By SAMANTHA TIPLER      Posted: Sunday, January 2, 2011 6:54 am | Updated: 9:11 am, Sun Jan 2, 2011

sean-currans-tony-fortier-bob-hullDuring the past year, agronomist Sean Currans found himself fulfilling a unique role far away from home. The owner of Rugged Country Plants in Milton-Freewater spent the last 12 months living on Command Operating Base Basra in southern Iraq. When he went off base, he wore a bullet proof vest and helmet. He was accompanied by an interpreter. He worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture bringing Iraqi farmers up to date on modern agriculture techniques.

“The reality is Iraq has been isolated for 30 years and has not been adopting new technologies,” Currans said.  For instance, Iraq was the date palm capital of the world 30 years ago, he said. There were once 30 million date palm trees, but that number has dropped to 2 million today. Those left only produce about 10 percent of their potential because of neglect and out-of-date farming practices. Date palms took up a big portion of Currans’ time.

Last March, Currans attended a date palm conference in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. There he met representatives from Phoenix Agrotech, a California company. Six months later he set up an exchange program between Iraqi date palm farmers and the American company.

“They had a very enlightening and wonderful time,” Currans said. “The Iraqis came back full of compliments and praise for the hospitality and generosity of the Californian host, all the things they’ve learned and all the new practices.”

Since then, Phoenix Agrotech employees traveled to Basra to help the Iraqis design model farms.

Currans had the freedom to find this problem and begin building ways to address it because of the way the USDA program he works for operates. “You go and see what’s going on in a province,” he said.

“You use your background and experience to see what you can do to help them develop agriculture to a more productive level. Professionally, it’s quite interesting the amount of latitude we were given to address what issues we thought were most important.”

Currans was able to address another more complicated and cultural issue, too.

Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, Currans said, most farming was heavily controlled by the government. Supplies like seeds and fertilizers came from Baghdad. Then, after harvest, the government bought the crops.

“With the 2003 invasion, that system quit working and hasn’t worked since,” Currans said.

The government is pushing for privatization, for farmers to work things out on their own. But only in the last year, Currans said, has the government begun to make progress in that direction.

“It is a big change and a big shock to the farmers,” he said. “They’re being told to go to a place where they haven’t been before.”

To help the Iraqis cope with these big changes, Currans decided to focus on a basic skill well known to farmers in the west: communication.

American farmers get together all the time.

They meet at conferences, agricultural supply offices, or at the local cafe for coffee. “They talk to each other as neighbors,” Currans said. “Iraqis don’t have that kind of cooperative communication as their culture. They don’t know what their neighbor is doing. They don’t talk to each other.”

So Currans worked to get farmers together. He brought them to conferences, or to meals and meetings.

Then he and his interpreter would say to the farmers, “We’d like to be helping but we don’t know how to do that. What do you guys think? What do you think is needed? What are your challenges? What are your problems? Let’s talk about this and work on it together.”

This is all new for Iraqi farmers.

“Freedom of speech and the ability to organize and coordinate is not a part of their world view,” Currans said. “They haven’t had the opportunity to get together and talk about things.”

In a way, he said, he was bringing a very basic form of democracy to the Iraqis. After living under first communist rule, and then under a dictatorship, the farmers weren’t used to having someone ask what they needed.

Currans came home to Milton-Freewater just before Christmas. He is home for three weeks before leaving again for a second year in Iraq. He has many goals, including expanding on his date palm program. Also, by the time his second year is done, he hopes he has taught the farmers enough about communication that they can keep talking.

“I hope to have enough organizing meetings with the farmers to where they have a relationship with each other and with the government,” he said. “When I’m gone, I hope they can carry on those things for more functioning dialogue in the province because they got used to doing it when I was there.”

Though he enjoys the work and looks forward to his next steps, Currans knows there is only so much he can do in a year.

“It’s real clear tome it’s going to be Iraqis rebuilding Iraq,” he said. “Americans are not going to do it. It’s going to have to be them coming up with the appropriate solutions for their own situation. I hope to help them take another step in that direction.”

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