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Taking Agricultural Education to Iraq

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In the summer of 2011, I was preparing to go to Iraq - not as a soldier, but as an agricultural consultant. More specifically, I was going to Erbil, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, to teach crop residue management for a week. This fit me well since I have a strong interest in no-till crop production. The Noble Research Institute was established with the challenge to "benefit mankind," so the mission also matched the vision of our founder, Lloyd Noble.

I knew very little about what to expect. I had been told three things: I would have "students" who were the equivalent of agriculture extension agents in the United States; most crops grown in Oklahoma would grow there; and the weather would be hot.

As the plane landed, the scenery reminded me of western Oklahoma. There were miles of fields of wheat stubble, parched-looking pastures and rolling hills leading to some low mountains. The weather was hot and dry. I felt right at home.

I was surprised by the green vegetation as we drove from the airport into town. Where I expected desert, there were trees, lawns, shrubs and gardens. I had the opportunity to tour the area for a day before class started and learned that they raised hard red winter wheat, barley, corn, soybeans, sesame, grapes, olives, almonds, peaches, melons, tomatoes, sheep, goats, chickens and cattle. I was also surprised to see a small amount of modern equipment, such as combines, tractors, no-till drills and center pivots, that had been manufactured all over the world.

On the first day of class, 15 students arrived. They were all agronomists from Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq. Some had recently graduated from college while others had been in agricultural extension and research for many years. I discovered that my students had plenty of "book" knowledge, but limited real-world experience.

Agriculture in Kurdistan had been in disarray for decades. A new era of agriculture began after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. They were now experiencing much of the same growth and progress in agriculture that we experienced in the United States in the early 1900s.

The week was filled with assignments, demonstrations, discussions, lectures, questions and tours, and it was gratifying to see the participants experience little "aha" moments during our sessions. For instance, traditional wheat farmers in the region harvest the grain, then, to make a few extra dollars, bale and sell the remaining wheat straw. What the students had not considered was the value of the nutrients leaving the field along with the straw. These lost nutrients are worth four times more than the small amount of revenue obtained from the straw.

While the students were eager to absorb new information, they were not the only ones learning. I soon realized that the United States does not have the market cornered on agricultural innovation. I saw equipment of which I had never dreamt. I met farmers who were rapidly adopting modern technology. This country that I knew almost nothing about was, in many ways, very similar to Oklahoma. They have the same motivations we have: hope of a better life for their children; dreams of peace and prosperity; and wishes for a good crop with each planting and harvest season.

If you ever have the opportunity to experience the people, culture and agricultural practices of another country, I strongly encourage it. In the end, you may realize that, deep down, we are not so different after all.

Jim Johnson serves as a senior soils and crops consultant at Noble Research Institute, where he has worked since 1999. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in soil science from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in agronomy from Oklahoma State University, he worked in various plant breeding programs in Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma. His interests are cover crops and soil health.