Local soil scientist headed for Afghanistan

Thursday November 22, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- After more than three decades, Drew Adam is winding down his career as a Natural Resources Conservation Service soil scientist in Brattleboro.

But he won't be spending his last year on the job in his Vernon street office. Instead, he'll be working under military guard in Afghanistan's Logar Province.

It will be Adam's second stint in that war-torn country. His first Afghanistan detail went so well that he is looking forward to returning in a few weeks in spite of the risks.

"I was amazed by how much we could get done and by how satisfying it was," Adam said.

As an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Adam, 60, has served short stints in Maine, Florida and California. When he learned of an opportunity to go to Afghanistan in 2004, he jumped at the chance -- after a few initial misgivings.

"It was one of those things where I thought, ‘This is crazy,'" Adam recalled. "The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it."

After getting through what he calls a "pretty thorough vetting process," Adam spent six months in 2005 as an agricultural adviser in Parwan Province, north of Kabul.

Now, he's looking forward to ending his career with another stint in Afghanistan. He expects to retire from the USDA when he returns home in December 2013.

Adam says he knew "the clock was ticking" for such a trip, given that the U.S. is scaling back its Afghanistan presence and will withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014.

"We may be the last group of civilians to go over there en masse," he said.

This detail will be twice as long as Adam's first in Afghanistan. And there are other differences: For instance, he underwent just two days of training before the 2005 trip compared with six weeks spent preparing this time.

Adam also believes that "in 2005, it was a safer time in Afghanistan than it is in 2012 or 2013." He has been told that mortar attacks are fairly common at the base where he'll be stationed in Logar Province, situated south of Kabul.

In 2005, "I never wore any kind of protection," Adam said. "This time around, I'll probably be required to wear a flak jacket and a helmet."

But he knows from experience that soldiers escorting civilians are sticklers for detail and for extreme caution. Missions outside the base must be planned a day or two in advance, and he'll be traveling in armored vehicles and helicopters.

"I am totally convinced that, if there's any expectation that there could be something that could go wrong on the next mission, they'll cancel it," Adam said.

Still, he acknowledges that "there's always a risk that there's something that could go wrong." The trip is worth that risk, Adam said, because of the potential benefits for a country where there is a great need for enhanced agricultural production.

"Eighty percent of the Afghan population are farmers," Adam said. "But it's a country that's been decimated by 40 years of war. There's a lot of historical knowledge that's been lost. A lot of men have been lost."

Adam expects to work mainly with his Afghan counterparts -- extension agents and agriculture directors -- on agricultural and natural-resource issues.

For instance, he notes that Logar is known for apple production, and there is a push to develop cold storage for the crop in an area where electric refrigeration is not an option.

"In Afghanistan, when you go outside the cities, there's no electricity. There's no running water," Adam said. "It's like going back in time."

Creating cold storage such as a root cellar can benefit farmers who currently are stuck with a glut of in-season crops, Adam said.

"If you can extend the life of a product for a couple of months, you're going to double the value of that product," he said.

At the same time, Adam has been advised that this trip will be all about Afghanistan's transition. So he'll also be addressing bureaucratic matters such as ways local governments can procure funding through Afghanistan's national government rather than directly from the U.S.

"This is a transition year," Adam said. "Somebody has got to help them understand the new budgeting process that is happening."

Adam will head to Afghanistan in the first week of December. He'll do so with the blessing of his wife and three grown children, whom he characterizes as concerned but understanding.

"They've all been supportive of me, which is great," Adam said. "I never would have attempted this without their consent."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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