NDSU professor heading to Afghanistan with Guard Ag-biz team

A North Dakota State University professor deployed Saturday with the Minnesota National Guard, part of an Agribusiness Development Team aimed at winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan.

A North Dakota State University professor deployed Saturday with the Minnesota National Guard, part of an Agribusiness Development Team aimed at winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan.

Capt. Cheryl Wachenheim, Moorhead, is one of 22 on the ad hoc 135th ADT that began deployment Saturday in the Twin Cities. Tuesday, they leave for training in Indiana.

"We will be on the ground in Afghanistan by the end of October," Wachenheim said last week.

The team is scheduled to return in September 2012.

It's an idea by the Guard from several states started in 2008 to use civilian skills to help Afghanis rebuild their country battered by 30 years of strife. The Minnesota Guard team will replace ADTs from other states.


The team is unusual for a Guard unit because the members were recruited because of their expertise in their day jobs for the special mission; when they return, members will return to their permanent units.

At a briefing this summer, Col. Eric Ahlness, the team's commander, said it highlights what the National Guard is all about.

"This mission focuses on the citizen aspect of the citizen-soldier concept we talk about so often in the Guard. We looked for soldiers in our organization that have the civilian skill set to help us in our mission and found a team of experts."

That's what makes Wachenheim excited about this deployment, she said.

She joined the Illinois Guard in 1998, while teaching agricultural economics at Illinois State University; that same year, she took a job at NDSU and transferred to the Minnesota National Guard.

Wachenheim has been a truck mechanic in the Guard, moved up through officer training, and now is a medical logistician, making sure troops have all the supplies they need, including during a deployment in Iraq several years ago.

Her day job in Fargo is as associate professor of agribusiness and applied economics at NDSU, specializing in marketing and managing livestock.

She has been an academic for more than 20 years, a soldier for 13 and is enthusiastically pursuing both careers.


"They are two totally separate worlds, academia and the military," she said. "This is the first time I have been able to marry the two."

Ag backgrounds

Twelve of the 22 ADT members have agribusiness backgrounds, including a hydrologist and veterinarian as well as Wachenheim.

The team was trained by NDSU colleagues of Wachenheim this summer, to recognize diseases in animals, for example, and to understand what sort of crops can grow in Afghanistan.

The ADT also spent time with Amish farmers in southern Minnesota to see up close ways of farming without using modern machinery.

The team also spent time at the corporate headquarters of multi-national agribusiness giant CHS in St. Paul, listening to people who had marketed farm products in that part of the world.

Zabul Province, in the south of Afghanistan, is known for its wheat, walnuts, almonds and pomegranates and the farmers raise a "thrifty" and ancient breed of cattle, as well as sheep and goats, she said.

Wachenheim was one of a handful of leaders of the ADT who spent several days reconnoitering there in May.


"We saw beautiful fields of wheat and lots of orchards," she said.

The Afghanis still sow and reap by hand.

"They are incredibly good at what they do without machines," she said.

But since the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan 30 years ago, normal life has been ash-canned, breaking down the infrastructure, including the marketing of farm products, Wachenheim said.

"For example, one of the things (we) talked about was the whole shearing process. They have been shearing their sheep but not using the wool," she said. "The key is to get a market for it, because they can't use all the wool themselves."

Afghanistan used to export walnuts, almonds and pomegranates and could again, she says.

"Sometimes all that it takes is a demonstration, if we can get one or two farmers to find ways to market their product."

Empowering women


Besides her professional expertise, Wachenheim said, "something I bring that is most important is I am a woman."

In rural Afghanistan, men do not interact with Afghani women "in any way, shape or form," she said. "You wouldn't ask a man about his wife, if you are a man."

During her May mission, Wachenheim never saw a woman, because they stay inside houses, usually behind compound walls.

As in many cultures, in Zabul, "women can be the backbone of the family," she said. "So training women to do things like growing kitchen gardens, raising chickens -- things they can do within the family compound -- will do immense things for the family to help sustain them. And as a woman, I can interact with the women."

There are bad guys, including Taliban, in the area the team is headed. In May, people were killed in and around the forward base where Wachenheim was stationed.

The ADT will be accompanied by a security team from the Mississippi National Guard. The villages where they will work include Navy Seal teams. She will carry an M-4 rifle and handgun.

Her first day there in May, in fact, a Seal "came right up to me and gave me the scarf he was wearing and told me to wear it," she said.

It seemed to break the ice a little with Afghanis who are not used to seeing women out and about, especially as soldiers.


"The children didn't believe I was a woman and had to touch my hair," she said.

One of the things the team can bring is access to experts around the world at the drop of a mouse.

During her May tour, a farmer brought in a walnut branch with a disease.

"To us it looked like fungi," she said. "I took a picture of it and sent the digital picture the next day" to a professor at NDSU, who sought out others. The same day, the answer came back: it wasn't a fungus, it was an insect. "So the reach-back is incredible. They provided an answer and that's going to be very valuable."

Much of their work will be "third-person," she said.

There is a type of agricultural extension service, however broken by war, in Zabul, she said.

"We are trying to stay in the background and let the Afghan professionals teach the Afghan farmers."

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