Improving agriculture in Afghanistan

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Farm Forum

FREMONT, Neb. (AP) – As the United States military presence in Afghanistan draws down, a former Fremont, Neb., man’s role in developing leaders among the Afghan people earned one of the top military decorations recently.

Brig. Gen. Scott Gronewold, assistant adjutant general for the Nebraska National Guard, presented the Bronze Star and several other medals to Lt. Col. William J. Prusia on Jan. 12 at the National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters in Lincoln.

Prusia, a Fremont, Neb., native who now lives in Bellevue, led a National Guard agribusiness development team mission to Afghanistan last spring.

“Our mission was to work with the provincial and local officials to assist them in improving food security in Paktya Province,” Prusia told the Tribune.

Agribusiness Development Team 3 was based at Gardez in the southeastern Afghanistan province that shares a border with Pakistan.

“The mission included helping them improve their agricultural practices, improve shelf storage – the longevity of agricultural products by developing and building cool storage facilities – but mostly it was working with the director of agriculture, irrigation and livestock to help them improve the services that they provided to the farmers of Paktya Province,” Prusia said.

Prusia’s team was linked to a broader provincial reconstruction team, tasked with developing such things as governance, the economy, and involvement with the legal system.

In a country where 80 percent of the people rely upon agriculture for their lifestyle, establishing a sound agricultural system is crucial, Prusia said.

Fruit orchards, wheat and corn are the main crops. Farmers, however, produce only enough for subsistence, “so we’re trying to help them improve their practices so that not only can they provide for their immediate families, but they can move into providing an income by having some sort of cash crop, whether it’s improving the yields of their crops or introducing new high-value crops,” he said.

His 12-person team included 11 Nebraska National Guard members and an Army Reservist serving as veterinarian.

“The majority of our team had some type of either agricultural experience or a degree in science or agriculture,” he said.

“One of our sergeants had experience as a farmer, and owned and operated his own farm and ranch operation,” Prusia said. “One team member worked more in our operations cell, but he had experience with a family greenhouse so he was kind of our horticulture specialist.

“There was a great need for leadership and being able to mentor the Afghan leaders. That’s kind of what I brought to the table,” he said.

A 1984 graduate of Fremont High School, he holds degrees in education.

“Most of my knowledge and experience was taken to working with the director of agriculture, irrigation and livestock as an organizational leadership function,” he said.

He and his team also helped forge a relationship between Paktya University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln so young Afghans can receive the education to become agricultural leaders and more effective farmers.

“One of the coolest things, where we seemed to make the greatest advances,” he said, “was in the area of creating an agricultural development plan.”

The comprehensive plan starts at the local level in each district within the province (similar to counties within a state in the United States). The objective is to combine all the district plans into an overall provincial plan.

“What I saw happening with that as were kind of facilitating that process,” Prusia said, “was that a local farmer was sitting in the same room as a village elder, who was sitting in the same room with the district governor, and they were developing this plan together.

“To know that everything that was discussed there was for the good of the people, for the good of the farmers and families in that district, that they were coming up with a plan that would carry out for 10, 15 or 20 years or longer. That, to me, was probably where we saw the greatest success,” he said.

“There were a lot of different little things we were able to accomplish too, but in a lot of ways we were starting to back off and begin to turn it over to them. To see them take responsibility for things on their own, there are glimpses of that taking place,” he said.

“The Afghans in general saw that we were there to help them, so we were well received,” he said.

“I can’t say that I felt 100 percent safe the entire time, but for the most part, we didn’t have any issues while I was there. There were still things that were happening in the province from an insurgency standpoint, and there were attacks throughout the province, but all in all, as an ADT, our security was pretty good,” he said.

Prusia’s return to the U.S. in October was premature after he broke his right foot in a noncombat related incident. The rest of his team, which arrived in Afghanistan last May, will be home in March.

“I hated to leave the team because we were doing good things together as a team,” he said. “I was enjoying the relationships I had developed with the director of agriculture, irrigation and livestock, and with the chancellor at Paktya University.”

Prusia, the Nebraska Army National Guard’s deputy state personnel officer, said the Bronze Star is the highest decoration he has received in a nearly 29-year military career.

“It was a proud moment, but also one where I just felt humbled,” he said. “I felt like I contributed, but maybe not contributed enough. … You’re so proud to receive such an honor, but at the same token you don’t feel like you’re deserving of the honor.”

His other decorations as a result of the mission included the Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the NATO Non-Article ISAF Medal.

He is the son of William and Patsy Prusia of Fremont.