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NMSU may take lead role in coalition of universities to help revitalize agriculture in Iraq

New Mexico State University President Michael Martin, just back from a quick trip to Baghdad, said Wednesday he hopes NMSU can play a lead role in helping to revitalize agriculture in Iraq.

New Mexico State University President Michael Martin talks with the news media in his office Aug. 2, shortly after returning from Iraq. He accompanied U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to Baghdad to discuss a U.S.-Iraq agricultural initiative. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Martin accompanied U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to Baghdad. They met Aug. 1 with several high-ranking Iraqi officials, including the dean of an agricultural college of a major university, the minister of planning and the minister of trade.

Johanns signed a joint statement of intent with Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zukam Ali Al-Zawba'i to strengthen and broaden Iraq's agricultural extension system and universities through partnerships between U.S. and Iraqi universities.

Martin said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to issue a request for proposals in the fall for universities to bid on the opportunity to work with the Iraqis on agricultural development.

He said NMSU probably will form a consortium with other universities that have relevant expertise, as well as a large American agribusiness, to submit a proposal.

New Mexico was well represented on this trip, Martin said. The military liaison to Secretary Johanns was Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Caine, originally from Alamogordo, and the incoming agricultural attaché to Iraq is Rod McSherry, an NMSU alumnus and native of Deming.

Many of the agricultural challenges faced by Iraqis in the high desert are similar to those faced by people in the desert Southwest, Martin said, emphasizing water availability and distribution. Rice, wheat and poultry have fared well in Iraq this year, he said. However, he cautioned that more than the agricultural sector has been damaged.

"The problem is that the infrastructure that serves it, both in terms of delivering inputs and in terms of assembling and delivering outputs is pretty beat up," Martin said. "The roads are obviously under some real stress. We saw a number of bridges that were taken out. So I think it's a combination of the isolation that's occurring in the rural areas and just general disruption."

Martin said this opportunity gives NMSU "a chance to learn about the bigger world beyond this particular province of it and get our faculty, staff and students and others perhaps involved in something that will be not only meaningful but incredibly educational."