News: USDA visits Balad for agricultural conference
By Cpl. Rich Barkemeyer
13th ESC Public Affairs
BALAD, Iraq — Members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture met with local farmers and businessmen to discuss new methods and technologies that can help improve Iraq’s agricultural system June 9 in Balad, Iraq.
“We’ve brought the first agricultural trade mission in many, many years to this country,” said Dan Berman, head of fragile market economies for the USDA. “Eighteen American companies have come a long way to find Iraqi business partners and try to support the private sector in Iraq.”
The USDA has been working with provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq to help increase agricultural production and help Iraqi farmers compete in markets with farmers from neighboring countries, Berman said.
The USDA members also made the trip to Iraq to see firsthand what was happening in the country.
“I came here to see what the needs are, and what we can do,” said Gary Groves, assistant deputy administrator for the office of capacity building and development for the USDA. “When you’re back in Washington, you have a hard time seeing what agencies are working, and what the needs are. If you don’t come out and get a feel for what’s really on the ground, and what the people are doing, it’s very difficult to know what direction you should be taking in the programs.”
The conference was the second to focus on agriculture in Iraq, and the first since 2007, said Franklin Johnson, agriculture advisor for the PRT.
“The first conference, back in 2007, was a lot smaller; about 20 people,” Johnson said. “We were still trying to engage with the populace then, and figure out who we could work with. Today we maxed at a little over a hundred people. Everybody wanted to meet the Americans and hear what they had to say.”
The local farmers who attended the conference were given the chance to ask Berman and Groves questions, and while some were unhappy, the meeting was positive overall, Johnson said.
“It was constructive, but you can see the farmers are upset — going from a command economy that was heavily subsidized by the government, to a capitalist economy where farmers have to compete, and purchase their own fertilizers and seeds,” he said. “There’s still some angry sentiment there, but they’re pushing through these problems, and in the end they will be successful.”
Berman said local farmers are becoming increasingly able to vocalize their needs regarding the state of Iraqi agriculture.
“It would be hard to imagine something like this happening just a few years ago,” he said. “People are feeling more confident. They’re asking their leadership for things that they need. I think it’s important that we’re not seen as the entity that’s going to solve all their problems. The real solutions are going to have to come from the Iraqi people and government, but we’re here to support them.”
Following the conference, the USDA team traveled to a local farm to tour a hoop house — a greenhouse with a plastic roof wrapped over flexible piping.
“The plastic greenhouse is a new technology in Iraq,” Johnson said. “What it does is protect crops from Iraq’s harsh environment. It protects from the sand storms, and direct sunlight, and it also extends the growing season. Now, they can grow vegetables year-round. Before the hoop houses, farmers couldn’t do that, so they had only their market share during the summer months, and when the summer ended, they would lose that market share to the surrounding countries’ product.”
The introduction of hoop houses has changed the way farmers grow their crops, and will be a key to helping set up Iraq’s agricultural economy for future success. Before, farmers relied on flood irrigation methods, which would excessively saturate the ground with water. Hoop houses feature a timed drip irrigation system, which protects the land while saving water, he said.
“The hoop houses also improve the quality of the products,” Johnson said. “Before, produce was grown on the ground, with flood irrigation. So you’re talking about a cucumber or tomato sitting on the ground in still water for a long period of time, degrading the quality of the product.”
With hoop houses, farmers are able to use a string system that suspends vegetables off the ground, which also improves yield, Johnson said.
The representatives from the USDA are optimistic about the future of agriculture in Iraq, but know that there is still a lot of work to be done, Groves said. Helping stabilize the agricultural industry is one part of the process of building a stronger Iraq overall.
“As the [U.S.] troops withdraw, we still have to provide support, and let them know that we’re still there to support them,” Groves said. “I think Iraqis are going to have the means to get the support, so what they’re really looking for is our expertise, whether it’s technology or just education, and we can provide that.”
Added Berman: “When you plant a tree, it takes a long time for that tree to mature, but it gives fruit for many years.”