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Guard teaches ag overseas

Teach farmers how to do a simple germination test so they know whether their seed will come up. Then teach them how to pull soil samples. That will give them the results they need to know how to fertilize their fields. And while that’s going on, give them a few pointers on how to raise goats more productively.

Key Points

• Entire first Indiana National Guard team returned unharmed from Afghanistan.

• A big part of their job was building trust and relationships.

• Most of the farmers in that country are mired in subsistence agriculture.

Sounds like a snap, right? Not if you know where it’s happening. These are some of the things Col. Brian Copes and the first contingent of Indiana National Guard troops accomplished during their year in Afghanistan.

Copes, who has a farm background, was commander of the 1-19 Afghanistan Development Team. National Guardsmen from six other states also went to introduce basic principles of agriculture into a nation and society beset by war and poverty.

Copes’ unit returned early this year. A second Indiana National Guard unit is in Afghanistan today.

“We worked in the southeast part of the country,” Copes explains. Today, he’s chief of staff for Adjutant General Marty Umbarger. “One of our jobs was to teach government workers, similar to Extension educators, so they could teach farmers. But we also taught farmers directly.”

Just how tenuous was their safety while in Afghanistan? Thirty-four of Copes’ 63-person team worked security detail. Fifteen members were actually trained to teach about agriculture.

“We didn’t lose anybody,” Copes says, relieved. “But we were always on guard for roadside explosives. It’s a fact of life over there.”

One obstacle to success was the threat of intimidation by the Taliban, Copes says. “It wasn’t against us, but against villagers who worked with us. So sometimes the reception we received was rather cool. However, villages with strong tribal leadership who resist the Taliban were more open to working with us.”

Part of the mission was establishing relationships, Copes says. He’s hopeful that things will go smoother for the current training unit there.

Tackling big task

‘These are mostly people who live off what they produce,” Brian Copes says. About 90% of the population in Afghanistan farms. On one end the culture is centuries old, yet some elements of modern technology are creeping into the equation.

“There are tractors there,” he noted. “Someone donated them a few years ago. But they don’t always know what to do with them.

“We came away with a sense that these are intelligent people and shrewd businessmen. Politics has played a big role in their lives. They’re at a level where they need lots of education.”


First commander: Col. Brian Copes (left) talks with Indiania National Guard Adjutant General Marty Umbarger after Copes returned from leading the first ag training mission to Afghanistan.

This article published in the June, 2010 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.