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Agriculture: Exporting Afghanistan

New America Media, News report, P.J. Tobia Posted: Nov 18, 2009

KABUL (IPS) - The 60 hectare stretch of farmland in north Kabul's Badam Bagh neighbourhood looks much like farmland all over this country. Colourful rows of neatly planted crops stretch out from a dusty road and up the gentle slope of an arid ridge.

But look a little closer and it becomes clear that this isn't the average Afghan farm.

Men in green plastic space-suit sort of outfits can be seen tromping through rows of grape vines. Teams of aged men with long grey beards roam the grounds, wielding engine powered sprayers while a white man stands in the middle of a circle of farmers from Logar, demonstrating a new gas-powered machine that spreads insecticide.

If this farm looks different, that's because it is.

This is the Badam Bagh model farm, part of a joint programme between the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture and USAID or the U.S. Assistance for International Development. The goal of the project is to bring farmers from all around Afghanistan here to Kabul and train them in modern, organic farming techniques involving everything from irrigation to crop rotation and fertiliser use.

Badam Bagh also has an export centre, where fruit from nearly every province of Afghanistan is cleaned, packaged, sent to the airport and shipped around the world. This year alone the centre has packaged and shipped 3 million tonnes of apples from Wardak and Paktia provinces to consumers in other countries.

"This gives Afghan farmers the chance to have their products reach international consumers," says Hamid, who helps manage the farm and export facility. "This way our fruits reach the world."

The Badam Bagh farm has actually been there since Soviet times, though the Ministry of Agriculture refurbished it into its present condition after 2001. Since that time, the space has been used as an agricultural exhibition site (there's a large rotunda with a stage at one end of the property) and a showcase for modern farming techniques.

Now the farm grows many varieties of vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains. In addition to the apples, apricots, grapes and wheat, there is also a greenhouse with dozens of breeds of plants and flowers.

A single four-inch pipe that stretches to Badam Bagh all the way from Kargha Lake (10 km west of Kabul) waters part of the farm. During the summer, the farm's peak production season, more than 200 employees work the land, cultivating the crops and readying them for harvest.

Funding comes from USAID and the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture administers it through the ASAP programme. Calls to the programme offices were not returned by deadline.

Right now it's red grape season at Badam Bagh. Dozens of rows of the plump, ripe fruit hang from leafy vines in the chilly autumn air. Some of the clusters weigh as much as four kilos. Most of these grapes will be picked by workers and packed for export abroad, but first they will serve as an object lesson in better farming techniques to growers from around Afghanistan.

Recently a week-long seminar on the proper use, storage and disposal of pesticides was held at Badam Bagh. Farmers from Kandahar, Logar and everyplace in between sat in on lectures about safe handling of these helpful yet poisonous chemicals.

They were also shown how to wear special green plastic protective suits that would protect their skin and eyes from the chemical sprays. The farmers got to practice safe spraying techniques on Badam Bagh's crops, including those red grapes.

In a few days the grapes will be ready for harvest. They'll be moved to a warehouse and prepared for shipping to markets abroad and within Afghanistan.

On a recent Tuesday, the shipping centre was humming, processing a huge load of pomegranates that had just arrived form Kandahar. Workers sorted the fruit, with the highest quality pomegranates being shipped abroad at premium prices in cardboard boxes marked, "Quality Fresh Fruits From Afghanistan." The remaining fruit stays in Afghanistan and will be sold in markets here.

Eighteen-year-old Murtaza has worked in the shipping centre for three months and says that while the work isn't easy, it is steady and he also feels like he's helping people learn that Afghanistan has more to offer the world than war and political unrest.

"People might see the Afghan label on these pomegranates and think a little differently about our home," he says.

In some cases the fruit goes through an extra step before being sold on the open market. Some of those red grapes for instance, will be placed in the farm's raisin shed, where they will be dried before being packaged and sold.

The shed is a large wooden structure with grapes hanging in a number of different configurations.

"These are Iranian style," says Hamid, pointing to bunches of grapes hanging by string from the ceiling. "And these," he says gesturing at dozens of grape clusters drying on a metal lattice, "are Indian style."

Then Hamid lovingly shows off bunches of grapes hanging over a series of bamboo stalks laid horizontally. "These are Afghan style," he says. "The best raisins in the world."

*This was originally published in the Killid Weekly. The Killid Group and IPS are partners since 2004.

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