If anyone happened to drop by Greg Webb's farm recently, they might have been surprised to hear a Tajik folk song float over the fields or agricultural discussions take place with the aid of Russian translators.
A delegation of veterinarians, agronomists, educators and Extension professionals from Tajikistan were in the United States for three weeks to study the U.S. model for the Cooperative Extension Service. Arranged through the Columbus International Program, which is funded by the U.S. State Department's Agency for International Development, the itinerary included tours of farms in Ohio and Kentucky. Lewis County was chosen because of its hilly terrain, similar in part to mountainous Tajikistan, and the opportunity for touring smaller farming operations with strong ties to University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension.
Agriculture and natural resources Extension agent Philip Konopka made the local arrangements and acted as tour leader for the group's daylong visit to Lewis County.
"I was looking for a wide base in animal and plant diversity," Konopka said. "Lewis County is very diverse in agriculture, from dairies to beef to tobacco to vegetables to even goats. So I pulled some of the best farmers in the county that I trust and work with very well, and they were more than happy to oblige."
Central Asia's poorest country, Tajikistan is bordered by Afghanistan to the south, China to the east, Kyrgyzstan to the north and Uzbekistan to the west. Its major agricultural products are cotton and wheat, but the tour included a variety of other agricultural production systems in Ohio and Kentucky, including an alpaca farm in Ohio and a dairy operation in Lewis County.
Ahkmaljon Mirzaev works for a public organization in Tajikistan whose goal is to use agricultural counseling to enhance self-governance and economic development. He said one of the concerns in his homeland was not enough technical support or money to keep farmers going.
"Our major plan so far is basically to make a strong connection between Tajikistan and the United States. We also want to have an effective consulting program," Mirzaev said, speaking with the aid of a translator. "Right now we're in the stage of organizing consulting firms. I also am going to put to work my plan of how better to connect to local farmers in areas where they cannot be reached."
Mark Poeppelman, executive director of Columbus International Program, said the U.S. State Department promotes public diplomacy through the exchange of cultural ideas and values. In total, the agency is funding approximately 70 programs around the United States this year, primarily involving former Soviet bloc countries, but especially some of the Central Asian nations.
"The (U.S.) State Department does this for several reasons," he said. "One, they want to help democracy survive in parts of the world where it's tenuous; there's no history of a democracy there. And two, it's a part of the world that is very sensitive; it's near Afghanistan in this case. The hope is to create permanent business relationships, but also it's about cultural relationships. The official term is ‘citizen diplomacy.' You make one-on-one connections with people, you understand each other, you build friendships; it really reduces the potential of terrorism."
The Kentucky part of the tour included stops at Hord Dairy, an 80-cow Holstein dairy farm run by David and Johnny Hord, Webb's five-acre switchgrass test plot planted in conjunction with the UK College of Agriculture, Bob Craycraft's burley tobacco farm, Jeff and Keith Kamer's beef cattle operation where they use rotational grazing methods and the Joe Bentley Farm, where the visitors had dinner and toured Bentley's goat herd and facilities. They also toured Don Davis' blueberry operation in neighboring Greenup County.
Konopka said members of the delegation were interested in how much profit was derived from the crops these farmers chose to grow. At Webb's place, one of the members was interested in the fact that Webb was spending the time and money to grow switchgrass, for which there was no current market. Konopka explained that it was part of a research program to help develop a market.
"They were really interested in how we market, what our markets are like, how our operations work and just comparing them with their own," Konopka said.
According to Mirzaev, the visitors have enjoyed their stay very much.
"We're very happy as we go along learning about technologies and talking to farmers," he said. "Very important for us is the program of community connection. So we're trying to learn how you work day by day. In this brief time, we're trying to observe and learn as much about how you get your education, how do you actually make that next step to success."
"I've had a chance to talk about agriculture with them (the delegation), and it's very interesting to know how they do agriculture and we do agriculture," Konopka said. "We can be in the same industry and be completely different and a world apart, and then we'll bring it all together trying to learn from each other."
"Agriculture is the backbone of America and the backbone of the world," he continued. "Everybody has to eat, and we've got to grow it for them, so agriculture needs to be strong everywhere."