Iraq War Stories: Coloradan Helps Iraqi Farmers

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Today we meet an agricultural diplomat in our series “Iraq War Stories.” George Melton, of Fort Collins, has spent the last two years in the war-torn country helping farmers form cooperatives. That’s when a group works together on projects like growing wheat or processing wool and then shares in the profits. Melton is an agricultural advisor for the U.S Department of Agriculture. He’s spent the last year in Ninewa Province which is near the Syrian border. Melton says the idea of a co-op is the opposite of how farmers worked when Saddam Hussein was in power.


Colorado Matters

Iraqi War Stories Interview with George Melton

September 29, 2010


From Colorado Public Radio, I’m Ryan Warner and this is Colorado Matters.

Today we meet an agricultural diplomat in our series, Iraq War Stories. George Melton of Fort Collins has spent the last two years in the war-torn country helping farmers form cooperatives. That’s a group of farmers who work together, say to grow wheat or process wool and then share in the profits.

Melton is an advisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and he has spent the last year in Ninewa Province, near the Syrian border. Melton told us from Iraq that the idea of a co-op is the opposite of how farmers worked when Saddam Hussein was in power.

GEORGE MELTON, Agricultural Advisor, U.S. Department of Agriculture:

The government owned the land. The government owned the production assets. The government would sell or provide all of the fertilizer, seed, et cetera, and the government of Iraq would take the crops when they were produced.

So, it was a kind of a command and control economy. So the concept of a democratically owned group of assets, farmers that can own it and manage it and make their own decisions is an innovation.

Warner: What will the changes you’re working on there mean for a family that’s in farming?

Melton: Well, first of all, these people will actually own something. Maybe for the first time in their lives, they’ll actually own part of a business. They’ll own something other than a few sheep.

That’s a huge step forward for these people, so that owning things in this society, owning a business or owning part of a business, is kind of the top of the food chain. So when you can go to a family and say you own part of this big business, it gives them pride of ownership in the community.

And from a counter insurgency standpoint, cultures that own part of a business want to keep that business stable and safe, so they tend to try to push the terrorists away.

We’re able to increase yields, bring more profits to the farm so the people eat better. It’s hugely gratifying and, frankly, our cooperatives are actually at a point now where they’re large enough and complex enough that they actually employ families. There’ll be a Bedouin family who’s good at taking care of sheep, so my feedlot will actually hire a Bedouin family to just take care of the sheep.

Warner: What are they growing in that part of Iraq?

Melton: Yeah, this has been considered the bread basket of Iraq for generations. They produce most of the wheat and barley that’s grown in Iraq right here in Ninewa Province.

So let’s look at wheat. The government has tended to provide the seed to the farmer. The farmer plants it, harvests it and then sells it back to the government of Iraq.

The government has provided kind of low-quality seeds, not enough fertilizer to really produce a high-quality crop. The government of Iraq has provided the planters, the seed drills as we call them, and they’re old and antiquated, don’t do a very good job. The seed is very poor quality. They’re not bringing in good, high-quality seed.

So it’s just been difficult to produce a good crop here. The byproduct of that is that Iraq has brought most of its wheat in, has imported it from other countries, including the United States.

Warner: And, of course, we have dryland wheat here in Colorado. I imagine that’s an expertise you’ve brought to that area, then.

Melton: It is, indeed. It is. And actually there are some colleagues there at Colorado State University who have been just wonderful in sharing some information, specifically irrigation technology that I’ve brought out here. CSU has been an enormous asset to us.

Warner: What are some of the other crops, maybe the fruits and vegetables that you are working with there?

Melton: You bet. Well, sheep, the sheep value chain, is the most profitable. Meat, wool — red meat is very expensive here. Protein is expensive. So, we-- we’re doing everything we can to increase their animal health, to feed these animals better. We’re working on nutrition. We have feed mills that have been installed. We’re trying to grow some alfalfa, get a better, higher-quality protein in these animals.

And actually, we’re very fortunate to be able to work with the United Nations. I have a nice United Nations program going here to build a wool processing center so that we can capture the value of that wool and convert it from raw wool on the farm to finished textiles.

Warner: What is the climate? You call it the bread basket, but it’s still, I imagine, hot, not necessarily conducive to growing a wide range of crops. Am I right about that?

Melton: No, you’re absolutely right. All of the wheat and barley is grown over the winter. It’s a winter wheat. The vegetables that are grown here, we grow in the spring and fall and some of it in the winter. We’re bringing high-quality greenhouses in and helping people grow their own vegetables over the winter time.

But you’re exactly right. Most of the crops are grown in the spring, winter and fall. Very difficult to grow things in the summer time here. It’s just way too hot.

Warner: You said this idea of a co-op is new for these farmers. Doesn’t that mean, in the end, what’s new for them is getting together, getting along, having a kind of democratic process when you’re discussing what to grow, where to grow it, how to grow it, what to do with this?

Melton: You’re absolutely right and, honestly, getting these people to work together cooperatively, to share their assets, to begin to trust each other, to democratically vote on things rather than having the sheik or the mayor make all of the decisions is a huge step forward.

This is a very divisive culture that I happen to work with up here — a lot of minorities, a lot of tribal issues here and getting people to work across tribal lines and across some ethnic lines has been a challenge, very, very difficult.

Warner: Are you in a pretty diverse area or is that a largely Kurdish area?

Melton: No, well, it is-- it’s very diverse. Actually, Ninewa Province has a very complex blend of ethnicities. Right here we have Turkoman, which, as the name would imply, have a Turkish ancestry.

We have the Kurds. Within the Kurds, we have three different religious groups. One is the Sunni. One is Shia and then we have a Yazidi minority, which is actually a-- some of the last remnants of the Zoroastrian religion from Persia. These people are still here.

And then we have some Christian minorities that we work with, some Assyrians. It’s just-- it’s a very complex ethnic mix.

Warner: You’re listening to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner and our guess is George Melton. He lives in Fort Collins, that is, when he’s not in Iraq working with the Foreign Agricultural Service. That’s under the USDA and he’s in northern Iraq helping folks farm there, but do it profitably and we’re talking to him as part of a series that we’re calling Iraq War Stories, Coloradans with a stake in that country talking to us about what lies ahead for Iraq.

I don’t want this interview to sound too like Father Knows Best, you know, like the U.S. comes in and says here’s what good farming looks like, because I also think this is a civilization that’s way older than our own and, in some ways, farming kind of started in this part of the world. Is there anything you have learned from the farmers there?

Melton: Ryan, these-- let me just be completely candid with you. I’d have to say no. Saddam — the previous regime kept these farmers from being able to access new technology. So you could turn the clock back on agricultural here to the 1960s and these people were not allowed to progress beyond that. They had got very little information flow, no new technology. The borders were basically sealed. The universities just didn’t have the benefit of the rest of the world’s knowledge.

So in terms of technical production, no. I wish I could say something different. I really wish I could, but this country is just-- has been kept from living up to its potential. It’s very tragic.

Warner: I bet that means that when you got there, you saw farming frozen in time. I mean, you must have seen like old tractors and tools and all of the symbols of that time warp.

Melton: Well, I have and they’re still-- some of my colleagues here have come over and they’ll say, well, you know, my goal is to bring my farmers in my particular area up to ‘50s technology. And I’d say, what century? You know? The 7th Century, the 8th Century, the 9th Century?

We have farmers here that are still raising sheep the way they did in the 7th or 8th Century. On the other side, we do have some farmers that have learned, have brought information in from Syria, from Lebanon, from other countries and they’re progressing and they progress very rapidly.

But you see everything. It just runs the gamut from the primitive to some fairly state of the art stuff.

Warner: What have been some of the biggest obstacles you’ve encountered?

Melton: Well, Ryan, I think the biggest single obstacle that I’m facing right now, it’s corruption. The local units of government have a culture of corruption, honestly. And I think most of us that work over here understand that. I think America understands that.

But it’s very difficult to benefit the people, the farmers, the small business people, without them having government officials basically confiscate the assets. That’s a huge problem.

Warner: What have they taken?

Melton: Well, I’ve been pretty good about avoiding the corruption, but they will tend to go to, you know, a farmer that’s benefited, maybe has gotten some sheep from us, and they’ll say, well, you know, three of those sheep are mine and they’ll literally take sheep. I had one mayor look me in the eye and say that unless you give me half of your entire project, when you need land, water or electricity for your co-op you won’t get it. That was difficult.

Warner: How do you respond?

Melton: Well, I thanked him for his time and moved to another community with a less-corrupt mayor and built the cooperative there, very simple. And fortunately, the military supported me in that action, as did the State Department. So we’re-- we try to hold the line on that level of corruption, as best we can.

Warner: And it just means that some communities won’t benefit, because they don’t have a leader who, I don’t know, sees the greater good of letting this thrive.

Melton: Exactly and that’s difficult. I actually had a conversation with one of the gentlemen from this community today. He approached me and said, can’t you build a cooperative here in our community. Sunini (ph) is the little community. And I explained to him, that we can’t. It’s unfortunate this his little community has to suffer because of a corrupt official, but there’s just not much we can do about it.

This is their government. This is the government of Iraq. If the people choose to place a new mayor in there, that’s their decision. We don’t interfere. It’s-- sometimes it’s difficult to sit on the sidelines. Nevertheless, that’s what we have to do.

So at the point where they decide to get rid of, maybe, a corrupt mayor, it’s their decision. And hopefully, they’ll do that.

Warner: We are doing this series in part because the end of combat operations in Iraq has been declared. Does that mean much to you on the ground there in northern Iraq?

Melton: Oh, it does. It’s huge. It’s extremely important. We are in the process of handing over all of our operations to the Iraqis and our goal is to build sustainability into all of our projects. We have brought millions and millions of dollars of projects into this country. We have here, in Ninewa over the last year.

Now the challenge is to do the organizational development, the training, bring good training in, so that what we’ve done will be sustainable after we’re gone.

Many other things affect us on a day-to-day basis. It’s very hard to get out in the country and travel now. There was a time when we could get a convoy to take us out to work with a cooperative or whomever, just any day. Now there’s so few combat troops here that we have to plan every move two weeks in advance. We’re limited on where we can go. It’s becoming difficult to move around in the country.

Warner: And is it becoming more dangerous to do so?

Melton: Certainly there’s been an uptick in violence, yes, and we’re all concerned that the drawdown in troops is-- will make it more dangerous for us. I think the verdict’s still out on that right now.

Warner: Do you wear protective gear in that 100-plus heat in the summer?

Melton: Oh, yes. You bet. We all wear our 40, 50 pounds of body armor, the Kevlar, the helmets, eye protection, cotton clothes, long-sleeve shirts. You can’t wear anything flammable in an MRAP. It’s not an easy environment to work in.

Warner: You said an MRAP?

Melton: Oh, I’m sorry. Those are the vehicles we travel in. The acronym is M-RAP. It’s Mine Resistant Anti-Ambush Vehicle. We call them MRAPs.

Warner: Why risk your life for this?

Melton: Ryan, I have to be-- I have to do something bigger than myself. I absolutely do. For decades, I worked for corporations in the United States, made money. They were good to me. It was wonderful, good for my family.

But honestly, at this stage in my life, to do something for our country, for humanity at large, to do something bigger than ourselves is a privilege. It’s a privilege.

Warner: Well, George, it’s been a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you for joining us.

Melton: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you very much, Ryan.

Warner: George Melton is a USDA agricultural advisor in the Ninewa Province of northern Iraq. He’ll be there for another year before returning to his home in Fort Collins.

Tomorrow, the view from Afghanistan. We talk to a Pueblo man, who teaches modern farming practices to men in a detention facility there.

JIM CONLEY, Agricultural Advisor, U.S. Department of Agriculture:

We’re trying to give these detainees an opportunity at a better life when they return home, hopefully so they’ll go back to making an honest living, farming probably, and do that instead of going back to the insurgency.