Just us. He spoke rather eloquently of his support for the volunteer effort of USDA employees working in war zones and helping farmers increase crop yields, improve animal production and form cooperatives.

He visited both countries, and he reported to us that 183 USDA employees have already served in these two countries. We have nearly 100 in service at this very moment. Informally, he said the reach of our service extends home as well. Our families and our work colleagues have sacrificed as well for our absence.

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My wife Sandy is steadfast in her support for my travels, as I spent most of my time these last few years away from our home in Alma, Michigan. My CRC position is based in Washington, D.C., so at least while I am in the U.S., we live in the same time zone. My colleagues at Michigan NRCS, led by my supervisor, Vicki Anderson, have all chipped in and filled my position.

The point is that sacrifice extends homeward, as well as overseas. This is my second USDA awards ceremony; the first was upon the completion of my Afghanistan tour in 2007.

The second event occurred at the Fort Leslie McNair National Defense University. About two dozen of us were spending three weeks here in training. During the first week, one of our speakers was Lona Stoll, the reconstruction and stabilization coordinator for the secretary of agriculture. Her presentation was profound. Her charge for us: Think ahead and build the case(s) for food insecurity conflicts that could likely have a national security impact on our country. She challenged us to provide the policy-makers with answers to questions before they are asked. This forward approach to foreign policy will help reduce military reactions to civil strife, certainly a costly and usually long-term endeavor. Such answers bring stability to potential conflict, lowering the likelihood of insurgence and possible harm to America and Americans.

She ended with the advice to base our assumptions and hypotheses on the very best knowledge we can find … including in countries where such food insecurity might be found. This kind of futuring and exploration of connecting discontinuities into a working model is followed by an operational plan, including reaching back into our federal government and land grant university system for technical and humanities assistance.

In the coming columns I will explore this topic and describe its elements with empirical descriptions. Essentially, this is our work in the CRC.

My final event was a telephone call. I have another deployment assigned to me, another call to duty. I have written this statement often in the columns, and in the next article, I will begin exploring this deployment with you. I will report to you in country, providing the insight and evaluation of an expeditionary agricultural scientist in a far-away land. I will try, as honestly as possible, to write why such work is important for our country. I know many people might ask, “so what?” I will answer that question in the months ahead.

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Finally, let me acknowledge the editors at Progressive Dairyman. I have written about 240 columns over these many years of service, and the editorial staff still publishes them. Thank you to my first publisher, Leon Leavitt (and magazine founder) and Walt Cooley, managing editor.

For the many, many people listed in this column ... thank you all. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
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