Paul Kanninen usually lives on the flat prairie of southwestern Minnesota. This winter, though, he's high up in the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan, working to help rebuild an agricultural sector that's struggling after decades of war.
Kanninen, 58, of Luverne, works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a plant protection specialist with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. But he answered a call for volunteers from the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, which sent him to Afghanistan in late December to serve for 13 months on a Provincial Reconstruction Team.
"It's exciting being here, and the Afghan people I've met have been warm and genial, and truly appreciate the opportunity to do better and grow," he said.
In a telephone interview from "a very remote, exceedingly rural part of Afghanistan," Kanninen said there was one thing similar between Minnesota and his camp at 7,448 feet in Chaghcharan in Ghor Province of central Afghanistan - it was very cold with deep snow.
Kanninen, who grew up in Aurora on the Iron Range, described his camp as a miniature United Nations, run by Lithuanians, staffed by Ukrainians, Georgians, Croats, Danes, Macedonians and Americans, with Italian contractors keeping them all well fed.
The reconstruction teams are made up of military personnel and civilians experts, and several are run by America's NATO partners, he said.
“The Afghan people I've met have been warm and genial, and appreciate the opportunity to do better.”Paul Kanninen
The Foreign Agricultural Service says it expects to have 64 people in Afghanistan within the next few months. Since 2003, the USDA has sent more than 80 people for medium- and long-term assignments in Afghanistan and sent roughly $229 million in food aid.
"The efforts of people like Paul Kanninen are crucial for creating a stable, democratic and economically viable Afghanistan," John Brewer, the FAS' acting administrator, said in a statement.
"The security of Afghanistan depends on its farmland and infrastructure, and the importance of Paul's work can't be overstated," Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said in another statement.
While his wife and three daughters remain behind in Luverne, Kanninen said, training local agricultural officials is his "first and most important goal."
Many positions in the district agricultural ministry are unfilled or staffed with people with little training, he said. Another goal, he added, is improving Afghan farming practices in general.
The predominant crop in the area is winter wheat, which was sown last fall and now lies dormant under the snow and will be harvested around July, he said. Livestock grazing is also a major local industry - mainly sheep and goats with some cattle - and overgrazing has been a problem.
So, Kanninen said, their third goal is improving grazing practices, particularly to increase the amount of vegetation in the hills so spring runoff doesn't lead to flooding.
"It is a lot to get done," Kanninen said.
And it's different from the work he did with the USDA in Minnesota. When he started in 2005, he monitored swine health in the slaughter plants along Interstate 90. Then he transferred to the plant protection and quarantine program, which combats the spread of animal and plant pests.
"I'm looking forward to an exciting and productive year," he said.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)