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A Legacy Extended

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Agricultural consultants join special mission to educate farmers in war-torn Iraq
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Jim Johnson and Chan Glidewell stepped off the airplane after a 17-hour flight and found themselves in what looked like western Oklahoma. "Northern Iraq is not at all what I envisioned," said Johnson, a soils and crops consultant for the Noble Research Institute. "I expected sand dunes, no water and no vegetation. To me, it looked sort of like home."

In July, Johnson and Glidewell, a pasture and range consultant, flew to northern Iraq to teach agriculture to a farming industry whose practices currently mirror those of pre-Dust Bowl Oklahoma. "It was like stepping back in time," Glidewell said. "You can see the path they are on. It is like the one we took when we settled the Great Plains more than a century ago. You want them to learn from our mistakes."

Seven months before landing in northern Iraq - a region dominated by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) - Johnson and Glidewell received emails from Patrick Broyles requesting assistance as part of an educational mission sponsored by the United States Department of State and implemented by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Broyles, the USDA Soil and Water Ministry advisor in Baghdad, graduated from Oklahoma State University and has interacted with the Noble Research Institute since the early 1970s. "I have always been impressed with their knowledge and approach towards working with people in agriculture," he said.

Most individuals would balk at the idea of spending 10 days in a war-torn nation. Since the Noble Research Institute consultants have been training Army National Guardsmen for similar agricultural operations in Afghanistan, a willingness to contribute directly had been sparked.

"I've always said if I had a chance to go overseas and teach, I would go," said Johnson, who mentioned that at no time during the trip did he feel concerned about his safety.

For the Noble Research Institute, dispatching two consultants on a 7,000-mile journey was viewed as an extension of the organizational mission set forth by founder Lloyd Noble. "What began as a small regional effort is now going around the world," said Billy Cook, Ph.D., director of the Agricultural Division. "This shows that one man can impact the world."

After pre-trip vaccinations and wrangling short-term visas, Johnson and Glidewell arrived in Erbil - one of the oldest cities in the world (founded in 6000 BC) and one of the largest in Iraq with more than 1.2 million inhabitants.

The Noble consultants spent the first two days learning about the region's agricultural status, visiting research stations supported by Al Sala Din University, the region's major agricultural college.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, who systematically destroyed 4,500 villages in the KRG region, the Kurdish people have been rebuilding their land and culture.

Decades of war have destroyed more than physical buildings. The country has no agricultural records, meaning Kurdish producers are screening hundreds of lines of wheat and dozens of fruit trees just to find which varieties are most adapted to the region.

Beyond the lack of modern equipment, the Kurds' farming methods remain dated at best. "I often say that when Alexander the Great conquered Mesopotamia and left, he told the farmers not to do anything different and they haven't," Broyles said. "The educational courses we're providing serve as a good foundation for their agricultural programs."

The Noble consultants spent a week teaching 15 students each - Johnson on crop residue and water management, and Glidewell on range-land management.

Much like the early farmers in the Southern Great Plains, the Kurdish producers overuse the land, removing most of the organic matter from the soil and leaving it vulnerable to erosion. Johnson worked with his students on alternative planting methods like no-till, while also discussing options for livestock feed so farmers could leave wheat residue in place - a key for soil stability.

"I felt like I had answers for them, but that we may not have been asking the right questions," Johnson said. "I answered the farming questions of how to grow better crops. The more appropriate question may have been: Should they grow forages for livestock instead of growing crops? Every time you answer a question, three more pop up."

Glidewell's topics were equally as challenging since rangeland conditions are so poor.

"Iraq has been overgrazed for 5,000 years and it shows," Broyles said.

"Lack of good management practices means that the livestock suffer from diseases, poor nutrition and horrible breeding practices."

Glidewell focused on calculating stocking rates, specifically for sheep, the region's primary livestock. "They wanted a silver bullet to fix all the problems just like we did 100 years ago," Glidewell said. "But you can't just keep doing what you're doing and expect different results. There has to be change, and many of their progressive farmers want it."

But no problem in Iraq is easily solved. Some progressive farmers may be willing to alter practices, but societal norms are still dominant. "All the land is public so there is little control," Johnson said. "In the case of wheat residue, I learned that if they do the right thing and leave the straw, someone else will come in and take it. So why leave it?" "And if you decided to run the correct stocking rate, that doesn't mean all the people who use the land will go along with your plan," Glidewell added.

"We were able to provide them principles to work from. Hopefully, it will spark a change and that will spread to other producers."

Though communicating through a translator, Johnson and Glidewell connected with their students. Johnson was even given a Kurdish name - Azad, meaning "freedom" - in appreciation for his lessons. Their bond has continued as they are now communicating via Facebook, and this spring five students from each of their classes will visit the United States with a possible stop at the Noble Research Institute.

"The best thing America has done throughout the world is freely spread our knowledge of agriculture," Broyles said. "These educational interactions influence Iraqis who are entombed in poor management and failing agricultural techniques. This will ultimately lead to better agricultural production, a higher standard of living and better conservation of resources."