Dan Amstutz may be wondering if he did the right thing in agreeing to serve as the U.S. senior ministry advisor for agriculture in Iraq.

Although Amstutz, a former USDA undersecretary, tried to put an optimistic face on his new assignment at a news conference, he clearly has his work cut out in trying to help Iraq rebuild its agriculture.

U.S. Army engineers and others will have their hands full rebuilding the portions of Iraq's infrastructure destroyed in the war. But Amstutz is charged with helping rebuild an agriculture that appears to have suffered 30 years of neglect.

“I'm told that, particularly since the Gulf War, individual Iraqis paid 12 cents — not $12 — 12 cents a month for their food basket, which included flour, rice, vegetable oil and poultry,” Amstutz said from Kuwait where he has been helping organize U.S. reconstruction efforts.

“Clearly, a price level dictated by the government like that drains agriculture of incentive and drains it of the ability to purchase and apply inputs, whether that input is phosphate and potassium fertilizer, or whether it's saline-resistant feedstock, or whether it's good veterinary practices.”

While Iraqi farmers came under even greater government control following the Gulf War, a centrally planned agriculture existed to some degree during most of Saddam Hussein's 30 years of rule, Amstutz told reporters. Hussein clearly had his mind on other things.

“In recent years, there's been a lack of agricultural inputs, a lack of machinery,” he said. “They haven't really adequately dealt with the problem of soil salinity, and all these things must be addressed.”

He said that about two-thirds of Iraq's wheat and barley are grown dryland and the other third of the wheat and barley and all of the rice are irrigated. Iraqi farmers are irrigating about one-half of the 3 million hectares (8.1 million acres) of land that can be watered.

The estimates he has seen say that only about half of Iraq's 11 million hectares (29.7 million acres) are currently under cultivation.

“Partly this has to do with a lack of farm machinery and equipment,” he said. “I'm sure there's a need for replacement parts for both machinery and irrigation equipment. Again it's a question of are there incentives to encourage farmers to modernize, and do they have the wherewithal?”

During the conference, Amstutz said he believes that with better inputs and machinery updates and new practices regarding salinity, Iraq's farmers could double their wheat, barley and rice production within two to three years.

That would bring Iraq's output up to the levels of 1.8 million tons of barley and 1.2 million tons of wheat that were being produced before the Gulf War in 1990-91. This year, analysts expect farmers to harvest 700,000 tons of barley and 800,000 tons of wheat. No figures were available for rice.

Amstutz, meanwhile, is already under fire from humanitarian aid groups because of his former ties to Cargill, which he left in 1978, and his support of free market agriculture.

He should not lack for challenges in the months ahead.

flaws@primediabusiness.com