Cal Poly Pomona Trains Soldiers for Afghan Farming Mission

Cal Poly Pomona Trains Soldiers for Afghan Farming Mission
Specialist Kathy Tanson learns about improving agriculture practices in Afghanistan.
Professor Broc Sandelin talks with members of the 40th Infantry Division about care of cattle.
Staff Sergeant James Yellis learns about cow digestion.

Members of the California National Guard's 40th Infantry Division were on campus for just four days of instruction, but the knowledge they gained — and the ties they forged with the university — could change lives in war-torn Afghanistan.

The 18 soldiers of the Agribusiness Development Team (ADT) are part of an Army counterinsurgency effort to diminish the Taliban's influence by showing Afghan farmers how to grow better crops and raise more productive livestock. Their 10-month volunteer tour of duty in mountainous eastern Afghanistan is expected to begin in September.

Agriculture Professor Jon Phillips, who led the crash course in early August, covered everything from crops to irrigation to transportation, but perhaps the most important consideration, he says, is the cultural context.

“You can't just give people tractors and expect them to use them if all they've ever known are horses,” Phillips says.

He praised the soldiers not only for their ability to understand the material, but for their preparation and professionalism. “We have a highly skilled and motivated human resource in our National Guard,” Phillips says, noting that all of the soldier-students have backgrounds that will prove valuable.

Master Sergeant John Hanson, the team's operations sergeant, is a building official in Carmel-by-the-Sea in his civilian life. According to Hanson, the team has trained in Afghan and Islamic culture in order to apply local solutions to local problems. The goal will be to empower the people there to chart their own destiny, to move from subsistence farming to prosperity.

“We won't be building bridges and we won't be herding goats,” he says.  ”Projects will be bid on by Afghans, and once they're awarded, the Army will oversee and administer them.”

A chicken hatchery that will protect both animals and eggs is high on the farmers' list of priorities, as well as a good composting program. “Everybody [on the mission] is trying to think outside the box” to help Afghans thrive, Hanson says.

The mission, of course, will rely on guns as well as butter.

“We're soldiers first,” Hanson says, pointing out that those in the ADT are trained to deal with the Taliban threat. By providing Afghan farmers security and improving their livelihoods, the U.S. military believes the Taliban's coercive influence will decline.

Other universities, including Purdue, have trained Afghanistan-bound soldiers in farming techniques, but Cal Poly Pomona is the first in California to do so, and it will have an ongoing relationship with the Army.

In a few months, Phillips says, another group of soldiers will arrive on campus, and more may follow.

The College of Agriculture has been serving local students and organizations for 70 years, Phillips says, and is now moving toward having a global impact. “This project is a good example of that.”

Critical to the training is the “reach-back” relationship that will allow soldiers in the field to contact experts on campus to address problems and challenges in real time via e-mail or video conference.

“There are two benefits to 'reach-back,' ” Phillips says. “First, it will allow the ADT to more effectively assist Afghan farmers by quickly applying the knowledge of College of Agriculture faculty. Second, it will improve security because the response from Cal Poly Pomona may reduce the number of trips to individual farms, which will reduce the soldiers' vulnerability.”

The 'reach-back' relationship “will be huge for us,” Hanson says. “We view Cal Poly Pomona as a major resource when we're in Afghanistan.”