This time of year, Dwayne Eden would usually be busy with the spring planting season back in Iowa.
Instead, he's picking his way through a small field in the Bar Chage area north of Asadabad, in far eastern Afghanistan.
"The wheat looks like it's coming along pretty good," he says with approval.
Major Dwayne Eden, of Wesley, Iowa shakes local leader Sher Sha's hand in Noorgal during a key leader engagement in Kunar Province Afghanistan on March 30. Maj. Eden is part of the Iowa National Guard's 734th Agribusiness Development Team. The 'Dirt Warriors,' as they call themselves, are deployed to Forward Operating Base Wright. Bar Chage is the site for one of a half-dozen demonstration farms that the team has established in its efforts to move Afghan agriculture out of the 16th century. It's a key mission if Afghanistan is to stand on its own after the American forces leave.
He points out how this field - where tangerine trees are interspersed amid the wheat crop - recently looked just like the patch of uncultivated ground next to it: dusty and packed with rocks.
"It makes you wonder how they grow a ... thing," he says.
Eden grows corn and soybeans on about 3,600 acres near Wesley, Iowa, along with his brother and father. But this year, his family is making do without him.
Maj. Eden is part of the Iowa National Guard's 734th Agribusiness Development Team. The "Dirt Warriors," as they call themselves, are deployed to Forward Operating Base Wright.
Bar Chage is the site for one of a half-dozen demonstration farms that the team has established in its efforts to move Afghan agriculture out of the 16th century.
It's a key mission if Afghanistan is to stand on its own after the American forces leave.
Agriculture has been described as the "secret weapon" in the fight for the future of Afghanistan, where about 85 percent of the population relies on some form of agriculture to earn a living.
By making farming more profitable, the theory goes, the people will be more prosperous and less likely to favor the Taliban's return to power.
National Guard agribusiness development teams like Iowa's 734th are tackling the job of helping along Afghan agriculture. An agribusiness development team from Nebraska will head to Afghanistan in July and will be based at Forward Operating Base Gardez in the eastern province of Paktia.
In many areas, Afghans farm on a subsistence basis in the same manner they have for centuries, tending half-acre plots by hand.
Farming techniques often run counter to accepted farming practices in the United States. For example, the Afghans will scatter corn seeds on the ground, rather than plant them spaced out in rows. The stalks grow practically on top of one another, competing for water and nutrients and producing tiny ears of corn.
They also use every part of the plant, feeding the stalks and husks to livestock, leaving nothing to go back into the soil and replenish lost nutrients.
Eden was deployed to Iraq in 2003-04 as a truck company commander. He signed up for this assignment because it was something outside the usual Army mission.
He has always been interested in farming. The tractors, the big equipment, just the simple act of raising something up from a seed.
"You put stuff in the ground and it grows - amazing," Eden said.
And it's amazing, he says, what the Afghans are able to produce with such limited resources. The desire is there.
"They want bigger yields," Eden said. "They want to feed their livestock, their families and have something left over to sell."
Obstacles include a lack of machinery, money and advanced irrigation systems. Part of the problem, too, is trying to change a mindset focused after years of war on short-term survival. The Americans want them to understand how up-front investments will pay off in the long run.
Investment in veterinary care for goats, sheep and cattle, for example, means the animals would be more likely to reproduce and to provide more milk and more meat. But there's no cultural history of paying for those vet services.
If they were to rotate their crops and forgo a season of wheat, they could better replenish the soil. But that is difficult when a family relies on that wheat crop to eat.
Livestock roam freely here, wandering not only the rural roadsides, but also the sidewalks of downtown Asadabad, where the goats nibble on whatever has been discarded.
The animals overgraze the hillsides, causing erosion problems. The irrigation canals fill up with dirt, making it all the more difficult to get water to the crops.
The Iowa ag team members - members of both the Army and Air National Guards - expected to arrive here and spend much of their time working with individual farmers, but they soon realized it was difficult to get out and work one-on-one with people. Instead, they have focused their attention on Afghan government officials.
"There's no way we can get out and reach all of the farmers, but we can influence those who can," said Air Force Lt. Col. Neil Stockfleth of Sioux City, Iowa.
That approach also fits with the overall goal of building up Afghanistan's government services independent of the Americans.
The governor of Kunar province said he appreciates the Iowans' work.
"Agriculture in Afghanistan today is the main source for economic development," he told The World-Herald. "That's the only thing we have."
He says the central Afghan government needs to provide good opportunities for farmers or they will turn to growing the poppies used to produce illegal drugs such as opium and heroin. Afghanistan is the leading source of those poppies.
The poppy fields, which provide a key source of funds for the Taliban, are mostly spread across southern Afghanistan. But the governor suggested that poppies could gain a foothold in the north and east.
The governor recalled visiting friends in Nebraska and marveling at the sprawling fields.
"They benefit from technique," he said of Midwestern farmers. "We waste a lot because the system for irrigation here in Afghanistan is not a very good system."
The Kunar region was historically a producer of fruits and nuts before the disruptions that come from decades of war.
Air Force Capt. Peter Shinn of Omaha, part of the Iowa ag team, said Kunar province could be growing top-notch pomegranates, almonds and citrus fruits of all kinds.
"They're exceptionally well-positioned to be a fruit and nut producer," Shinn said.
The Iowa demonstration projects include orchards and greenhouses that will showcase everything from citrus trees to watermelons.
Other projects in the works include a new livestock market, education about rabies, livestock vaccination programs and canal cleanings.
In some cases, the Americans are learning alongside the Afghans - farming tiny plots nestled among mountains is a lot different from producing sprawling fields of grain back home.
For example, they want to see if they can grow watermelons in the greenhouses.
"If it doesn't work, we know not to do that again," Eden said.
The challenges for Afghan agriculture remain daunting. Eden points out that the Afghans would do well to form co-ops to enable them to rotate the crops they're growing.
Will it happen?
"I'd like to see it happen," he said, "but I'm not going to hold my breath here."
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, www.omaha.com/
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.