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Afghan Farmers Will Determine the Success of the Nation’s Economy and Security

This article appeared on May 14, 2010 in the USA Today.

The secret as to how Afghanistan will achieve a stable, secure future really is no secret at all: agriculture.
So it was not surprising during this week’s meetings in Washington between U.S. and Afghan officials that agriculture was a key topic of discussion.
In Afghanistan, 85 percent of the population relies on agriculture to earn a living, and strengthening Afghanistan’s agricultural sector is a critical element in stabilizing the nation. But until the agriculture sector can support legitimate crops like wheat and fruits, the Taliban will continue to prey upon disaffected, out of work youth and push the production of poppy.  Unfortunately, poppy production provides little return to the farmers; pomegranates will earn a farmer five times that of poppy on the open market, almonds will earn seven, and grapes will earn eight times as much.  
That is why the United States and Afghanistan are working together with a shared strategy to rebuild Afghanistan’s once vibrant agricultural economy.  Our efforts are already yielding results in troubled provinces such as Helmand, the heart of Afghan poppy production.
The strategy is four-fold. First, we must increase the productivity of staple crops such as wheat, introduce complementary crops such as soybeans, and improve the yields of cash crops like horticulture and nuts. Second, we must protect Afghanistan’s natural resources by investing in watershed management, sustainable forestry efforts and soil conservation. Third, we must redouble our efforts to rebuild the country’s agricultural marketing system and return Afghanistan to its once-prominent position as the fruit and nut epicenter of Central Asia. And fourth, our countries must continue to work together to restructure Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture by recruiting competent professionals, especially in the rural areas where extension agents with technical knowhow and expertise can make a real difference to farmers and herders.
The possibility of the turnaround we envision is real. International demand for Afghan agriculture is returning. In Dubai recently, at the region’s biggest food and trade expo, Afghanistan’s tiny stall was overrun with customers from Europe, Africa and the Middle East with orders for dried fruit and nuts. For the first time, Afghan apples and other fresh fruit are being air-freighted to India. Just recently, a Kabul businessman obtained his certification to begin exporting raisins to Europe. And, in what might be the biggest boon to Afghanistan’s agricultural economy thus far, the nation’s first concentrated juice factory opened near Kabul in October 2009, selling out its entire production for 2010 in just six weeks. The plant employs hundreds of Afghans and is planning an expansion so it can continue to ship its products across the globe.  Other similar facilities are being planned across the country.
Furthermore, the U.S. and Afghan governments are working with Afghan farmers to introduce new production and post-production technologies, while improving existing crops with enhanced cultivation and seed varieties. American support is helping to develop Afghan grading, packaging and sanitary methods per international standards. And together we are building the infrastructure and opening the transportation routes necessary to get Afghan grains, fruits and nuts to consumers.
The Afghan Ministry of Agriculture also needs help to build research and agricultural extension services – from satellite mapping to experts standing in a field teaching farmers. This is an area where USDA’s assistance is crucial. USDA has contributed more than 100 highly-skilled individuals to this effort – foresters, soil and plant scientists, marketing specialists, and water and rangeland specialists – all with a special ability to share their knowledge through demonstration.
USDA is partnering with the U.S. Army National Guard, the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, other U.S. federal agencies and, most importantly, Afghans, to solve complex agricultural issues. Moreover, the Afghan government has reorganized its cabinet so that ministries focused on solving the problems facing its rural communities are teamed together: agriculture, electricity, water, construction, and counternarcotics.
For 85 percent of the Afghan people, the path to a better job and life for their family is likely to pass through a farm.  That is why, despite the challenges that certainly lie ahead, we are committed to building a better life for the Afghan people by working together to rebuild its once-vibrant agricultural economy.
- Tom Vilsack is the United States Secretary of Agriculture and Mohammad Asif Rahimi is the Afghan Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock

Colorado Schools Providing Nutritious Options in Their Meal Plans

By Darlene Barnes, Mountain Plain Regional Administrator, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service
Colorado Springs, Colorado, May 12, 2010

Yesterday (Wednesday) I spent the day at the beautiful Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Colorado Springs School District 11 has initiated some impressive projects when it comes to bringing healthier meals to students. Fortunately, I had an opportunity to share one of those meals with the school’s first-graders, district superintendent, and school board members during my visit.  We had a multitude of healthy choices ranging from a salad bar, whole wheat crust pizza, several varieties of fruit, and the surprise of the day – locally grown asparagus.

After lunch, I met with more than a dozen school food service directors from Colorado school districts, as well as Colorado Department of Education staff, parents, farmers, and others who make healthier school meals a reality.  I learned of important strides being accomplished through school breakfasts in the classroom, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, local wellness committees, and efforts by schools to purchase and serve local produce.

I also received feedback on how Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization can support local school districts – ideas I plan to share when I’m back in Washington, DC.  It’s hard to convey how gratifying it was to spend time with Colorado’s hard-working state and district representatives, as well as the many others doing exceptional work running school meals programs in their communities.

Colorado School Nutrition Tour  Under Secretary Janey Thornton (left) and Darlene Barnes, Administrator
of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service’s Mountain Plains Region, chat
with children in Colorado Springs, Colo., about healthy meal choices.

Utah Works to Help Feed Those in Need

  Darlene Barnes, Mountain Plains Regional Administrator, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service

It was going to be tough matching Wednesday’s visit to Colorado Springs, but if anyplace can compare, it’s breathtaking Salt Lake City.  But Utah is more than just a pretty face.  It’s one of seven new states this year that began operating the USDA Food and Nutrition Service’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP).  Thanks to Utah and others’ commitment, CSFP participation now includes 39 states, two Indian Tribal Organizations, and the District of Columbia.
While there, I took the opportunity to tour the Bountiful Food Pantry, the first site in the Salt Lake area to begin distributing food packages.  CSFP food packages there are available to the elderly as well as to women, infants, and children.  A little later I was joined by staff from the Food and Nutrition Service’s Mountain Plains Regional Office, where we took part in a celebration for CSFP at the Utah Food Bank.  I also had a chance to see their recently renovated food bank, and its a gorgeous facility!  A number of community partners came out to support the program, helping us get the word out about CSFP.  I’m confident we’ll be successful in spreading that important message to those most in need – in large part to the efforts of Utah’s food community.

 Utah Food Bank

Janey Thornton, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, (in center) and Darlene Barnes, Administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service’s Mountain Plains Region (second from left) traveled to Utah May 13 to help promote the launch of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program in the State. 

The First USDA People’s Garden in South Florida

By Ana Maria Silva, USDA Marketing Intern

Florida International University’s Organic Garden gained recognition from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the People’s Garden Initiative. FIU is a student-centered urban public research university that is locally and globally engaged.

Both the organic garden and FIU’s agro-ecology program was founded in 2005 by FIU professors Mahadev Bhat and Krish and funded by USDA educational grants. Once a week students from the agro-ecology program and the garden club meet to work at the garden and search for ways to reduce waste and conserve energy. Not only is the garden open to all FIU students, it is also open to teachers and students from other schools for research and educational purposes.

According to students, the garden uses little or no synthetic soil or pesticides. We always look for organic solutions,” said Andrew Jungman, a senior majoring in environmental studies. “We squeeze caterpillars’ guts onto plants to deter insects, and we feed compost like orange peels to worms to use their poop or castings to create a very rich soil.” They also conserve water and fertilizer by using a drip irrigation system that lets water drip slowly to the root of the plant. In addition, the garden features a meditation section surrounded by edible plants like basil and lemon balm.

FIU students are very committed to making the organic garden a model for other urban institutions of higher education, “said Vladimir Diaz with the USDA Hispanic-Serving Institutions National Program. “The community will greatly benefit from this environmentally friendly initiative.”  The FIU Organic Garden is the first USDA People’s Garden on any university in South Florida.

In 2009, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack created an initiative to recognize community gardens that promote sustainable, healthy and local community food production in the country. In order to qualify, the garden must be a collaborative effort between volunteers within the community and gardeners. It must create spaces that the public can use and employ practices that nurture, maintain and protect the environment.

 Students at Florida International University’s Organic Garden

Students at Florida International University’s Organic Garden

Exploring the Diverse Farming Community in Plant City, Florida

Today, driving out to visit the Castillo farm in Plant City, Florida, Secretary Tom Vilsack and his staff took a moment to stop at a roadside stand selling a wide variety of local produce.

We we’re pleased to see that they accept SNAP benefits with an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. And their boiled peanuts were delicious.

At the farm Secretary Vilsack had a great conversation with Fidel and Hilda Castillo. He learned how they have expanded their operation from just one acre to the more than 60 acres they farm today.  The Secretary then went out into the cantaloupe field and checked out the irrigation system.  

Up next, Secretary Vilsack will attend an event with agriculture leaders from across the state at the University of South Florida in Tampa to talk about the strength of Florida’s agricultural economy.

By Bobby Gravitz

Farmers Market that accepts SNAP benefits 

Farmer’s Market near Plant City, Florida accepts SNAP benefits with an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card.


U.S. Foods and Beverages Attract Crowds at Seoul Food and Hotel Korea Trade Show, Demonstrating Korean Interest and Demand

By Janet Nuzum, Associate Administrator for USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service

I am writing this post from my hotel room in Korea, because I want to share with you some of my experiences on my first day here at the Seoul Food and Hotel Korea Trade Show. As the associate administrator for USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, I am here in Ilsan, northwest of Seoul, for several reasons. Among the most important is to meet face-to-face with exhibitors and business representatives who are here to sell American agricultural and food products, as well as Korean importers, food processors, and industry leaders converging at this event, the biggest trade-only food show in South Korea. Up to 1,800 exhibitors are here in this huge, 49,000-square-foot exhibition space. More than 35,000 visitors are expected.

May 12, was the first day of this year’s show and I was privileged to represent the United States in the opening ceremonies.  I joined Minister Chang, the Korean Minister for Food, Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries (MIFAFF), as a dozen or so dignitaries cut the ribbons signifying the official opening of this year’s show. As Minister Chang prepared to depart the show, he and I had a moment to chat informally.  I was impressed by his warmth and sincerity as we both re-affirmed the interests of MIFAFF and USDA in working together cooperatively on areas of mutual interest and concern.

I then turned my attention to the USA Pavilion, which featured 36 exhibitors, representing a truly diverse range of U.S. food and beverage products including American meat products, fruits, cheese and a variety of other products. Last year, 30 U.S. exhibitors left the show with expected sales of $8.9 million in sales over the ensuing 12 months. This year, they hope to sell even more U.S. food and beverage products.  Even if the contacts made here don’t lead immediately to sales contracts, several exhibitors told me that it is nevertheless important for them to be here, to be visible with the trade and showcase their products.  Building a market presence is sometimes a long process, and participation in these types of trade shows introduces foreign buyers and consumers more quickly and effectively to the attributes and advantages of American products.  The exhibits not only showcase the U.S. products, but also demonstrate ways to use and serve the products, whether American style or adapted to Korean style.  Even the non-edible give-aways, such as the carrying bags with egg-head caricatures on them given out by the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, are a visual reminder of the likeability of American agricultural products.

Korea is already a very important trade partner for the United States. It is the third largest economy in Asia and the world’s 15th largest economy. This country is an economic powerhouse. My presence here emphasizes how strongly the United States values its long, strategic partnership with Korea, which began 60 years ago. As I meet with Korean officials, buyers, and traders, I have the opportunity to reinforce that partnership.

Looking back on the response of visitors to the food and beverages displayed at the USA Pavilion, I am optimistic that the demand for U.S. agricultural products is strong and our reputation as a reliable supplier of safe, wholesome food and agricultural products is excellent. Our FAS staff here in Korea in partnership with U.S. cooperators, NASDA, the state and regional trade groups SUSTA and Food Export-Midwest, as well as innovative and forward-looking businesses, have done an outstanding job of showcasing American food agricultural products here. 

FAS Associate Administrator Janet Nuzum shakes hands with Korea’s Minister for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Chang Tae-Pyong. FAS Associate Administrator Janet Nuzum shakes hands with Korea’s Minister for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Chang Tae-Pyong.