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NRCS ag adviser helps improve agriculture in Iraq, Afghanistan

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By Spencer Miller

Mile Clayton, ag adviserMike Clayton, a district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, has provided thousands of Iraqis with reliable sources of clean water.

Stationed in Mahmudiyah, Iraq – south of Baghdad – Clayton’s initial project as an ag adviser was to help the local poultry industry get back on its feet. As he visited processing plants, breeder houses and hatcheries, he met many people who were very ill because they lacked access to safe drinking water.

“I get choked up thinking about it,” said Clayton, who has worked for NRCS for 30 years. “All those sick people without access to clean water.”

Clayton made it his personal mission to help them on his mission to Iraq from November 2008 to February 2010. He wrote a grant that, once approved, led to the construction of community wells that provided safe drinking water for thousands.

Mahmudiyah is located in the Mesopotamia region, the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Though the surface water is polluted from Baghdad’s runoff, a huge aquifer of fresh, clean water exists 20 meters beneath the surface in much of the region.

Drilling wells in Mesopotamia is relatively easy, as the ground is pure sediment. Using simple equipment, even hand augers, Americans helped Iraqis dig wells and construct water tanks.

The wells are privately owned and provide drinking water to the surrounding communities. In some cases the water is used to provide drip irrigation to high-commodity crops, such as tomatoes and eggplants. Clayton worked with Iraqis to increase their water usage efficiency from about 40-90 percent

He was so fulfilled with his experience in Iraq that he deployed to Afghanistan in December 2010. “I felt called to this – there was restlessness inside, urging me to go,” Clayton said.

Afghanistan presented different challenges than Iraq. One of the most frustrating was the absence of infrastructure in much of the country. Without roads, bridges, power and other staples of infrastructure, many projects proved unfeasible.

Clayton was stationed in Ghazni, an elevated area between Kabul and Kandahar, where he worked with local fruit farmers.

The soil and climate of that area make it especially well-suited for growing apples, Clayton said Cool nighttime temperatures allow apples to retain their sugar. “Best apple I ever ate was in Afghanistan,” he said.

Decades of war robbed local farmers of generational knowledge about best farming practices for their area, Clayton said. He made recommendations to farmers about crop selection, attracting pollinators and improving water efficiency, all of which helped reinvigorate local agriculture. “I feel a great personal satisfaction about my work in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Clayton said. “I’m very glad for the experience.”

Clayton now works as a district conservationist in the Princeton, Ky. field office. His experiences left him with broadened perspective and serenity towards daily toil. “After seeing how they live over there, I no longer get bent out of shape over the little stuff. I have it pretty good.”