U.S. Military Aims to Help Iraqi Farmers

A bodyguard (left) pulls out a gun as an argument erupts over the distribution of 600 or so chicks. i i

A bodyguard (left) pulls out a gun as an argument erupts over the distribution of 600 or so chicks. John McChesney/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John McChesney/NPR
A bodyguard (left) pulls out a gun as an argument erupts over the distribution of 600 or so chicks.

A bodyguard (left) pulls out a gun as an argument erupts over the distribution of 600 or so chicks.

John McChesney/NPR

The U.S. military is trying, in small ways, to boost Iraqi agricultural production. In one example, an armed convoy recently escorted thousands of chickens to homes in the countryside south of Baghdad.

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ROBERT SMITH, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION. I'm Robert Smith.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne, and Steve Inskeep is in Karachi. He'll be profiling that mega-city in Pakistan next week. In the next few minutes, we go to the countryside of Iraq.

Some of the earliest records of agriculture come from the fertile land between the Tigris and Euprates Rivers. Yet now, Iraqi farming is so broken that the country has to import nearly 80 percent of its food.

The fractures in Iraqi farming are many, caused largely by the war and the period of sanctions that preceded the war.

NPR's John McChesney went out with an American team that is trying, in a small way, to help by delivering baby chicks to poultry farmers.

JOHN MCCHESNEY: Mike Stevens(ph) usually works as an Agricultural Department agent in Northern Minnesota, but seven months ago he volunteered to come to Iraq to help farmers.

In Minnesota, he'd just jump in his car and drive out to visit farms in his district, but not here in what used to be called a triangle of death, recently the site of fierce fighting.

Here, he's accompanied by six gun trucks. The driver of this one cranks up music to drown out the bone-jarring bumps on this country road.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

MCCHESNEY: A pack of mangy dogs greets us at the first farm we visit, but it turns out we've made a wrong turn, and this makes First Sergeant Carl Parker(ph) - a large, imposing man - very unhappy.

CARL PARKER: Who's - is there supposed to be chickens dropped here?

Unidentified Man: Negative.

PARKER: Then why did we come down here? We don't drive this truck into nowhere - I don't (unintelligible). (Censored). Got it? We're not turning to (unintelligible) (censored) like everything else. We go to the chicken coop. We're supposed to drop chickens off at 10 places.

MCCHESNEY: When we stop at the next farm, the gun trucks form a circle, and armed soldiers walk along with us. As the truck, loaded with chicks, backs up to a long mud-brick, thatched roof coop, Stevens explains what happened the last time he did this in the middle of a nearby town.

MIKE STEVENS: We had a little confrontation - the last distribution, where some of the leaders of the town wanted kind of a piece of the action. And this is meant for a grass-roots - to get the farmers taken care of. It isn't meant for the local sheiks. It's meant for the farmers.

MCCHESNEY: So without any middlemen, the crates of tiny, orange chicks are carted into a long, empty coop, which has been prepared with fresh wood-chip bedding. Our interpreter, Mary, describes.

MARY: He said there are 10. He's putting them 10 in a row so they can count: 32.

MCCHESNEY: At the next farm, we discovered there are going to be 600 chicks leftover. This leads to a ferocious argument between the leader of the farmers union that Stevens has organized and a farmer who says he should have the extras because he has a bigger operation.

Unidentified Men: (Unintelligible).

MCCHESNEY: It gets ugly as the two men taunt each other, which leads to a little lecture by a red-faced, sweat-soaked Stevens.

STEVENS: This is why we didn't do this in the city. It's not good when we argue in front of our own people. Some people get a little bit more, but everybody gets (unintelligible).

MCCHESNEY: The two antagonists then embrace with some back-slapping and one of them saying, democracy, with a grin. At the next farm, Stevens is greeted effusively by a farmer who knows him.

Unidentified Man (Farmer, Iraq): Hello. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

STEVENS: Radio.

Man: Radio, radio. Thank you to American - give this chicken.

MCCHESNEY: Most of the chicks have survived the sweltering heat when the convoy finally gets to the last stop, where the farmer says he can handle 36,000 chicks. Stevens allots him only 1,600. I asked the farmer, Salman Abbas(ph), why all the big chicken coops in this area are empty. This used to be a major source of poultry for the city of Baghdad, just to the north.

SALMAN ABBAS: (Through translator) Because of the security. There wasn't any movement. We could not go anywhere far away from our farm to go and get the chicks or buy anything because of the security issue. We were very afraid. There's a lot of people that got hurt because of that.

MCCHESNEY: Abbas went on to say that al-Qaida stole 24 tons of chicken feed, as well as livestock, when they operated in this area. Mike Stevens says his effort here is dwarfed by the immense problems facing Iraqi agriculture as a whole. Modern equipment is missing. Irrigation canals are shattered by war, and pumping stations that pump water from the Tigris and Euphrates into the canals are very badly damaged.

SMITH: NPR's John McChesney is just back from Iraq, and he's with us now to talk about how agriculture's faring in Iraq.

John, you got a chance to observe Iraq, I understand it, from the air, and what does it look like, these farming areas?

MCCHESNEY: Well, I think most Americans think of Iraq as a desert, and when you fly over this valley between the Tigris and Euphrates, you see hundreds of square miles of tilled land between those two big rivers. It's a tortured, extensive irrigation system. Some of it's new; some of it's hundreds of years old. You also notice an absence of mechanical equipment.

In an hour-long flight over the valley, I saw just two combines in wheat fields and only a few tractors. It reminds me of California's Central Valley, which is also an arid valley. It has two big rivers, and it has a great growing season.

The fields here, though, are ragged, and in California, they use laser leveling so the whole field gets evenly watered. That's not what's happening here. You see this kind of ragged-edged field.

MCCHESNEY: Now John, there's certainly a lot of military technology in Iraq that we've shipped over there. Why can't these farmers get the technology they need?

MCCHESNEY: They're just not able to get it because they can't get loans. They're - the banking system's just getting underway there, and even if they could, they might not invest in new equipment and technology because they don't own their own land.

The government still owns 80 percent of the farming land. And they also look at this thing and they say well, I don't know how long this is going to stay stable. You know, what if it turns over and gets violent again, and why should I make an investment in my land if it's not going to get stable? They even have a hard time getting fertilizer for the crops.

MCCHESNEY: Which is strange because they have plenty of natural gas, and petroleum products are what you use to make fertilizer. So what's the problem?

MCCHESNEY: Well, well let my Minnesota agriculture representative, Mike Stevens, answer that question.

STEVENS: A lot of that fertilizer was used by al-Qaida to make explosive devices. With the nitrogen content in there, it would make a heck of a bomb.

MCCHESNEY: So fertilizer's banned - at least certain kinds of fertilizers are banned. And on top of that, the farmers here have a hard time getting seeds, and the genetics of their native seed stocks have degraded over time, in any case. So, they've got that problem, as well.

SMITH: So if they don't have the fertilizer, and they don't have the technology, then where is all the food coming from for Iraqis?

MCCHESNEY: Well, it's coming from outside. They import 70 percent of their grain, most of it from the United States now. They also import a much higher percentage of fruits and vegetables. That's up to around 85 percent, and it's imported from Jordan and Iran.

The Jordanians are complaining that pushes their prices up, and American military authorities are unhappy because those vegetable trucks coming in from Iran may have some rockets underneath all that broccoli and tomatoes.

SMITH: Now Iraq did have a rich history of crop production. I mean, they know how to do this, right?

MCCHESNEY: They do, and you know, this is one of the most rich agricultural areas in the world. What they want to do is produce high-value crops - vegetables, fruits, nuts and livestock. Iraq should become a net exporter of food for the rest of the water-starved Middle East, and they hope that will happen.

SMITH: NPR's John McChesney, thank you very much.

MCCHESNEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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