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Sunday, December 5, 2021

UC Davis earns USDA honor for agricultural efforts in Afghanistan

On Nov. 5, Jim Hill, associate dean for International Programs at the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and Michael McGirr, national program leader of the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s Center for International Programs, were presented with the 2014 USDA Secretary’s Honor Award in Washington, D.C.

The Afghanistan Agricultural Extension Project, an effort led by UC Davis and three other U.S. universities, took the award within the global food security category, considered the USDA’S most prestigious award.

The honor recognizes exceptional leadership efforts, contributions or public service in support of the mission and goals of USDA.

In fall of 2011, UC Davis was selected as the lead institution for the Extension Project after a competitive process among a group of three other agricultural universities — Purdue University, Washington State University and the University of Maryland.

The Extension Project was coordinated to help rebuild Afghanistan’s agricultural industry in conjunction with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock.

“The primary goal of our project was to create a bottom-up farmer-driven extension project,” Hill said. “We tried to instill public service professionalism that would help them meet the demands of farmers.”

The program trained thousands of Afghan farmers. According to McGirr, some of the difficulties included high illiteracy rates, cultural barriers related to gender and distrust.

“One of the objectives of the project since the beginning was to build capacity within the Ministry and to build the trust that people have of their government in Afghanistan,” McGirr said. “So rather than go in and do it for them, we took the time to really build them as a partnership and as collaborators with us.”

Lack of success from previous extension programs caused Afghan extension agents to be hesitant of the techniques being introduced by the universities. However, once results became apparent, agents were very receptive and took ownership of different technologies, McGirr said.

Sensitive to Afghanistan’s technical capabilities and accessibility, the program remained conscious of the technologies’ relevance to the country’s needs.

The program included reconstruction of old research centers into provincial model teaching farms where Afghan extension workers were instructed. The agents then carried out the knowledge to villages and conducted over 1,000 field demonstrations.

UC Davis was primarily responsible for the staff in Kabul and the northern province of Balkh, focusing on post-harvest technology and horticulture. Although each university focused on its respective expertise, collaboration extended far beyond the four initial provinces.

Louise Ferguson, director of the Fruit and Nut Research and Information Center for International Programs in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, provided technical knowledge on specific crops and extension training across multiple provinces. During her visit, she discovered an opportunity to help reconstruct the country’s pistachio industry, a crop she specializes in. The industry was destroyed during the Russian invasion.

“I’m determined to help them get their pistachio industry restarted,” Ferguson said.

According to Hill, 14 other provinces have expressed interest in the extension project, expanding the program to a total of 17 provinces.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently refunded the program for an additional three years, key to Afghanistan’s agricultural movement.

Hill believes that short-term projects that are funded around the world are most effective with a longer duration.

“This is a generational change and it’s not something where you go in for three or four years and leave,” Hill said. “It’s just not sustainable.”

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