More than 60 Oklahoma National Guardsmen will deploy to Afghanistan sometime next fall to help stabilize a country that has been torn apart by war for decades.

But these citizen soldiers, instead of engaging in seek and destroy missions, will use their backgrounds and training in agriculture to help Afghan citizens develop farm operations that will allow them to be more self-sufficient.

“Food production empowers people,” says Lieutenant Colonel John Altebaumer, Deputy Commander/Ag Team Chief, 2nd 45th Agribusiness Development Team (ADT), out of Oklahoma City.

The goal, Altebaumer says, is to help Afghan natives develop an agricultural industry to a point where the country can feed itself.

“Afghanistan was once the bread basket of the Middle East,” he says. “Some 75percent of the population was involved in agriculture. The country was a leading ag exporter in the region until wars and attrition destroyed the industry. The young men have been fighting instead of learning agriculture from their fathers.”

He says the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of the Army understand the vital role agriculture plays in rebuilding a culture and a nation following years of warfare. “We are looking for stability,” Altebaumer said. “We want the people capable of being self-sufficient and the government stable so it will look after the peoples’ well-being.”

He said the military is partnering with the USDA to develop programs to help Afghanistan rebuild its agricultural infrastructure. “Our ultimate goal is to hand off our efforts to other agencies,” he said.

“Our job is to advise the government and let them take over. We’ll carry in very little equipment because we can buy what we need over there.”

Altebaumer led a small contingent of his unit to McKinney, Texas, recently to participate in a Basic Ag field day, co-sponsored by the Samuel Roberts Noble foundation and Texas AgriLife Extension. “This is the 9th similar meeting we’ve attended,” says Chief Warrant Officer-3Warren Higginbotham. “And we have a lot of training left to do.”

They unit will undergo six weeks of more intense training, including segments on animal husbandry, agronomy, horticulture, sustainability, pond management, pest control and marketing. They will undertake a final training session with Oklahoma State University agricultural experts.

The unit consists of all volunteers, Altebaumer says. “We reached out to the Oklahoma National Guard population to find people with agricultural backgrounds.”

They found plenty.

“We needed around 60 for the mission. We had 300 volunteers,” Altebaumer says. Those include crop specialists, ag economists and some who just grew up on farms and ranches.

“We have engineers and agricultural marketing specialists in the unit,” Higginbotham says.

Altebaumer’s family has raised thoroughbred horses and operated greenhouses. “I also worked in public health,” he says.

Team members come from all over the state. Headquarters are in Oklahoma City to provide a central location for the unit as it completes training for the mission.

Several other states have National Guard units preparing for similar missions.

Altebaumer says their anticipated deployment is 10 months. By then they hope to have programs and services in place for the Afghan government to take over.

“We don’t want to stay there forever,” Altebaumer says. “We just want to help the Afghanistan people become self sufficient enough to feed themselves.”

email: rsmith@farmpress.com