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Soybeans bound for northern Afghanistan

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 02/19/2013 1:43 PM

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ALBERT LEA, Minn. — Soybean farmers and non-profit organization leaders gathered Friday at Albert Lea Seed House to celebrate the shipment of 467 million soybean seeds to Afghanistan.

There, it's hoped the soybeans start an economic ripple that spreads from the farms throughout the communities of northern Afghanistan.

The seeds will be planted by 5,000 farmers, most of whom have less than two acres. The majority of the 0.9 maturity soybeans will be planted in late May or early June, following winter wheat harvest. Each seed will be planted by hand, with a hole poked in the earth by a finger or a stick. Some farmers may use a board to which pegs have been attached to speed planting.

"We don't realize how good we have it," said Barb Overlie, a Minnesota Soybean Growers Association director from rural Lake Crystal who was secretary of the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health, an American Soybean Association committee. "It's just so beyond our realm."

WISHH worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Shelter for Life International to make the shipment possible. Two semis filled with 20 pallets of seeds each were to leave Albert Lea Seed House each day Feb. 4 and Feb. 5. The semis are bound for Charleston, S.C., where the certified seed will be loaded onto a military transport to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

The soybeans on their way to Afghanistan were grown in North Dakota, said Mac Ehrhardt, who owns Albert Lea Seed House with his brother, Tom. The Sheyenne variety was developed at North Dakota State University. It is a clear hilum, non-GMO, food-grade soybean.

This will be the third soybean planting in the region through the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health USDA-funded Soybeans for Agricultural Renewal in Afghanistan Project, said Mustafa Omar, executive director of Shelter for Life International. Shelter for Life International is a humanitarian organization headquartered in Minnesota that works on agricultural development, food security, infrastructure reconstruction and micro-credit in nations around the world.

Omar shared photos of the non-profit's work in the country. In one instance, they worked on an irrigation project. It not only increased agricultural productivity, but also gave young men construction skills.

The soybean project started in 2010, with the first planting in 2011. That first year, seeds were donated to 1,000 farmers. The second year, seeds went to 4,000 new farmers. This year, the seeds will go to 5,000 new farmers. Farmers are encouraged to save seed for planting, but Omar doesn't know how many do.

There is a steep learning curve to planting soybeans, a new crop in an area where wheat and cotton are the primary crops.

Each farmer is given inoculant, fertilizer and seed. Nine in-country agronomists work with the farmers.

Many don't even own a donkey to cart the seed home with, Overlie said. Instead, they toss the bag on their shoulder and start walking home.

Overlie told of one woman in her 30s raising 11 children from two husbands. One husband was dead and another unable to provide for the family. She had a quarter acre to earn a living from.

Soybeans are a cash crop. As part of the program, a processing plant was built in Mazar-e Sharif. An Iowa non-profit established the plant that crushes soybeans, Omar said.

They also have to be sensitive where signs are placed promoting the program. It could be dangerous for a farmer to say he's working with the U.S. government.

"Where we plant soybeans, it's a lot safer," Omar said. The area isn't under Taliban control now, but it has gone back-and-forth. Before the Soviet invasion, the area of northern Afghanistan where the soybeans are being planted was the country's breadbasket, producing rice and wheat.

It's important to be culturally sensitive when working in Afghanistan, Omar explained. They offer micro-loans to help finance soybean seed purchases after the first year of free seeds. At first, they tried to go to the most vulnerable people, widows who can't support themselves. This was rebuffed. Instead, they first offered loans to the clergy. Once on-board, the clergy didn't speak against the loans and they are now accepted. Loans go about 50-50 to men and women. Northern Afghanistan isn't as conservative as southern Afghanistan, he said.

The soybeans planted in May or June will be harvested in November. They will be cut by scythes, piled on a tarp, walked on and then tossed into the air to separate beans from pods.