SHE’S NEVER SET FOOT IN AFGHANISTAN , but Michelle Moyer is helping farmers there nevertheless. Moyer, who earned her Ph.D. in plant pathology at Cornell University, is now an assistant professor of horticulture at Washington State University, where she also serves as an Extension specialist for viticulture. This put her in a prime position to help U.S. troops being sent to Afghanistan to better understand the significance and cultivation of the country’s No. 1 fruit crop: the grape.
Moyer developed a presentation for the national Grape Community of Practice (GCoP), an Extension network of 87 grape production professionals from 31 states and Ontario, Canada. The GCoP is distributing Moyer’s presentation to its members at universities and government agencies who are involved in training U.S. troops.
With this work Moyer joins a number of experts in the CALS community who are helping the U.S. military improve agriculture in Afghanistan. For example, CALS serves as a training and “reachback” resource for Wisconsin National Guard agribusiness development troops serving in Afghanistan.
Why is it important for U.S. troops to know about Afghanistan’s grape cultivation?
Grapes, the leading horticulture crop in Afghanistan, are used predominately for fresh eating and raisin production. Many troops arrive in country during the growing season, so being aware of what they’re seeing will help minimize damage. That’s critical in establishing rapport with local communities. There are many U.S.-based economic development teams working in Afghanistan to help promote agricultural production, so clearly everyone wants to be on the same page. If other U.S. and international aid agencies are promoting the growth and development of the viticulture industry, it is imperative that military efforts do not hinder it.
How does grape cultivation in Afghanistan and in the United States differ?
The biggest differences are the extent and level of infrastructure. Afghan vineyards often are not arranged in rows. In many cases, vines are trellised on any available structure or grow in a bush form. Irrigation systems are still predominately in the form of ditches, and we highlight the need to be careful when operating machinery through them as it could negatively impact farmland downstream.
Vineyards growing raisin grapes often have large structures called “kishmish khanas” located in their center. These are drying houses for raisins. Grapes are dried in a similar fashion as tobacco is in Wisconsin: they’re hung on various levels inside a dark building with sufficient air circulation. As they dry, the raisins drop to the ground, where they are collected. Unfortunately, khanas also are likely spots for insurgent activity, so we highlight being careful when scouting—for many reasons!—as you could damage produce worth thousands of dollars.
What did you learn from the experience of preparing a group for this particular need?
It really highlighted the global and cultural significance of grape production. In the United States, we tend to focus on wine grape production when we think of grapes. But grapes have so many more uses that are equally vital and are an integral part of a culture’s heritage. It was fascinating to learn about this type, style and level of grape production, particularly relating to raisin production in Afghanistan. I am impressed that the U.S. military reaches out to Extension for this education. It highlights that the U.S.’s intention in these types of operations is to help, even if that message gets lost in the political and emotional strains of conflict.