U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says Iowa soldiers will continue an effort to move Afghan farmers away from growing poppy plants to a more diversified system when they are deployed there later this year. An agriculture development team of about 60 Iowa National Guard soldiers and airmen will arrive in Afghanistan by August to replace a guard team from California.

The poppy plants are used to by drug producers to make opium and Vilsack says the Afghan farmers had few other options. Vilsack says it was a very rational thing for the Afghan farmers, as they got the poppy seed virtually free, and the crop was picked up at the harvest and there were no costs associated with it. He says they had to figure out ways to reduce the perceived risk of growing wheat or other crops.

Vilsack, the former Iowa governor, says they’e been successful in cutting the production of poppies. He says people began to see there was a much easier and better way to grow “legitimate” crops their families could use, their neighbors could use, and that they could ultimately sell outside of Afghanistan to produce wealth. Vilsack says they showed them financial information that indicated they could get more money if could raise crops like pomegranates, saffron, table grapes.

Vilsack says one thing the soldiers will also do is to help rebuild the irrigation system in Afghanistan that was destroyed during the war with Soviet Union. Vilsack says the country has precious resources that have to be used effectively. He says it “isn’t about turning this into an Iowa cornfield, this is really about focusing on what they can do with very limited…natural resources, and very limited technology.”

Vilsack says an ag expert from his department will be embedded with the Iowa National Guard Agriculture Development Team.