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Army Reservists add agriculture to their international relations toolbox

Sele: Agriculture and security intertwined. Reservists learning general agriculture principles in four-day training at University of Arkansas.

U.S. Army Reservists getting a four-day crash course in agriculture in mid-June are expanding an international relations toolbox that already includes foreign languages and cultures, disaster relief and geographic information systems.

Their commander, Col. Richard Sele, and Dustan Clark, Extension veterinarian and associate director of the Center of Excellence for Poultry Science, spoke about the mission and purpose of the training. The training session was coordinated by Clark and Tom Troxel, associate head-animal science for the Division of Agriculture.

Security and agriculture are intertwined, Sele said, citing an example from Iraq. Because the Iraqi government wasn’t able to spray for insects over several consecutive years, the “date crop in Diyala province was at risk of getting totally destroyed.

“That became a security issue for us, because at the time, we had 3,000 or 4,000 farmers who were for the most part pro-Iraqi government, pro-coalition forces. But if the government didn't step up and do the pesticide spraying like they were planning to, then you would have 3,000 or 4,000 farmers deciding maybe the insurgency is a better way to go.”

Forty-one members of the Army Reserves’ 431st Civil Affairs Battalion out of North Little Rock are taking the training that runs through June 14. The reservists have both urban and rural backgrounds and come from Arkansas, California, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

The week’s training includes livestock, beekeeping, fruit and vegetable production as well as classes on soil, irrigation and conservation. There is also a section on how to organize growers into cooperatives.

“I told the soldiers I'm not trying to make subject matter experts out of them,” Sele said. “They're under no illusion that when they get done with this three- or four-day training that they're going to come back to North Little Rock and know everything there is to know about agriculture. But what they are going to bring back is general principles of agriculture that are applicable anywhere in the world.”

There’s another take-away from the training: “They've also developed a network of contacts here at the university, so if they find themselves in Afghanistan or if they find themselves in one of the Central Asian countries a couple of years from now working a disaster relief situation that's related to agriculture, if they can't answer the question there, they'll have some contacts back here at the university that they can reach back to.”

Clark said the soldiers “have been good students. They’re asking good questions. They’ve told me that so far, they’ve enjoyed the training and found it very informative.”

This will mark the third time University of Arkansas personnel have conducted training for the military.

In 2009, a team from the Arkansas National Guard’s 188th Fighter Wing from Little Rock Air Force Base spent a week training with University of Arkansas personnel. A year later, a team of Army and Air National Guard members worked with division personnel in their training as Agribusiness Development Team II.

Unlike the earlier National Guard teams, these soldiers may not be deployed together.

“We’re hoping to give them the information they can use anywhere they go,” Clark said.

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