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Ag adviser helps teach Iraqi and Afghani people about water and conservation

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By Stephanie Richie

Michael I. Gangwer, a resource conservationist with NRCS, served as an ag adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he helped those nations in the fields of conservation and agriculture

Michael I. Gangwer, a resource conservationist with NRCS, served as an ag adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he helped those nations in the fields of conservation and agriculture.

Michael I. Gangwer, a resource conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service in East Lansing, Mich., helped to build agricultural irrigation expertise among the Afghanistan and Iraqi people.

Stationed in Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, Gangwer served as a USDA agricultural advisor in a civil affairs unit. When he arrived, he said, he was quite amazed at the destruction of war and immediately got to work in helping the Afghanistan people rebuild what was destroyed.

USDA agricultural advisers are employees who have volunteered to work with the United States military since 2003 and worked on conservation and other agricultural projects with local farmers in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the United States' civilian effort in reconstruction. Each volunteer had unique experiences, shaped by local needs and the skillsets they brought to the country.

He provided technical assistance to people to improve their crop irrigation. By installing drip irrigation, a practice that places water at the base of the plant, the amount of water used is more efficient and effective.

Gangwer said his greatest challenge was changing perspectives. He realized he needed to view farming and conservation through the lens of Afghanistan culture rather than from a United States perspective.
“Basically, there were language barriers and trust issues from the Afghanistan people,” he said. “Trying to understand their language, and asking them to trust you as an outsider coming into help fix their country was very difficult for them.”

While stationed in Afghanistan, Gangwer also taught a 20-week agricultural course to 110 officials with the Ministry of Agriculture on soil sampling and water irrigation practices. Gangwer said that he felt satisfied with the way his work had a trickle-down effect in passing along this important conservation information.

Work in Afghanistan was sometimes dangerous. While riding in an armored truck one day, Gangwer was shot at but luckily was protected by the truck’s bulletproof glass. “This was the closest I ever came to dying,” he said.

But the fear of danger never deterred Gangwer from wanting to continue to help. He signed up for another 18-month tour a couple of years later, and he volunteered to serve in Iraq.

In 2009 and 2010, Gangwer served as the soil and water policy adviser in the Agricultural Affairs Office of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to Iraq, where he was asked to step in by USDA to provide his expertise.

While in Iraq, he helped with a $1 million project that included rebuilding new electrical grids, regaining Internet access, replacing office and lab equipment, collecting farming supplies and irrigation equipment and working on other efforts.

Presently, the station is fully operational with staff that is well-trained in irrigation management techniques, drip irrigation management, and they are able to effectively monitor and evaluate climates to determine when is the best time for the people to use the fertilized soil and develop their crops on the soil. With this expert training, the staff can now assist the Iraqi people with agriculture-related issues, specifically crop production and water usage.

Gangwer wrote a book called “Finding Green in Iraq,” about his time in Iraq. The book includes 301 photographs of his experiences and assignments in Iraq.

“I would welcome the opportunity to be deployed anywhere again, and I thank USDA, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the Foreign Agricultural Service for allowing me this wonderful opportunity,” he said.