In a country where roadside bombs can make travel from farm fields to markets hazardous, a Wisconsin National Guard agribusiness unit came up with a novel way to reach farmers in Afghanistan.
Through their cellphones.
Though few homes have electricity, battery powered cellphones are common even in rural areas of Afghanistan. Using a small hand-held recording device, Sgt. 1st Class Chris Beron of the Wisconsin National Guard 82nd Agribusiness Development Team came up with the idea of recording farm reports and public service announcements that farmers could hear through their cellphones.
"The idea was to do a weekly farmer's report like we used to have back here," said Beron, who lives near Superior.
It started with public service announcements about personal hygiene and public health issues and then switched to agriculture training sessions. Among the topics recorded in the local language by Afghan agriculture officials: planting tips for wheat, onion and potato crops; pruning techniques; and pest management. One agriculture report explained how farmers could use simple things like boiling baking soda and other common products to make inexpensive pesticides that could be sprayed on farm fields.
Beron's idea was such a hit the Kunar provincial government has now budgeted for twice-a-week radio programs aimed at farmers.
"Our goal was to reconnect the people to the government. I wanted to show them this is a form of advertising, it's a way to sell yourself to the people and let them know what you're doing," Beron said.
Beron and a dozen other members of the 82nd Agribusiness Development Team returned last month from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. The unit deployed 58 soldiers and airmen to Kunar province, but two months into the deployment the military decided to break up the group. Most of the security forces were sent to Kabul, while about a dozen members with agriculture specialties were assigned to a provincial reconstruction team.
The first two months, though, the team was together and worked with farmers on the village and district level, and oversaw three demonstration farms set up by the Illinois National Guard agribusiness unit that the Wisconsin Guard's personnel replaced.
The demonstration farms coordinated training and trials of various crops before they were closed in August when U.S. funding stopped.
After the unit was split up, Wisconsin agribusiness members assigned to the provincial reconstruction team worked more with government leaders at the provincial level -- provinces are the equivalent of U.S. states -- and helped them coordinate agriculture initiatives. The Wisconsin National Guard unit also arranged a meeting via Skype between agriculture professors at a local Afghan university with their counterparts at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, said Maj. Sarah Bammel, a Cottage Grove native.
"I certainly learned a lot about the Afghan government. It was very interesting," said Bammel, the unit's hydrologist. "Agriculture in Afghanistan is very different. They have different crops. (Unlike Afghanistan) Wisconsin doesn't require much irrigation for farmers, so that was something new for me."
The agribusiness teams started in 2007 -- all are National Guard units -- as a way to help farmers in a country where 80% of the population works in agriculture.
Another Wisconsin National Guard unit, the 97th Agribusiness Development Team, arrived last month to replace the 82nd at the same base in Kunar province for an expected yearlong deployment.
Staff Sgt. Kyle Wickert of Iron Ridge spent four months in Kabul with other security forces from the 82nd and then returned to Kunar province to finish out his deployment, running base operations and going out on missions with the Wisconsin agriculture specialists as a security officer.
Wickert previously served two deployments in Iraq, including a yearlong stint in 2009-'10 as that war wound down.
"The idea of it was similar. We were trying to give Iraq back to the Iraqis, and here we were giving Afghanistan back to the Afghans," Wickert said. "In Afghanistan they seem to accept the transition better."