By Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
CAMP VICTORY, Iraq – They walked in the fields of Iraq, talked to its farmers and people, learned their stories, their struggles, their hope.
Team Borlaug, the agricultural assessment team from Texas A&M University, visited the farmlands of southern Iraq for six months; now, members can look back at their accomplishments.
Humor clings to their tongues as they retell stories of the Iraqi people - despite the poverty and human struggles they've seen. They have learned from farmers who shared pains of the past in order to see growth in the future.
Blaze Currie, of Wellman, Texas, the team's youth program development expert, talked about a farmer in Karbala province who had a plot of land behind his house set aside for farming.
"He said he couldn't plant it this year, but he would next year," Currie said of the farmer. "And our simple question that we asked a lot of times was, 'Why didn't you plant it last year?' His answer was, 'Well, I had to flood it first to get rid of all the mines.' ... That, to me, symbolizes the concept of agriculture in this nation to develop economic stability."
Currie and the other members of Team Borlaug could talk for hours about these experiences. The team had up to 14 members, and their mission for the past six months was to work with coalition forces and Iraqi farmers to improve the country's agricultural situation. They visited the eight provinces south of Baghdad and submitted reports to assist in developing actionable plans.
Agriculture makes up nearly 75 percent of Iraq's economy. The team, which specializes in agriculture in post-conflict environments, has helped improve water-saving technologies, spread the use of greenhouses, develop youth farming programs and worked with civil affairs teams and provincial reconstruction teams to restore confidence in the Iraqi people.
"I think the most important impact has been the sense of outside empowerment that our team has been giving to the local authorities," said team leader Dr. Ed Price, of Decatur, Ala.
"In fact, some of them would break down and cry and say, 'This is the first time people really are showing so much interest in how we live and how we make our living and in agriculture that remains the source of income,'" Price added.
The forming of relationships in Iraq underscored each of the team members' stories. Gary Briers, the team's production and animal expert, talked about their last days in Wasit province. They visited a farmer who seemed well-connected and diverse in his farming projects. He had chicks for poultry, a tractor for hauling equipment, a greenhouse for growing tomatoes and a healthy field of wheat.
In talking with the farmer, the team asked where he purchased the chicks and the tractor and who else he taught about growing tomatoes. For each person the farmer listed, Team Borlaug could respond, "Yes, yes. Oh we know him. That guy is our friend."
Finally, shocked by their knowledge, the farmer asked, "Do you know everyone?"
"We have met most of the movers and shakers in agriculture," Biers said. "We named about six people [he knew], and then we finally asked him, 'Where do you get your poultry feed?' And he said, 'Oh, we import it from Syria.' We [finally] said, 'We don't know that guy.'"
The team members laughed at Briers' story – proof that laughter can even be agricultural medicine.
"Which is amazing that these people can have a sense of humor after the strife that they've gone through," Biers said.
Their senses of humor, their lifestyle, their world were all unknown to the team: the thermometer rose to 132 degrees Fahrenheit; farmers tried to grow olive trees without any knowledge about the crop.
"One of the things that really surprised me about coming over here, thinking about all the things that people have had to endure with wars and conflict, [is] they still persist and endure and have a lot of hope," said John Hargreaves, of Baton Rouge, La., expert in fish production and water resource management.
Of course, Iraq isn't just 7,000 miles from Team Borlaug's home, war-torn and hot. It's also a military battle space. The team adjusted to new lingo and worked with Soldiers who had trained for war but instead helped the people of Iraq in their agricultural and economic struggles.
As an example, Currie remembers an artillery sergeant who made tea for local sheikhs invited on base as guests.
"He was a big, buffed up dude that I mean, was just pretty rugged ... and this big old dude that was stocky and looked like he could manhandle about anybody ... [was] leaning over making chai. And I said, 'Why are you making chai?' And he had the funniest look and he said, 'Well, why wouldn't I? They make chai for us, don't they? ... This is as commonplace as putting ammo in my clip. I gotta' make chai whenever they come.'
"I'll never forget that," Currie said. "That was the epitome of something I didn't expect a Soldier to be doing – a great service to be doing in Iraq – but they were doing it."
Team Borlaug gives credit for their success to Soldiers like this one, and to those who escorted them throughout Iraq while they conducted their assessment. When talking about what they learned, they will share their memories; but when talking about their accomplishments, they will point back to civil affair teams, PRTs and coalition forces dedicated to improving this country. Above all, they point to the Iraqi people.
"I learned the people of Iraq want the same thing for themselves and their families that we want for ours. They want peace. They want freedom. They want hope," Briers said.
This work, Connecting with Iraq's people, witnessing hope at the roots, by MSG Michel Sauret, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.