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Iowa Soldier Farms to Build Sustainable Afghanistan

As an Iowa farmer, 1st Lt. Scott Rottinghaus knew plenty about growing corn and soybeans and raising hogs. He knew almost nothing about the nuts, fruit trees and rice grown by the Afghani farmers he was deployed to help through the Iowa National Guard’s 734th Agri-Business Development Team. But once the team landed in Kunar in August 2010, Scott discovered these differences were less important than a shared interest in working the land.

veteran photoScott has served two tours of duty, his first in Kosovo in 2004. No matter where he has traveled, he has found farmers to be the same. They will talk for hours about growing techniques, their crops, their livestock – anything and everything related to agriculture.

 In Afghanistan, he discovered another similarity: an adherence to farming the way it always has been done. Farmers in the Kunar Province had no big machinery. Several families would share a tractor. And most of the planting and harvesting was done by hand. The few farmers who grew corn scattered rather than planted their seeds in rows.

When the Agri-Business Development Team tried to introduce new techniques, they were often met with a familiar refrain: That’s how my father farmed and that’s how I’m going to farm.  But about 25 percent were eager to learn more sustainable growing techniques and develop better storage systems for their crops. These were the farmers the Agri-Business Development Team worked with, establishing demonstration farms, digging irrigation canals, buying a cool storage unit to keep food fresh, helping to build a greenhouse.

Veterans in Rural AmericaScott has been back on his family’s multi-generational farm in Waterloo since June 2011. He continues to grow soybeans and corn and raise hogs with his father and two uncles. He and his brother- in-law are in the process of building a feed mill. He receives occasional snippets of news about life in Kunar since U.S. forces have pulled out - the farmer with the greenhouse was killed and the Taliban has moved back into the area. It’s unlikely that the Afghani famers were able to sustain the work started on the demonstration farms.

Still, on this Veteran’s Day, Scott is grateful for the opportunity to have served his country by helping fellow farmers. When you work the land, especially in the United States, you appreciate the freedom you have, Scott says. When you work the land in a place like Afghanistan, you understand how precious that freedom is.

“It makes you thankful to God,” Scott said, “and makes you want to give back.”

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