Afghanistan

Afghan farmers press U.S. farm chief for help

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* Farmers say they need more donor funds

* U.S. looks at credit options for farmers

* U.S. promises additional $20 million in funds (Adds announcement of funds, more advisers)

By Sue Pleming

KABUL, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Interrupted by the occasional whirring of military helicopters overhead, the U.S. agriculture chief sipped pomegranate juice with Afghan farmers, who told him not enough international aid was getting through.

Wrapping up a three-day visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday, Tom Vilsack met the farmers -- representing pomegranate and apple growers -- at an fruit juice export plant in Kabul, part funded by the United States which has made agriculture the biggest non-security priority in the country.

Seated outside, the farmers complained of lack of credit facilities -- something Vilsack is looking into -- and problems in the entire farming chain, from acquiring seeds to a lack of refrigeration and getting goods to market during a war.

"We hear of pledges of funding but we have not seen anything yet," said Haji Ghulam Dastageen, an apple and apricot farmer from Paktia province. "We are looking forward to getting assistance from the international community and from the (agriculture) ministry," he added via a a translator.

Vilsack, who pointed to the U.S.-funded juice factory behind him as proof of U.S. commitment, later announced an additional $20 million in aid to help improve Afghanistan's agriculture ministry deliver services to farmers.

"After decades of conflict, Afghanistan lacks many of the personnel and knowledge resources needed to deliver much-needed services to its people, more than 80 percent of whom rely on agriculture for wages and sustenance," he said at a news conference announcing the funds.

Last year, the United States spent about $300 million on agriculture projects in Afghanistan and projected spending this year is more than $400 million. Vilsack also promised to send more U.S. agricultural advisors.

The hope is that funds spent bolstering Afghanistan's agriculture ministry will improve delivery of services to the country's farmers and thus boost confidence in central government and draw support away from the Taliban.

FARMER-TO-FARMER

A farm owner himself, Vilsack peppered the Afghan farmers with questions from how they got their water to what they needed in terms of credit facilities and packaging to protect goods currently bruised en route to market.

The United States and other allies are looking at a range of credit options for farmers in the hope they can wean many from growing opium poppy, which fuels the Taliban insurgency.

The goal is to provide up-front funds for wheat but also higher-value products such as table grapes, nuts and apples in the hope they will get better returns than opium. Afghanistan produces nearly all of the world's opium, used to make heroin.

"We are looking forward to receiving loans ... we also want low interest," said Haji Yaseen, another apple grower from Paktia province.

"Farmers everywhere want that," laughed Vilsack, a former governor from the U.S. farming state of Iowa.

The Obama administration has promised to present a list of credit options to the Afghan agriculture ministry by March. The plan is to offer credit facilities like those given to farmers in the United States, who get low-interest loans.

"How do you pay for your imports? Would you use a banking system?," Vilsack asked the farmers, who all nodded.

When U.S. President Barack Obama announced his new strategy to send in 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, he also promised a civilian "surge," including additional agricultural advisors to overhaul an industry devastated by decades of war.

"President Obama ... understands that the future of your country is on this table," said Vilsack, pointing to a table laden with nuts, apples and pomegranates, many of which he sampled.

"I look forward to going back to Washington with your messages and to give as much help as we possibly can," Vilsack told the farmers. "I can assure you that I'm going to be a consumer of pomegranates from now on." (Editing by Peter Graff and Sanjeev Miglani)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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