Photo by Bulletin graphics
Photo by Jan Schultz, The Imperial Republican
Sgt. Allen Abbott of Brady removes bolts from a bin west of Imperial.
Afghan farmers, shown with an oxen-driven plow and a hoe, use 1800s farming techniques.
Photo by Jan Schultz
Pictured in front of some of the bins heading to Afghanistan from the Kurt Bernhardt farm west of Imperial are five Nebraska National Guardsmen. From left, Sgt. Allen Abbott of Brady, whose son Jaden also helped; Sgt. William Jones of McCook; SFC Alan Weininger of Gretna; Sgt. Joe McMurtrey of Valentine; SFC Eldon Kuntzelman of Imperial; and Jacob Larimore of Yutan, a friend of Weininger's who came to help.
Eleven members of the Nebraska National Guard, and an accompanying security force, leave next month for Afghanistan. Their mission: help Aghan agriculture climb into the 1940s.
They all volunteered.
Their 12-month peace-keeping mission is to aid the farmers of Afghanistan, using a variety of the agricultural skills gained from their everyday jobs in the area of fertilizer, livestock, irrigation and crop pests.
Having known since April that he and the National Guard team would be spending a year in Afghanistan in this agri-business mission, SFC Eldon Kuntzelman of Imperial had an idea.
As an employee of Lamar Fertilizer, he realized the number of 1,500 to 3,000-bushel capacity grain bins on many farms, now overshadowed by bins 10 and 15 times larger.
Could these old bins benefit the struggling farmers of Afghanistan?
"I just returned from Iraq in October (with the National Guard 1074th Transportation Unit)," Kuntzelman said. "I got an email looking for people with an ag background. I've worked with and for farmers all my working career. When I found out farmers there stored their grain underground, and it doesn't keep very long, doesn't work too good, I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to help those people.
Kuntzelman's idea was to dismantle some old bins here and have them shipped to Afghanistan, where they will be reassembled and used. He talked to several farmers around Imperial, who agreed to donate the bins.
"I never had one say no," he said.
But he needed a group of guys to help tear them down, so he contacted other members of the team heading to Afghanistan next month.
Kuntzelman was joined by four fellow Guardsmen in the project -- SFC Alan Weininger of Gretna - a senior drill sergeant from Ashland; Sgt. Allen Abbott of Brady -- a National Guard recruiter in North Platte; Sgt. Joe McMurtrey of Valentine -- a rancher; and Sgt. William Jones of Indianola - who works at Ag Valley Coop of Indianola.
They were joined by a friend of Weininger's family, Jacob Larimore, of Yutan.
There will be lots of challenges to the mission, which begins in late September and continues for 9-10 months. The team is excited.
"Everyone who is going thinks it is a good deal," Kuntzelman said. "Morale has been real good -- we want to help improve their country so they can be self-sufficient. We are going to work hand-to-hand every day, then let them do it while we watch. I am going to learn an awful lot about farming, and about Afghanistan."
"Missions like this don't come along very often, where you can make a direct impact," Abbott said. "We can use our civilian expertise. Most of us have worked with agriculture most of our lives.”
Abbot grew up near Palisade on a farm and ranch.
While some of those bins are 30 to 40 years old, they are in relatively good shape, Kuntzelman said.
The dismantling work was tedious. It required unscrewing all of the bolts, then pulling off the sheets of steel piece by piece, then stacking it on site.
Their work went much quicker, thanks to Bob Mendenhall of NAPA in Imperial, who donated the use of the company's large boom truck. Mendenhall spent three days with the team as they dismantled 11 bins, and then helped load the material.
On Aug. 7, more than 18,000 lbs. of the dismantled steel was loaded on the flatbed of a military truck, which was then driven to North Platte, and eventually will head to Lincoln, where the material will be warehoused until shipped to Afghanistan by the group, "The Spirit of America."
Kuntzelman said they plan to have the cement pads ready when the material arrives in Afghanistan, and eight of the bins will be reconstructed, which are in good condition, near flourmills. The other three will be used for farm structures such as water tanks.
There is no electricity for augers, he said, but even if the bin must be filled and emptied with baskets or shovels, each one could hold enough wheat to make bread for 100 families, with some leftover that can be marketed in cities.
They face challenges. The Afghans could be reluctant to cooperate. They tend to be independent and suspicious of one another. But, the team from Nebraska is excited.
More than storage
The team is working closely with the USDA and Afghanistan's Department of Agriculture in this mission.
The mission to Afghanistan involves a wide variety of ag initiatives, and not just in the area of grain.
After arriving in late September, they will get established with the Afghani farmers. Of course, they will have to deal with language barriers, so interpreters will be with them.
This fall, they hope to get wheat and alfalfa in the ground in demonstration plots. During the winter, they plan to start training in the use of fertilizers and irrigation. Winter will also be set aside for reconstruction of the bins.
The Afghani farmers are hard-working and smart, although somewhat reluctant to work together. Agriculture had a major setback there after the Soviet invasion in 1979. The Soviet occupation tried to eliminate or remove civilian populations from the countryside where resistance was based. Bombings destroyed entire villages, crops and irrigation, leaving people dead, homeless or starving.
Grain production declined an average of 3.5 percent per year between 1978 and 1990.
This group of Guardsman will not be the first agri-business team in Afghanistan. Two teams are already there. The effort will be ongoing and could continue for years.
Some of the "successes" with previous teams include a growing grape crop that has been greatly improved.
Another is the replanting of stands of trees, a project of the Texas Guardsmen. One of the ways they've gotten them established is by dropping seeds enclosed in ice from airplanes. The ice melts, providing enough moisture to get the plant started.
When asked about the concern for their safety in a region where conflict seems to be building, Kuntzelman joking responded, "We're going to try not to get shot."
A 45-member security force is going with them. That's a four-to-one protection ratio.
They'll be stationed out of the Bagram Airbase, north of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city.
The entire team is scheduled to leave for Afghanistan in late September.
Donors of grains bins for this mission were Wayne Bahler, Kurt Bernhardt, Kip Bremer and Gregg Smith. Donnie Schilke donated protective coverings.
There are more where those came from that might be shipped later, Kuntzelman said. This will be a good start.
"We want to see how it goes this time," he said.
Afghans struggle to grow enough food to feed their families. The country sits on high plains with an altitude similar to Colorado, and many of the same crops are grown – wheat, milo, corn, some alfalfa.
“We hope to teach how to farm the old fashioned way. They live in the later 1800s-early 1900s era. If we can get them to the 1930s-40s, that will be a tremendous increase,” Kuntzelmand said.
The team includes people who will help with cattle production and nutrition. They will help build terraces, ponds and ditches to capture snowmelt in the spring. And, they hope to develop solar powered pumps. Water for irrigation is about 80 feet deep.
Soil samples will be taken and shipped to Olsen’s Lab in McCook for analysis.
Guard from other states also pitch in
Army National Guard soldiers from six farm states are hoping to change the way Afghanistan farms.
Guard members from Nebraska, Missouri, Texas, Tennessee, Indiana and Kansas are teaching Afghans modern farming methods with the hope they will switch from planting opium poppies to wheat and other crops.
They believe they are making a difference.
The Associated Press reported last week that Col. Martin Leppert, the national coordinator of the Guard’s Agribusiness Development Team has seen results.
Nearly 90 percent of Afghans are poor farmers who have no other way to make a living and about 70-percent of the country’s population is employed by agricultural interests.
Agriculture accounts for about 45 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product.
Afghan officials have said that U.S. aid programs are doing little good in the country.
The National Guard volunteers hope to change they way Afghans farm to produce more food and better yields.
Farmers in Afghanistan still farm like they did in the Bible – harvesting and threshing wheat by hand and hauling it with donkeys.
The soldier-farmers are teaching basic techniques such as planting corn in rows, using trellises to grow tomatoes and grapes, improve irrigation techniques and storage facilities.
The military spent $1.7 million in 2007 for agricultural improvement projects in the area.
Through May 2008, more than $1.8 million went toward such projects as livestock management, wheat seed distribution and equipment purchases.
Afghan food shortages have caused many farmers to look beyond opium to wheat and other crops.
But Taliban and al-Qaida militants offer cash up front to farmers willing to grow opium and they don’t have that guarantee with legitimate crops.
Hopefully, these missions will help stablize the Afghanistan economy.
All 11 Nebraska National Guard volunteers have expertise in agriculture and two are engineers.
By Frank Graham
Afghan fast facts
Only a small share of Afghanistan’s land, about 15 percent, mostly in scattered valleys, is suitable for farming; about 6 percent of the land is actually cultivated.
At least two-thirds of farmland requires irrigation. Water is drawn from springs and rivers and distributed through surface ditches and through underground channels, or tunnels, which are excavated and maintained by a series of vertical shafts.
Wheat is the most important food crop, followed by barley, corn, and rice. Cotton is another important and widely cultivated crop.
Fruit and nuts are among Afghanistan’s most important exports, and Afghanistan is noted for unusually sweet grapes and melons. Raisins are an important export. Other important fruits are apricots, cherries, figs, mulberries, and pomegranates.
Livestock is nearly as important as crops to Afghanistan’s economy. Karakul sheep are raised in large numbers in the north and the curly fleece is used to make Persian lamb coats. Other breeds of sheep, such as the fat-tailed sheep, and goats are also raised.
Afghanistan is a major supplier in the international drug trade -- the second-largest opium producer after Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Afghanistan also produces significant quantities of hashish.
This article was published Aug. 20 in the print edition of the North Platte Bulletin. Jan Schultz, news editor of The Imperial Republican researched and wrote the original story Aug. 15. George Lauby added to it and did the final edit. Frank Graham did more research and added perspective with a related article and facts. Schultz’s original can be seen at: http://www.imperialrepublican.com/c29437.html