Rebuilding Iraq's Farms from Ground and Sky

Nic Jelinski BS’04 MS’07 and Mutlu Ozdogan haven’t had your average research collaboration. While they observed and collected data from the same farm fields and become friends, they have never met face-to-face. And while Ozdogan worked in the typical khakis-and-button-down attire of a university professor, Jelinski wore a helmet and body armor.

What they shared was a desire to help the people of Iraq rebuild their nation’s agriculture after years of war and political turmoil.

The partnership began last year, after Jelinski was deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army’s 450th Civil Affairs Battalion. Civil Affairs troops serve as the liaison between coalition forces and Iraqi civilians, providing assistance on projects to return security and stability to the war-torn country. Stationed in the Al-Mada’in district, a region south of Bagdad heavy with agriculture, Jelinski became involved in projects to build better irrigation and water-management systems—a good fit for the UW-Madison grad, who had studied soil and water management while earning a master’s degree in land resources.

Jelinski says Iraqi agricultural scientists and engineers have done their best to keep agricultural infrastructure functioning throughout the war, but until recently they did it without the fast-evolving technology and data that their counterparts around the world now take for granted. “They were particularly interested in using satellite remote sensing and GIS to learn about how cropland is changing and water is being used,” says Jelinski, who completed his tour in January. “I’m not an expert in any of this, but I knew of people (at UW-Madison), especially Mutlu, who were. So it popped into my head that maybe there was a chance for a partnership between the Army, the Iraqis and the University of Wisconsin.”

Enter Ozdogan, an assistant professor in forest and wildlife ecology and a scientist with the Nelson Institute’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. From his time at UW-Madison, Jelinski knew the center produced global-scale crop maps based on satellite imagery. But there’s only so much you can see from the sky. “The only information I have is a measure of greenness—it’s just the light information from satellites,” says Ozdogan.

Jelinski organized “ground truthing,” enlisting Iraqi scientists and farmers to record GPS coordinates and take pictures of fields at different stages of growth, to help Ozdogan make sense of what he’s seeing. “This data helps me interpret the greenness into land cover data—whether it’s corn, wheat or date palm.” Ozdogan says.

The project dovetails nicely with some of Ozdogan’s other work, including a project funded by NASA to map use of irrigation water throughout Iraq. But it has also forged relationships that are helping reconnect Iraqi researchers with the global scientific community.

“What Mutlu has brought to the table is a tremendous opportunity for our Iraqi friends to network with the outside world, which they have been cut off from for the last 20 years,” says Jelinski. “This is really a story about the resiliency of the Iraqi people—the farmers, families, engineers and scientists who have continued their work and livelihoods through the instability of the past years.”