MANHATTAN, Kan. -- It's not unusual to see military men and women taking classes on the Kansas State University campus given its proximity to Fort Riley, but this time they came en masse.

A team of Kansas National Guard soldiers spent a week in Manhattan March 2-6, learning about various aspects of agriculture before they head to Afghanistan's Laghman Province this spring as part of a three-year effort.

That effort, said Craig Beardsley, will be to assess agriculture in Afghanistan -- to determine the country's food production strengths and challenges and to lay the groundwork for helping it improve its agricultural industry.

Beardsley, who is the program administrator of the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center at K-State, worked with Ralph Richardson, dean of K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine, and Fred Cholick, dean of the College of Agriculture to build a curriculum for the training.

"Faculty from four colleges at K-State - the College of Agriculture, Veterinary Medicine, Arts and Sciences, and Engineering - came together to work with us on this comprehensive curriculum," said Beardsley, who himself retired from the National Guard in 2005 after 35 years of service. "They really stepped up to work with this Guard group. This is in addition to their already busy teaching and research schedules."

"This was a great opportunity for us to partner with the Kansas National Guard," said Cholick, who is also director of K-State Research and Extension. "This training program is an excellent example of K-State fulfilling the land grant mission. It's such an important effort that they (National Guard) are taking on, and we are happy to be part of the effort as they work with the citizens and government in Afghanistan to bolster their agricultural industry."

The Kansas National Guard group, more formally called the Agribusiness Development Team, is composed of 64 soldiers and airmen -- some of whom will work on the agriculture assessments and assistance and some of whom will act as support and security for the group, Beardsley said. The team is led by Col. Eric Peck, of Manhattan.

At K-State, the team heard presentations on topics as wide ranging as is agriculture itself -- from irrigation to food safety to soil composition to small grain production and harvest and post-harvest handling of crops. Livestock production, pest management, vegetable and fruit production were also part of the training.

Beardsley said that a few other states have sent similar teams to other parts of Afghanistan, coordinated by the National Guard Bureau, which is part of the Department of Defense.

"But this, I believe, is the first state National Guard that has made a three-year commitment," he said, adding that when this team returns next year, another one will go in its place. The process repeats in the third year.

"The citizens of Afghanistan are used to the military providing security. The ADT is going to -provide assistance," Beardsley said. "They're going to have to convince people that they're there to work with them, not tell them what to do."

To that end, the team will meet with agricultural producers and others in the agriculture industry to learn their specific challenges and insights.

K-State will provide ongoing support once the team is in Afghanistan, Beardsley said. The NABC will serve as a conduit to capture questions that arise from the team and to find answers to those questions and relay them back. Video conferences are also planned between team members and K-State faculty.

"All the while," Beardsley said, "those questions, answers and feedback will help us fine tune the process, which will benefit the training of the second and third teams that follow this first one."

SOURCE: K-State.