By: Mollie Lastovica
A team of six, representing Texas A&M University, Texas AgriLife Extension and the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, has been working in Kurdistan, Iraq, since June 30 with the Iraq Agricultural Extension Revitalization program.
Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist Jeff Ripley, Ph.D., Professor Gary Briers, Ph.D., International Extension Program Specialist with the Borlaug Institute Roland Smith, Ph.D., ALEC graduate student and Borlaug Institute representative Kate Whitney, Regional Program Director with AgriLife Extension Monty Dozier, Ph.D., and Bosque County Extension Agent David Winkler led the program’s most recent efforts, partnering with Salahaddin University.
The program was established in 2007 through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service program and the USDA Foreign Agricultural Services program.
Led by Texas A&M University, the Iraq Agricultural Extension Revitalization program is a partnership between land-grant universities and the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture and agricultural colleges. It aims to expand university capacity development, provide extension support and training and establish stakeholder relationships in Iraq.
Ripley has been working with the program since 2009. Despite this being his first experience with international agriculture, he understands how vital agricultural education is to the Iraqi people.
“Revitalizing the extension program is the most important thing they can do for agriculture,” Ripley says. “Think of what the land grant system did over 100 years ago in America. They do not have our structure, so we are trying to work with what they have and develop a structure that works for them.”
The group divided into three duos to conduct week-long training sessions in each of the three provinces in the Kurdistan Regional Government. In total, they trained approximately 100 Iraqi extension people.
“Our goal is to help make agriculture more efficient and profitable for the Iraqi people,” Ripley says. “To help them grow the crops they need to feed the country.”
Aside from his role in training extension field staff, Briers utilized part of his time abroad to evaluate a one year professional diploma program designed by Kurds in cooperation with the Borlaug Institute and offered by Salahaddin and partnering universities. He notes how different the Kurdistan region of Iraq is when compared to other areas of the country.
“The Kurdish Regional Government and its three provinces is an autonomous region within Iraq and as such it is very different from the rest of Iraq,” Briers says. “I have worked in or visited 14 of the 18 regions in Iraq and the two provinces I visited in the Kurdish Regional Government were as different from Bagdad and the rest of Iraq as night and day. I can tell that it is free, safe and vibrant.”
Ripley points out that, despite what one might assume, the Iraqi people have needs, concerns and wants for their country that are similar to those of America.
“The most enlightening thing is how we are more the same than we are different,” Ripley says. “Once we get past the language barrier, everything seems to take care of itself. They have been very receptive to us and our information and are very appreciative of the work that we do.”
The same, welcoming and positive attitude of the Kurdish people was also made evident to Briers during his time in the region.
“They are positive and resilient people who suffered greatly under Sadam [Hussein], but who are enthusiastic and positive about their future and look forward to increasing relationships with people of the United States,” Briers says. “We had a saying that was really more than just a saying… ‘Meet once and we are colleagues. Meet twice and we are friends. Meet three times and we are brothers and sisters, Americans and Kurds.’”
Although government funding of the Iraq Agricultural Extension Revitalization program will cease in September, Briers is confident that the Borlaug Institute, Kurdish agricultural ministry and individuals who have worked on the project over the past few years will continue their efforts in Iraq with or without additional funding.
“We are collectively and individually committed to continue collaboration,” Briers says. “If and as the Iraqi people increase their proficiency in technology transfer and all aspects of extension, they will assist the industry of agriculture to increase agricultural productivity and profitability, ultimately improving economic aspects of the rural people and their quality of life.”