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NMSU professor supports agricultural productivity in Afghanistan

JALALABAD, Afghanistan - Against the backdrop of continuing violence in the nearly 10-year-old Afghanistan war, major efforts by the international community and the Afghan government are supporting local farmers struggling to survive and lead relatively normal lives.



Hamdy Oushy, associate professor in NMSU's Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business, leads a recent farm resource management workshop in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Oushy has been involved in the Afghanistan Water, Agriculture and Technology Transfer program for nearly three years. (Courtesy photo.)

One of the more successful of these efforts is AWATT - the Afghanistan Water, Agriculture and Technology Transfer program - a multi-year $16 million project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. New Mexico State University is the lead implementing agent in a consortium that also includes three other U.S. universities.

Hamdy Oushy is an associate professor in NMSU's Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business who has been working in Afghanistan since AWATT began nearly three years ago. Originally from Egypt, Oushy holds a doctorate from NMSU in range sciences. His primary role with the AWATT program has been in the area of forage and rangeland "technology transfer" as he has supported Afghans in developing systematic approaches to improving the production of feed crops for livestock.

Oushy was the architect of a recent AWATT pilot in Nangarhar province, the Farm Resource Management project. Initiated last summer, FRM applies lessons learned through tested AWATT interventions in forage, irrigation and upper watershed restoration to increase agricultural productivity and sustainability in the lower watersheds.

Like all aspects of AWATT, the FRM program is highly collaborative, involving Afghan agricultural officials and research and extension personnel from national, provincial and district levels; the U.S. National Guard Agriculture Development Team (ADT-Missouri in Nangarhar), local political leaders, staff and students from the provincial university, and, not least, a group of 13 farmers who have agreed to allow the demonstration farms to operate on their land.

FRM is an adaptation of the "whole farm management" concept under local environmental conditions. Oushy characterized the Nangarhar context as an over-reliance on "the cereal wheat/rice cycle in Afghanistan that has resulted in soil degradation, lower productivity, lower organic matter, weeds, insects and disease." The FRM program addresses the various factors that inhibit plentiful harvests and keep farm incomes low, in ways that can be handed off to provincial Department of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock extension agents and - Oushy hopes - be replicated in other areas of the country.

As a pilot project, FRM is essentially a research enterprise. The goal is to determine the best mix of traditional and modified farming and animal husbandry practices, incorporating the appropriate combination of crops to produce optimal results for the population.

In setting up the pilot, a small set of willing farmers was selected for participation, which involved agreeing to employ certain practices and to plant particular crops on test plots they own. Additional test plots were established at a local agricultural research station and a dairy farm operation.

The participating farmers are learning new ways to farm sustainably, such as rotating their crops to improve the quality of their soil. They can compare the results alongside their traditional fields.

Provincial extension agents are getting a taste of how science-based agricultural trials are designed and implemented. Data from the study is expected help steer farmers and agricultural policy makers toward efficient approaches that include tailored crop rotation, measurement and analysis of water use and soil composition, more calibrated planting and harvest and more productive and healthier livestock practices.

The farming practices employed in FRM include laser-leveling and furrowing of the demonstration plots, to distribute irrigation water evenly and avoid wasteful runoff; planting with seed drills to boost plant viability; analyzing the soil to monitor fertility; regulating irrigation to avoid both over- and under-watering; and feeding the harvested forage crops to livestock, which can then be kept more contained, preventing overgrazing on the hillsides. Containment of the livestock, a difficult practice for Afghans to understand, is expected to lead to the replenishment of overgrazed and deforested areas of the watershed, reducing erosion and preventing flooding.

A major crop-related element of the FRM pilot is the introduction of suitable nitrogen-fixing forage crops to the farmers' inventory. Oushy personally brought in seed of six high-yield varieties of Egyptian clover, now being tested as a winter forage crop under Nangarhar environmental conditions. He predicts that rotating the nitrogen-rich clover with the traditional winter wheat will result in higher yields of both the wheat and the summer crops, as well as improved soil conditions. He also expects there to be variation in the performance of the different clover varieties.

In terms of summer crops, Oushy advocates the introduction of pearl millet, Sudan grass and cowpea as forage crops, in rotation with the traditionally grown corn and rice.

The FRM program is expected to result in higher crop yields and higher incomes for farmers, as well as self-sufficiency in seed production.

According to Oushy, the first cut of the introduced Egyptian clover from the 13 FRM demonstration plots was harvested 25-30 days earlier than indigenous clover planted at the same time and yielded fifty percent more forage than the local variety.

"This means the number of cuts and the total yield of the Egyptian clover will be significantly higher than the local clover," Oushy said. In addition, the FRM farmers have reported that their milk production from cows increased by 20 to 30 percent since they have been feeding on the newly introduced high protein legume. "This has already had an impact on the household incomes."

AWATT and the FRM pilot have attracted positive attention from a few high-profile individuals of late. On Dec. 2, the demonstration plot at the agricultural research station in Jalalabad was visited by a VIP party that included Ambassador Mark Sedwill, NATO's Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan; and U.K. Ambassador Sir William Patey. Sedwill had high praise for AWATT's effectiveness in a message to General David Petreous and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, where he referred to AWATT as "an impressive outfit" and to FRM as a prime example of "good projects to improve agricultural productivity through simple low-cost innovations."

Roger Beck, a professor in NMSU's Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business, is currently AWATT's Kabul-based program director and primary NMSU representative in Afghanistan. "The FRM program pulls together all of AWATT's successfully tested on-farm interventions in Afghanistan," Beck said.

The likely benefits of the FRM approach for Afghans include farming practices and crop selections that result in more productive land, making better use of scarce resources and allowing the restoration of stressed environments. In addition, the program supports the U.S. Government's counter-insurgency strategy, which seeks to "win the hearts and minds" of Afghans, instill confidence in the government and offer alternatives to violence.

Are there likely benefits for New Mexicans from NMSU's leadership of the AWATT program? Although most of the modern farming practices AWATT has introduced to Afghanistan are standard in the U.S., Oushy suspects some benefits will filter home. For example, he suspects that one or more varieties of Egyptian clover will be adopted as a viable forage crop for farmers in the Southwest (and elsewhere) who face similar circumstances of climate, soil health, etc.

"Egyptian clover will grow as well in New Mexico as it does in Afghanistan," the forage expert said.

Beck is confident that the relationships established between NMSU personnel and those working in the Afghan agriculture sector will continue, likely resulting in collaborative research, exchange of scholars and study opportunities for students in both Afghanistan and the U.S.

"The agro-climatic conditions in Afghanistan, and even some cultural approaches to water rights, are similar to New Mexico," Beck said. "The FRM program is an important part of what we hope will be a long professional relationship between the Afghan farming community and NMSU."