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Mount Airy farmer reflects on mission in Afghanistan
Group helped with agriculture and water management
0520Church4
Soldiers walk across a demonstration farm in Afghanistan. The farm was used to show local farmers modern farming techniques and irrigation systems.

Lt. Col. John Church’s unit focused on farms rather than arms in Afghanistan, but the mission was the same — keep the Taliban out of everyday citizens’ lives.

If Afghans believe their government, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and the coalition “are doing more for them than the insurgency, then they are going to kick the insurgency out,” said the Mount Airy farmer in an interview last week.

Church, 44, returned in April after nearly a year in the war-torn country as part of a small agricultural team from the Georgia Army National Guard’s 201st Regional Support Group out of Fort Gordon, Augusta.

“It went fast. We were busy,” said Church, adding that his unit put into place more than 150 agriculture-related projects.

Before leaving, the unit of fewer than 60 soldiers went through a lot of training, including at the University of Georgia and the Indiana National Guard’s Camp Atterbury.

“We’re used to having tractors and chemicals and everything you need for growing and preserving food, and for storing food, and they don’t have that,” Church said, “so we wanted to start looking at ways to help them with what they’ve got.”

Basically, the group had to put themselves in the shoes of the Afghans, whose farming techniques mimic those 100-150 years ago.

The guardsmen were based in the Logar province, which is on the Pakistan border and south of the capital, Kabul. They took over for the Nevada National Guard Agribusiness Development Team.

“We did some missions with them, so we were able to meet some of the key players we were dealing with,” Church said. “They already had some projects set up for us, which was good. ... We didn’t have that lag time that a lot of units have.”

Church, a Clarkesville native who grew up in a farming family, said he went into the mission thinking he would do a lot of “in-field farming and that type of thing, but we realized that (the Afghans) are good farmers. We did some things for them that did improve their production.”

The soldiers found that “food preservation is a big need, so we started looking at cool storage, which are basically root cellars,” Church said. “That’s what Nevada had set up for us.”

The Afghans, working with 64 large cool storage areas, “started out trying to store some fruits and vegetables, but that didn’t really work that well because the temperature was so hot. But the (cool storage) worked perfectly for potatoes and onions.”

The 201st also discovered that “people were putting their stuff in there and Taliban and insurgents ... would go in there and take stuff out at night.

“So, we started moving toward smaller cool storage areas, and we did that with a farmers association.”

The soldiers also looked at increasing wheat production, providing the Afghans with better seeds than they were using, as well as training, pesticides and herbicides.

And they also focused on drying out and canning foods.

“Once you’re able to preserve enough food to feed your family, what do you do with the rest of it? That’s where you want to sell it,” Church said. “Every single training event that we did, we tied it in with marketing ... so they could turn increased production into a profit for themselves.”

One of the unit’s biggest successes, Church said, was its development of the watershed management program.
Water “is the No. 2 source of instability in the country,” behind the insurgency, he said.

“They get a lot of rain. They just can’t keep it because of 30 years of war and instability. They have cut all the vegetation, dug up stumps and removed everything that can capture water off the steep mountain slopes ... to use for fuel or (construction).

“All the hillsides are bare, so when they get a snow or rain, the water runs straight off the hillside into a gully and into a river that goes to Pakistan or India.”

The agriculture team strived to do whatever it could “to slow water and allow it to infiltrate the ground and to recharge the wells,” Church said.

Those efforts also created much-needed jobs for the local population.

All the military’s efforts were meant to put down the Taliban, which has countered with its own efforts to woo the Afghans and to try to convince them the coalition is harmful, Church said.

“Where the insurgency is strong, if we are able to go in there and help them improve their income or livelihood, then (Afghans) see that a legitimate government and the coalition are better than ... the insurgency,” he said.

As it was leaving, the 201st was relieved by the 265th Regional Support Group out of Metter.

That group will be replaced by the 201st in a few months. Church is still deciding whether he wants to return with the unit.

In his military career, he also has been deployed overseas twice to Iraq, where he was involved in construction missions.

And for now, he is enjoying life back in the U.S.

“I’m trying to get caught up on the honey-do list and spend time with the kids,” Church said.

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