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NEWS | April 25, 2012

Tractor training in Afghanistan

By Staff Sgt. Paul Glover Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office

 “If you train a person, there just isn’t any way to take that away from them,” reflected Ken Parsons, a civilian agricultural specialist from Lancaster, Ky., with Kentucky’s Agribusiness Development Team 4.

“The Taliban can’t take that [knowledge] away from them, no one can take it away from them. Any type of training that we can do, those are the things I think that are going to help these folks out more than anything else. And believe it or not, they’re very receptive to training,” Parsons added.

In southern Afghanistan’s Zharay district, Kandahar province, ADT 4 recently helped empower local agricultural leaders with some good old-fashioned tractor training.

“Initially, we had some ideas after we got the mission statement that we need to focus on education and training, because those are going to be cost efficient projects that are…very high impact,” said civilian agricultural specialist Beau Neal, a native of Versailles, Ky. “The way me and Parsons see it, education is key, especially with younger people in building up a country.”

“What happened with that is there was one of the agencies over here distributing a large amount of machinery throughout Kandahar. One of the things that they wanted to do was make sure that these folks had training,” Parsons recalled.

“So that’s what we did,” Parsons noted. “We provided some technical expertise to the extension agent. To the guy’s credit, he took it and ran with it. He just did an excellent job, and the people that were trained were people we call master farmers.”

“The extension agent just did a wonderful job of training those people. What they’re in turn supposed to do is go out into the surrounding villages and train those people,” Parsons explained.

Parsons briefly explained an extension agent’s job description.

“He’s a government employee…and he is to go out in the community and give agricultural expertise, say some of the things that they do, try to give some advanced agricultural information to the folks out in this country,” Parsons said. “The only problem is we’re in a combat area, so he has to be leery of where he goes. He’s [also] a government official, so he has to be leery of that.”

Effective government officials in Afghanistan are frequently targeted by the Taliban to keep the Afghan government from gaining legitimacy with local populations.

“The person we have here as an extension agent, I think has the agricultural community’s interest at heart,” Parsons said. “He is a natural born teacher, he likes to teach, and I think that us giving him some technical expertise and some backup and some help along the way, I believe the guy will do a really good job even with all the roadblocks he has in front of him.”

Neal offered some insight into how the training program was designed.

“The whole purpose of being over here is sort of mentorship of the agricultural extension agents,” Neal discussed. “I had some training materials in regard to tractor training and Parsons did too. We [also] added a few things.”

“We ended up having four or five different PowerPoint presentations. Part of those, we had our translators here in the unit that are working with us, we had them translate, which is kind of a time consuming process. It’s tough,” Neal noted.

“I’ve learned that these languages here are very challenging. Aside from translating the words, you’ve got to flip the words around,” Neal explained. “So, I worked with the translators here as well as Parsons. I got a hold of a Pashto keyboard… [and] sort of went through the presentations with our translators."

“Essentially, all we did was prepare the presentations, translate them… and he just took over [from there],” Neal said. “What he did… he would read them off, and expand and explain on them just like a professor would. And he did awesome.”

“To see the extension agent, how he took it over. He took it over and he just ran with it,” Parsons reflected.

“There’s no language barrier there. I could stay up there and have to go through an interpreter. There was no language barrier with him… [and] the man has respect in the community, so we can’t ask for a lot more,” Parsons added.

“To set in there and just to change slides for [the agricultural extension agent] and watch him teach his own people was pretty rewarding to me,” Neal recalled. “I didn’t understand a word they were saying, but he reminded me of a college professor because he would read the slide and he would expand on it.”

“I had our translator translate a lot of what he [the agricultural extension agent] was saying so I could follow along and make sure he was hitting the important points, and he was right on point,” Neal added. “That was really rewarding, just to know that we provided him with some materials and he just ran with it.”

Technology also helped bridge the language barrier in tractor training.

“We were able to pull up some stuff on YouTube and show some of the equipment that they had down here…about how it worked. And the students were very, very interested in that,” Parsons mentioned.

After classroom sessions, master farmers conducted a few hands-on training sessions with tractors. Parsons and Neal discussed the training briefly.

“This was just rudimentary, very basic, very low level tractor training. We had a few impediments, a few roadblocks along our way,” Parsons recalled. “But we overcame that, and it seemed like it worked pretty well.”

“The overall goal is to teach safety. The equipment that they have here is not like the equipment they have in the United States. All of the equipment in the United States is made with safety in mind,” Parsons explained. “This unfortunately is not that way.”

“Safety is a big component of it to me,” Neal said. “People don’t realize that there is quite a bit of machinery around here.”

“You even see tractors on the road every now and then, which is a risk in itself,” he added with a bit of laughter. “You see the way people drive here.”

“A lot of these guys, if they’re not familiar with the equipment, with tractors, the machinery in general…those are things that can take fingers off,” Neal explained. “You can get hurt easily. I’ve experienced that firsthand all the time at home farming.”

“The big thing is just to make sure the agricultural extension agents are competent enough and let them proceed to teach the people in their district,” Neal said.

“These [lessons] are essential tools that Afghanis are going to need for safe operation, proper operation, maintenance, [and] upkeep of the tractor to increase the longevity,” Neal added.

"Projects like this [tractor training] to me are probably just as effective as something you spend a couple hundred-thousand dollars on, because it’s something nobody can take away from you,” Neal said. “It’s something nobody can steal.”

“It’s just a high impact project that you can touch a lot of lives, you can make some impact, it’s very cost efficient,” he added.

“They’ve [Afghan farmers] got a lot of obstacles to overcome. A lot of them are manmade, and a lot of them are just made by nature,” Parsons noted.

“We’ve got some small programs coming up. The programs that I’m working on in particular are not big money programs, but they’re programs that we think are essential,” he added.

“I’m proud to be here. This has its challenges, but I found that just about everybody that is here has been willing to help me, willing to put up with me, and that makes me feel good. I hope when I look back at this, that I can say this has been well worth it,” Parsons concluded.

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