Monday, November 24, 2008

Extension Agents Working in Iraq

By: Jim Conley

Most of the news coming out of Iraq is related to the war. Few media outlets tell the story of the huge reconstruction efforts that are helping Iraqis rebuild their nation. For those of us involved in Extension work, nothing could be more exciting than involvement in the agricultural reconstruction efforts that are underway at 18 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) scattered across Iraq. For the past 12 months, it's been my pleasure to be serving in Iraq, working as part of this impressive reconstruction effort.

PRTs are joint civilian/military teams that work under the auspices of the US Department of State. They are led by career State Department Foreign Service Officers and a military deputy. Team members, both civilian and military, work in four programmatic areas: Infrastructure, Governance, Rule of Law and Economic Development. Agriculture is a big part of the economic development efforts. PRTs function, not as an alternative to the local Iraqi government institutions, but to build the capacity of those institutions, and that of the citizenry. Sound familiar?

Working as an Ag Advisor on a PRT is a definitely a very unique experience. It can be frustrating, rewarding, dangerous and exciting. You work in a different culture, with a different language and a system of government that is totally foreign to our experience. Our ag advisors assist the PRT in developing agriculture on the local level. Agriculture is an important part of the overall economic development efforts. Our goal is to create employment, to move toward food security, and help to rebuild an agricultural infrastructure that has been damaged by decades of neglect and war. Interactions with the Iraqis generally occur in group settings.

Here are some examples of some current efforts underway by some of our Ag Advisors:

  • Demonstrating hoop house, plasticulture and drip irrigation technology.
  • Rebuilding and upgrading processing facilities, i.e. vegetable grading/sorting/packing/processing; date processing, animal slaughterhouses, and cold storage warehouses.
  • Forming water use associations that will be responsible for maintenance and management of a local irrigation district.
  • Introducing improved seed varieties. Working with beekeeping associations to renovate their honey processing facilities and improve marketing.
  • Forming poultry cooperatives that are importing improved genetics and high-protein feeds.
  • Building capacity of the local Extension offices. Many of the Extension offices are being equipped with video teleconference equipment, and training sessions are being arranged with our U.S. Land Grant Universities.
  • Youth programming! Over 50% of Iraq's population is less than 18 years of age!

The work is a challenge! Between cultural barriers, language barriers and security constraints, accomplishments in Iraq come in small steps. Security is tight. We live in secured compounds, surrounded by concrete barriers and barbed wire. We only leave these secure compounds in armored vehicles escorted by soldiers. We live in small sheet-metal housing trailers, typically 10 ft x 12 ft in size (but it is air-conditioned). Almost no one has a private bathroom.

Ag Advisors are needed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. For details on applying, please see the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service website at:

You can also contact me at for more information.
Jim Conley
County Extension Director
Huerfano County, Colorado (currently serving in Iraq)

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