Morris to spend year in Afghanistan training local growers

For the next year, Bob Morris, who writes a weekly gardening column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, will be calling Afghanistan home.

Morris is spending the next year in Mazari Sharif in the Balkh Province of Afghanistan. It is in the northern part of the country, not too far from the Uzbekistan border.

“It’s a very primitive area, one of the most primitive areas on Earth for agriculture,” he said.

Morris is in Afghanistan as part of a $14 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for University of California, Davis to lead a consortium of universities that will help the nation strengthen its agriculture extension system and stabilize its agriculture-based economy. Also participating are Purdue and Washington State universities.

Among his duties will be helping establish an extension service.

“I’m training people to be me,” he said.

In addition to helping boost agricultural production both in quantity and quality, Morris said he plans to help the local growers find better avenues of distribution to consumers as well as chefs.

“Thirty years of conflict have left Afghanistan’s agriculture far behind much of the world and with little capacity to improve it,” said Jim Hill, a cooperative extension plant scientist and associate dean of international programs in the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

According to UC Davis, agriculture employs more than 80 percent of the country’s labor force and generates more than 40 percent of its economic output.

The grant will fund the project for three years. Morris said he plans to hire three Afghan nationals to help him work on the project. He also will be working with agriculture advisers to the troops, who are military members with farm backgrounds in noncombat positions.

Although he has the opportunity to apply for the second and third years of the program, Morris said he doesn’t know if he will.

Morris has never been to Afghanistan before, but this is not his first visit to the area. He has been there seven other times, primarily in Tajikistan.

He said he is familiar with the language, comparing the distinction between dialects of the region to English, which is slightly different in the United States, Great Britain and Australia.

He said practically everything that grows well in Las Vegas also will grow in Afghanistan. And there’s a reason for that: The two areas are at the same latitude and a similar elevation.

He is especially excited to learn more about some of the varieties of fruit and vegetables grown in the area, which is the birthplace of garlic, apricots and peaches.

“It’s a wonderful place horticulturally,” he said .

He also plans to grow pomegranates, apples, pears, dates, figs, asparagus and grapes/raisins.

He hopes to offer periodic updates on his work on his blog, Xtremehorticulture of the Desert, and post videos on UC Davis’ e-Afghan website, afghanag.ucdavis.edu.

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