FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq, March 3, 2008 – Sixteen prominent landowners gathered with members of the Baghdad-7 embedded provincial reconstruction team at Patrol Base Whitehouse in Sayifiyah on Feb. 28 for a farmers union meeting.

As security returns to the region, coalition forces are focusing on restoring the agriculturally based economy in Sayifiyah. Efforts include reviving the poultry and beekeeping industries, increasing productivity of vegetable farms and creating new industries, such as fish farming and chicken processing plants.

All of these efforts were discussed at the meeting, the farmers union’s third gathering.

“We’re here to restore the area to the farming community it once was,” said Mike Stevens, from Alexandria, Minn., embedded PRT agricultural advisor.

Enough seeds for 350 farmers were distributed to eight of the landowners whose primary business is vegetable farming. Tomato, cucumber, green pepper and eggplant seeds imported from Turkey and Spain will be given to the numerous farmers who work the fields, Stevens said.

He called it a self-starting, self-sustainable package that will help farmers gain bigger returns on their produce, since the PRT absorbs the initial cost of jumpstarting production.

Stevens said future investments will target the top five areas of need in the region: vegetables, poultry, irrigation, veterinarian services, and herds of cattle and sheep.

A key point underlying the initiatives is increased profits for farmers. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Stevens said, farmers received supplies from the government to run their farms. In return, they owed the government up to 50 percent of their crops. Now, under a democratic system of government, farmers will have the power to keep all their produce and set their own prices and areas of market. This eventually will strengthen the economy by allowing farmers to bring in more money, PRT officials said.

Stevens said he hopes to build a strong union, so farmers can pool profits to buy goods and services such as more seeds, animals and machinery.

Toward this end, part of the meeting focused on teaching the landowners democratic and capitalistic concepts. They also were encouraged to discuss their own issues to help work out solutions among themselves and the PRT. Some issues raised were repairing and procuring more tractors and distributing pesticides to kill insects that damage citrus trees.

Stevens reiterated the need for the farmers to work together and take advantage of the zero start-up cost being offered by coalition programs to increase their collective profits.

Signs of progress already are materializing. Fadil Fawaz Hamed and other landowners have begun work to strengthen productivity. Hamed has 124 farmers working his vegetable farms.

“It is about strength in numbers,” Stevens said. Working as a group, the farmers can reduce the cost burden of fixing problems and collectively enjoy the benefits of solutions. In the meantime, the group is focused on existing structures and restoring them to their pre-war production levels before leaning into new ventures.

“We’re off to a good start,” Stevens said. “We can’t provide everything, but if people can work together, we can promise to work hard to help them achieve their goals.”

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