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Turlock native shares his knowledge of agriculture with the farmers of Wardak
In his role as an agricultural advisor with the USDA, Gary Soiseth has been traveling around teaching new farming techniques to the Afghani farmers. He’s pictured here with his Afghan translator as they prepare to head to another village. - photo by Photo Contributed
Time was, when Gary Soiseth wanted to take a look at the crops growing outside, he just strolled out his door. Now, half-way around the world in a war-torn country that same task requires an armed escort and logistical planning.
“I miss the ability to move around without armed escorts and body armor,” Soiseth said in an e-mail interview from his base in Afghanistan. “Whenever I go outside the wire here in Afghanistan, a lot of logistical planning is needed to move me from outpost to outpost or to visit a few villages.”
Soiseth may be missing the ease of travel, along with all of his friends and family, but believes the work he is doing is well worth the sacrifice.
Soiseth, a Turlock native, is serving as an agricultural advisor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Wardak Province in Afghanistan. He oversees eight different outposts in the province and assesses the agricultural situation of every village within the outposts. Working with the directors from the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (M.A.I.L.), Soiseth is helping the Afghan farming communities incorporate new practices that will help them sustain their crops and produce healthy harvests. This work can run the gamut from specialized training like pruning methods, beekeeping and pest management, to projects on a larger scale like restoring and repairing water supplies and creating international markets for Afghan goods.
“The farmers are great to work with, in that they genuinely want a helping hand, rather than just a handout,” Soiseth said. “These farmers have been growing crops for decades in a war-torn environment, so they take things like a potential drought or an insect infestation in stride. They are great people to work for.
“Overall, I have never had an occupation that has brought so much satisfaction and exhaustion so early on,” he said. “I look forward to getting up each day, working alongside American soldiers and Afghan civilians, and doing my part to help stabilize the country so that we can ultimately leave. From my vantage point, the military has embraced the necessity of a civilian effort to complement their military efforts. For example, on occasions when I am not out on patrol with my base unit, I often return to dinner conversations with them that contain enthusiastic reports of their meetings with farmers that need to meet me or of potential agricultural projects to assess. I am often introduced to the villagers as ‘an agriculture guy that is really smart and can help you with your crops’ — a humbling moniker that I hope to live up to.”
Agriculture has always been an integral part of Soiseth’s life. Born into a farming family, he grew up on the almond orchard his grandfather purchased after World War II with his GI Bill. He learned at an early age how to tend to the crops and produce a bountiful harvest. The toil of field work didn’t sour him on farming and he pursued his interest in agriculture through his academic career. A 2002 graduate of Turlock High School, he went on to earn a Bachelors of Arts in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. In 2009, he earned a Master of Public Policy degree from Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute in Washington D.C., with a concentration in water resources and agriculture policy. During the course of his studies, he’s worked with the Association of California Water Agencies, the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House and the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India. It was during his time in India — where he was focusing on agribusiness management and the Green Revolution — that Soiseth saw the vital role agricultural advisors can play in the world.
“After working on issues that involve global agricultural marketing, Indian irrigation management and international seed policies, I started to research what the United States government was doing to improve other parts of the world,” Soiseth said. “Oddly enough, the Department of Agriculture was about to drastically increase the number of agricultural advisors in Iraq and Afghanistan, which obviously peaked my interest. I had always wanted to serve my country in some capacity, whether it was through the Peace Corps, military service, etc., and a year with the USDA in Afghanistan seemed to be the best way to utilize my skill set.
“To be most effective as an agriculture advisor, it is necessary to go ‘outside the wire’ each day to conduct missions,” Soiseth said. “These missions include shuras (consultations) with village representatives and elders, discussions with local farmers on crop yields and technical improvements and project site assessments to gauge the progress of agricultural and irrigation improvements. Some last a few hours, but others have turned into overnight missions where we have posted up on the roof of an old fort.”
A sense of duty and optimism instilled in him by his family helped Soiseth cement his decision to pursue an assignment in Afghanistan.
“Without trying to invoke a cliché, I think the biggest inspiration to serve in Afghanistan has to be my family,” he said. “I have parents who have stated over and over again that I should ‘change the world, and not to let it change me.’ I just don’t think they thought these words would drive me to the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan.
“I also have a heavy weight to carry, in that I share my name with an uncle that served in the Vietnam conflict. My uncle, Gary Soiseth, was killed by a brain tumor a few months after he returned home from his tour, and the tumor was most likely linked to the use of Agent Orange during his service in the Vietnam conflict. His service has always inspired me to do something great and while I do not think my time in Afghanistan holds a candle to his time spent in Vietnam, I am trying to come close.”
Since his deployment to Afghanistan, Soiseth has been working alongside the 2nd and 3rd platoons of the 173rd Airborne.
“I am for better or for worse treated like any other soldier when I am out here,” Soiseth said. “I celebrated Christmas by taking inventory of ammunition in a mortar pit; carried ammunition (since I am not authorized to carry a weapon) to the tops of mountains to survey a valley; played touch football on the helicopter landing zone; ‘conquered’ a burned-out Soviet tank; shared a cigarette with a private as we pulled guard at 0300 on the roof of the local Afghan National Army headquarters; played back-to-back RISK games when we were snowed in; and waded through rivers on a New Year's Eve night mission into surrounding villages.
“When you live side-by-side with these guys and when you experience stressful situations together, it is hard not to become close. I think I will miss living with and working alongside these various platoons of the 173rd Airborne the most.”
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.