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Planting the seeds of a better future

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By Spencer Miller

Greg Schlenz, a resource conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, helped Panjshir province in Afghanistan double its wheat harvest and escape subsistence farming.

Greg Schlenz travels to an agriculture site on a donkey.

Because of Greg’s work, wheat yield doubled from previous years.

Because of Greg’s work, wheat yield doubled from previous years.

Greg Schlenz, a resource conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, helped Panjshir province in Afghanistan double its wheat harvest and escape subsistence farming.

Stationed at Forward Operating Base Lion in the Hindu Kush region from March 2008 to October 2009, Schlenz said he recognized he had a unique opportunity to make a large impact. Panjshir is relatively secure, having successfully resisted multiple invasion attempts by Soviet and later Taliban forces. Schlenz said he took advantage of this relative safety and security to pursue many ambitious agricultural projects.

Though it repelled nine Soviet invasion attempts, air strikes and shelling reduced much of the province to impoverished subsistence farming, he said.

“Off the main road it’s like going back to Biblical times,” Schlenz said. “People were plowing with oxen and spreading seed with their hands.”

Of particular concern, farmers lacked access to current stocks of wheat seed – many were using stocks more than 30 years old, which means they were less resilient evolving crop disease and pests. As a result, yields were very low, around 25 bushels per acre. Schlenz distributed updated stocks to local farmers, and within one year, yields doubled to 50 bushels per acre.

Schlenz said he met a village elder who told him that his family now would have a surplus of wheat to sell, rather than rationing and bartering for food.

“It hit me in the gut big time,” he said. “This man hugged me, his eyes full of tears, and thanked me for feeding his family. This was my biggest accomplishment.”

Doubling wheat yields may have been Schlenz’s biggest accomplishment, but it was just one of many. He also reintroduced chickens to the region, making them freely available to graduates of training on how to care for chickens. Chickens and eggs are now a sustainable source of protein and income for many families.

Schlenz oversaw the construction of reservoirs to capture snowmelt flowing from the Hindu Kush mountains. Though the area hasn’t suffered drought in living memory, they now have water available throughout the year. He also showed them new methods of irrigation. Rather than washing away nutrients and fertilizer by flooding their fields, he introduced target irrigation, which improves water efficiency and quality.

To publicly display recommended techniques, Schlenz set up a demonstration farm. There are two fields, side by side. One field uses local techniques to grow crops. The other uses the irrigation, nutrient and crop management techniques Schlenz recommends. The contrast is clear and persuasive.

During his initial assessment of the region, Schlenz noticed he didn’t hear any bees. Pollinators had left the region. To address this problem, he worked with the provincial agricultural director to distribute 1,400-plus bee boxes throughout the region. He said the locals were thrilled to have pollinators and honey restored to them.

By laying the foundation for so many long-term projects, Schlenz said he helped give the people in Panjshir new hope. His projects have the potential for exponential growth, providing the locals with an excellent opportunity to rise from subsistence farming and become an especially productive and diverse agricultural province.

Schlenz said he absolutely loved his ag adviser experience and is grateful to NRCS for the opportunity. “This agency has been darn good to me, and this has been the highlight of my career.”

Schlenz currently works as a resource conservationist in the NRCS field office in Dayton, WA.