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Afghan orchard owner Mohammad Younus (left), now deceased, talks with Roots of Peace Extension team leader Pohanyar Pir Mohammad. Grape cartons were used for a pilot shipment of apples to India because of a lack of apple boxes.

Afghan orchard owner Mohammad Younus (left), now deceased, talks with Roots of Peace Extension team leader Pohanyar Pir Mohammad. Grape cartons were used for a pilot shipment of apples to India because of a lack of apple boxes.

by Chelan David

The year was 2002. The setting: the province of Kabul in war-stricken Afghanistan. Gary Kuhn was starting his first day of work in the rugged ­area best known to many for harboring the world’s most famous terrorist.

As executive director for Roots of Peace, a humanitarian organization dedicated to eradicating landmines worldwide and restoring the land through ­sustainable agricultural use, his charge was no simple one. 

Afghanistan had no real government; local commanders controlled different areas. Crossing into new areas meant checkpoints and requests for bribes. Everyone, it seemed, had guns. Amputees abounded. And so did wounded crops. Orchards and vineyards were desperately clinging to life—limbs ravaged by people chopping off branches for firewood.  

In this environment, there was no such thing as a simple undertaking. "The biggest challenge was reorienting your mind to a place where you assumed that nothing was available and basic activities would take ten times longer than normal," Kuhn recalled. "If you needed metal stakes, you would have to import them or put up with poplar branches."

The first piece of business for Kuhn and his team was to rescue trees and vines that had survived. Some trees, like citrus, did not fare well, and entire production regions were lost. Other perennial crops fared better, including ­apricots, cherries, walnuts, pistachios, and grapes. 

Landmines

As Kuhn set about cleaning up the salvageable trees and vines, he made a grim discovery: the irrigation canal system was pretty much destroyed. "As you might figure, trenches make good fighting positions, so they were mined to deny opposing forces use of the trenches," he explained.

Roots of Peace funded a number of mine clearance projects in irrigation canals. After the irrigation canals had been cleared, the United Nations established work programs to have Afghans dig out and repair the canals. 

Next, Roots of Peace set out to train the sons of former farmers, as many Afghan men had been killed during the past decades of conflict. While familiar with the basics of agriculture, these apprentices were far from proficient. In fact, their yields, said Kuhn, were "pretty abysmal."

Part of the problem was a fundamental lack of knowledge. For instance, almond farmers in Ghorband, located approximately two hours north of Kabul, would kill bees they encountered because they thought they were sucking energy away from the trees. Under the tutelage of Roots of Peace ag specialists, yields soared. "By reintroducing the concept of bees during the flowering period, we bumped that year’s crop by 70 percent," Kuhn said.

Regardless of crop type, an emphasis was placed on the basic elements necessary to ensure optimal production. For most trees, it was pollination, irrigation, pruning, fertilizing, and harvesting. In nearly every case, yields would double within two years.

Cleared of landmines, and cultivated properly, orchards and vineyards thrive in Afghanistan. In fact, the country serves as the origin of numerous crops. "The Thompson Seedless grape originated in Kandahar," Kuhn said. "Many walnuts, pistachios, and almonds trace their lineage back through Afghanistan. The pomegranate variety Wonderful also came from Kandahar."

The combination of ideal climate and terrain make Afghanistan a fertile ground for fruit trees. Its climate is similar to the western United States. The area just north of Kabul, called the Shamali Plain, is comparable to the Central Valley of California. The Shamali has high, snow-capped mountains that provide ample water through August. Further north are high mountain valleys perfect for apple and cherry production.

High elevations

Kabul is 6,000 feet above sea level, and production areas nearby range from 5,000 feet above sea level to 9,000 feet. "Due to the huge elevation changes, you get nice rolling harvests starting in the lower areas and moving up into the higher elevations. This area is the center of the universe for many perennial crops. There are something like 60 different varieties of grapes, 30 of pomegranates, and 20 of walnuts," Kuhn said.

The water supply, which comes from snow-fed rivers, is usually strong except in years of excessive drought. The last drought ended in 2004, and in Kandahar, the drought lingers on even now. Crops that require water year round do not fare well in the region, as rivers dwindle late in the ­season.

Planting, cultivating, and harvesting techniques differ significantly in Afghanistan as compared to the United States. Almost nothing is mechanized. Farm sizes are small, typically one to two acres. There is no grasp of the productive life of a tree. If the tree has green leaves and produces some fruit, Afghan farmers are happy. 

Roots of Peace Extension team leader Pohanyar Pir Mohammad (foreground) explains how to prune and train an apricot tree in an orchard at Qalatak in Laghman Province in northeastern Afghanistan. With help from Roots of Peace, growers have been able to double their yields.

Fruit is not thinned. "Why throw away fruit? Hard argument to win," Kuhn said about the local mentality. "Trees are grown to large size with ­little consideration for harvesting."

Then there is the life expectancy factor: farmers hope that they will still be alive when it’s time to start harvesting from their trees. "The time horizon here is different. Long term is less than eight months," Kuhn said. "Walnuts are a hard sell as an Afghan saying is ‘The walnut tree will produce crops when I am dead.’"

Despite different methods and mentalities, Afghan farmers are eager pupils. "They work very, very hard and are eager to learn so that they can literally feed their families," Kuhn said.

Since the Roots of Peace program was established, 1.7 million fruit trees have been planted, including apricots, cherries, oranges, and pomegranates. In addition, grape trellises have been installed in more than 1,500 vineyards. The trees and vines are sourced from California, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Italy, and France.

In order to fulfill its mission of clearing landmines and rehabilitating land, Roots of Peace receives funding from private citizens, the U.S Agency for International Development, the Asian Development Bank, and the European Community. More than 250 employees work on the project.  

Chelan David is a freelance writer based in Seattle. His work has appeared in such publications as The Seattle Times, San Antonio Express-News, Wine Enthusiast, and Writer’s Digest.