By Edward Messmer (State Department) and Matt Herrick (USDA)
As a foreign service officer with USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, Quintin Gray has assessed challenging situations in some harsh places. But nothing like in Afghanistan.
“The soil is like a fine dust,” said Gray, who recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan’s Marjah district in Helmand province. “But they have water. It’s just a matter of delivering it effectively.”
Gray is on loan from USDA to the State Department as a Senior Agricultural Advisor to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. He went to Marjah last week to inspect the progress being made in irrigation, alternative crops, and market development, as well as to gather information in advance of this fall’s important planting season. Gray met with the District Governor, who escorted him through an open-air market. Walking side by side in the new marketplace, Gray and the governor discussed market conditions with local farmers and produce merchants. In January, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made a similar trip to Marjah to assess the efforts of Americans and Afghans to revitalize Afghanistan’s agricultural sector.
Since Secretary Vilsack’s visit, Gray learned how civilian-military coalition units in the region are planning to bring the badly deteriorated canal system – which is critical to the economic life of the district – back to its former efficiency. One of the USDA agricultural experts working in Helmand, Wes Harris, explained that the civ-mil units plan to replace more than 400 sluice gates and flow control points that regulate the flow of Helmand River water through the extensive irrigation system, which will ensure that downstream communities have sufficient water for their cultivated areas. The visit and various meetings with U.S. and Afghan officials on the ground provided Gray with a better understanding of the challenges facing the agricultural community as well as the potential that exists to build a prosperous economic base.
Since 2003, more than 100 USDA employees have deployed for service as agricultural experts in Afghanistan. Currently, 54 USDA employees like Wes Harris are fanned out across the country working as part of civilian-military units. These individuals come from backgrounds as soil and plant scientists, marketing specialists, veterinarians, water and rangeland specialists, foresters, and other specialties. As part of a unified U.S. government team which includes team members from the Department of Defense, the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other agencies, USDA is delivering high-impact assistance and bolstering Afghanistan’s agricultural sector, the traditional core of the Afghan economy. The Afghan-led agricultural assistance strategy focuses on increasing agriculture jobs and incomes by increasing agricultural productivity, regenerating agribusiness, and rehabilitating watersheds and improving irrigation infrastructure. It also aims to increase Afghans’ confidence in their government, particularly the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, by building their capacity to deliver services to farmers and herders.
District Governor Haji Zahir and Senior Agricultural Advisor Quintin Gray
discuss issues as they walk through Loy Cherah bazaar.
Senior advisor Gray and State Department rep Ed Messmer listen to Marjah
merchants describe market conditions.