Civilian Job Skills Help Guardsmen Address Afghanistan's Poppy Problem

By Capt. Brian M. O'Malley, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

SHINDAND, Afghanistan, July 26, 2007 - Afghan and international forces are looking to solve to Afghanistan's poppy problem and to maximize agricultural output. Now, Army 1st Lt. Gris Babcock of the 207th Regional Security Assistance Command here may have found a way to help.

Babcock has started an agricultural research center to develop crops other than poppy.

The Afghan poppy trade produces most of the world's opium, the resulting illegal drug trafficking helps to finance the Taliban and other enemies of the government. Efforts to combat the problem include helping farmers in the impoverished nation learn economically viable alternatives to growing poppy.

An employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in his civilian job, this member of the Idaho National Guard applied his knowledge to develop the center. The center is remarkably comprehensive, with laboratories and classrooms, and even fish ponds with hatcheries. It includes beehives, vineyards and orchards. When completed, the center will even have a weather station.

Officials have begun work on 10 acres of orchards that will include apricot, plum, almond, pomegranate, mulberry, and wild pistachio trees. The next step for the orchards is to install a drip irrigation system. The saplings from the orchards will go to surrounding villages to start their own nurseries. Although the villages will be cultivating the nurseries, they will be under the auspices of the center.

Another 10 acres will be used to grow six different varieties of grapes. Grapes had been all but wiped out by the Taliban because they could be used to produce wine. "Grapes are lucrative and require very little summer watering, which make them an ideal crop. With the introduction of trellising, yields will increase at least 60 percent in this ideal climate," Babcock said. "The key is to teach trellising and pruning techniques, which are virtually unknown in this country."

The grapes will be sold as fruit and as raisins.

Saffron also will be introduced. This crop is the most promising to replace the poppy crop as a cash crop, officials said. It will be grown first at the center and then move to surrounding villages. "The main hold-up right now for the saffron is signing with a good export company in Herat, but we should have one soon without much difficulty," Babcock said.

The fish ponds will be virtually self-sufficient, with waste water used to fertilize the plants. A small-scale, sustainable, warm-water fish hatchery will be built for grass carp.

"Currently the fish market in Herat is completely under-supplied, though demand is huge. Our goal will be to link five ponds in the villages. This obviously is very site-specific, but can be done with the abundance of irrigation ditches," Babcock said.

"Grass carp eat everything, particularly grass, which will grow in wet, muddy pond bottoms in two weeks here," he said.

Babcock explained that the fish are induced to spawn by raising and lowering water levels. The effort will begin with only two spawning pairs. The high productivity of the pairs allows the initial breading stock to be relatively low. After the drawdown -- during which the water will irrigate crops -- adult fish will be removed and fingerlings can mature. "Soon, the fish can be taken to market in coolers filled with ice, or eaten locally," he said.

In addition, Honey production will begin at the station and at the village nurseries on a smaller scale. "This is a highly lucrative crop, and has the added benefit of increasing crop production," Babcock said.

"Currently, the honey that is available here is a low grade that comes from Iran," he said. "We will purchase all the equipment, and the (Agriculture) Department will bring down a trainer for a course. At the station, a small bottling room will be available for the station's production and locals if they want to use it."

When complete, this project will be run by Afghans, taught by Afghans and worked by Afghans, U.S. officials said.

(Army Capt. Brian M. O'Malley is assigned to Task Force Phoenix.)

Civilian Job Skills Help Guardsmen Address Afghanistan's Poppy Problem [ ]