National Guard members from Iowa and Nebraska who have farming backgrounds are on a special mission in Afghanistan, teaching farmers in the war-torn nation more efficient ways to grow crops and raise livestock.

About 50 soldiers from the two states have been overseas about eight months, working to introduce new methods to Afghan farmers who, in some cases, are following centuries-old traditions.

In a phone interview with Radio Iowa from the Panjshir province, Master Sergeant John Herron, of McCook, Nebraska, says it’s a very rewarding challenge.

“We’ve been working with them putting in cherry trees, apricot trees, working with them on nurseries, trying to bring back their fruit industry they had in that area,” Sergeant Herron says.

“We’ve got other people on the team that are working with various universities. We’re actually helping them set up their agricultural classes.” When Herron isn’t on guard duty, his job back in the Midwest is as an agronomist hydrologist with Parker Hannifin in McCook.

While he wasn’t surprised to see how the Afghan farmers attempt to make their livings, he notes it might be something of a shock for many modern Midwestern growers.

“Probably 80% of the farming you see in the country is done with oxen with a wooden plow and then the farmers spread all their seed in the field by hand, and they do the same with fertilizer,” Herron says. “We find when we’re working with them, they don’t get the coverage they need as far as the population of plants or the amount of fertilizer that needs to be on the fields.”

He says by simply showing the Afghan farmers how to get a better seed distribution, wheat yields rose 30%. The Guard team members have also helped build things like windmills for irrigation and cold storage facilities, in addition to upgrading a diesel school so Afghan mechanics can learn to work on tractors — some dating from the Soviet era.

Herron says the native farmers are receptive to learning new agricultural methods, but they can’t be taken along too fast. “We’re looking at taking small steps with them, instead of going with full-blown tractors with tractor-drawn equipment, planters and drills, we’re actually working with some animal-drawn equipment,” he says.

“We’re going to educate them with animal-drawn planters and drills and also, back in the United States in the 1920s and 30s, we had walk-behind tractors which are pretty popular here also.”

Many of the plots they’re working on are very small by American standards, between a quarter and a half-acre. He says some grape growers let their fruit lay on the ground. Once trellising was introduced to one farmer, the other grape growers saw how well the process worked and began adopting the same techniques.

Herron says this mission is incredibly gratifying as the focus isn’t on so much of a military operation as it is helping distant neighbor-farmers learn a better way to feed their families and to lead a more prosperous existence.

“They are smart,” Herron says. “They pick up things easily. It’s kind of like in Missouri, you’ve gotta’ show me. You set up the plot and you show them using their methods, then you show them using your methods and they pick up pretty quick as far as they see the yield improvement.”

The National Guard unit comprised of Iowans and Nebraskans is the third Agri-Business Development Team that’s been sent to Afghanistan. They’re due to come home after about a year, in late August.