A Minnesota National Guard unit will be deployed to Afghanistan later this year with a unique mission -- to rebuild an agricultural economy in the war-torn country.
Sitting at lab tables in a North Dakota State University classroom this week, Minnesota National Guard soldiers squeeze a handful of soil into a ball at the instruction of professor Jay Goos.
"Squeeze it really hard," Goos instructed.
He told the students to squeeze the soil out between their thumb and forefinger, making a ribbon.
This is an important, low-tech method for testing soil.
"Now see you've got a ribbon, you're pushing an inch and three-fourths, two inches. That's a pretty long ribbon," he said.
The length of the ribbon is simple way of determining the soil type, the first step in understanding soil fertility.
These Guard members are part of the 135th Agribusiness Development Team. They're soldiers with guns, but fighting isn't their mission.
In October, they'll be deployed to Zabul province in southeastern Afghanistan, an area that is a known Taliban stronghold. Other soldiers will protect them. For 10 months their job is to rebuild Afghanistan's agriculture industry.
This week they're getting a crash course in everything from soil science to veterinary medicine.
Later this summer they'll travel to California to learn about raisin production.
Team commander Col. Eric Ahlness said Afghanistan once had a successful agriculture industry. The goal is to rebuild that industry from farm to market.
"I was talking to one person in the grocery industry and he said in the early '70s, Afghan raisins were the most sought-after raisins you could buy," Ahlness said. "You can't find them anymore, because the Afghans, after 30 years of war, they've kind of forgotten how to do it.
"What we're doing is helping them remember how to do it, and then take advantage of advances in technology that are culturally acceptable to them."
The Minnesota team follows two previous teams from other states. Over the past year and a half, the teams have started teaching Afghans some basics of agriculture.
Ahlness said they've learned farming in the mountainous country, where only 12 percent of the land is tillable and 6 percent is farmed. The average farm runs about five acres. The area is low tech and labor intensive. One goal is to employ as many people as possible.
And they've learned just bringing in modern technology isn't the solution.
Ahlness said one team thought they were bringing great innovation when they installed solar-powered water pumps for farmers.
"They worked very well for a while, but when they broke down or need maintenance there's no way for the Afghans to fix it. It was a technology they didn't understand," Ahlness said. "It had a lot of plastic components — if something plastic broke they couldn't fix it. And no Internet to order the part for $2.50."
So the team focuses on low-tech solutions that the Afghan people will accept and adopt.
Team leader Lt. Col. Ken DeGier said the challenge for American soldiers is to work behind the scenes. Afghanistan has an agriculture ministry, and DeGier plans to work closely with their extension agents in each region.
"We want to put an Afghan face on everything we do," DeGier said. "I want to make sure we work with them specifically, and then they train the farmers, not us. We want it to look like the Afghan government is doing this, not the U.S. government."
DeGier said one of the primary tasks of the Minnesota unit will be to improve the farm-to-market flow of goods. Most farmers now just sell crops on the roadside, DeGier said. The team will show farmers how they can earn more by working together to sell their crops.
"We're trying to develop a co-op, showing the Afghan people that we need collection points," he said. "Some of the issues we're going to see there is it's all tribal, and some of the tribes don't like each other."
The Guard members are currently working with Cenex Harvest States Cooperative to learn how to best structure a co-op. If the team runs into problems they can't solve, there's a good chance one of the professors at the university will get an email asking for help, DeGier said.