Milking goats, shearing sheep and slaughtering chickens.
They sound more like farm chores, but for members of the Oklahoma National Guard’s Agricultural Development Team, these were just some of the tasks they had to learn before their deployment to Afghanistan.
The guardsmen became students once again as they participated in a 15-day training program at the Permaculture Institute in New Mexico to help them prepare for the conditions and culture they’ll face when they ship out in the fall.
“That’s what they’re going into,” said Scott Pittman, co-founder of the Permaculture Institute and leader of the Guard’s training. “They’re going into a culture that pretty much uses a lot of the techniques that we use.”
Those techniques include low-tech and natural solutions to the issues of the region, which has a similar climate to northern New Mexico. Learning how to sustain crops and farming settlements without fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides was particularly important to the Guard, who’ll be working closely with Afghani farmers. Most of these farmers couldn’t afford biocides or fertilizers even if they wanted them, Pittman said.
Pittman’s wife, Arina, also a teacher at the institute, said permaculture is a system of knowledge, so it’s more than just farming techniques. An educator on the subject since 1985, Scott Pittman describes permaculture as a system for designing sustainable human settlement.
“Permaculture covers all of human endeavors. “¦ We try and use primarily those systems that we find in nature to help us solve problems we find in our own environment,” he said.
These endeavors include not only gardening and agriculture, but also building homes, ponds, dams and roads. It also covers economics, social structures and legal systems. Essentially, permaculture creates sustainable options for all of the elements necessary for a stable infrastructure, the very thing American troops will try to help Afghanis create and maintain.
As for the troops themselves ” they got a crash course in all of this.
For the first five days, they listened to lectures on the basic tenets and ethics of permaculture. And in the following 10 days, they put all their newfound knowledge into practice.
These soldiers prepared for a different kind of battle ” one against the challenging climate of the desert nation. Among the things critical to their mission were water-harvesting techniques and knowing how to collect water in arid regions for use in agriculture.
But it wasn’t just the land troops had to learn. It was an entire culture, and that included getting up close and personal with some farm animals and chores.
The guardsmen joined teenage students at Camino de Paz, a Montessori school and farm, just outside of Espanola, N.M., for some hands-on training. They learned how to tend and milk goats, make cheese, slaughter and prepare chickens and more.
Next up, the men and women of the Guard spent a day on a farm with all horse-drawn equipment. Troops learned how to drive a team of horses and plow, just the way it will be done in Afghanistan.
Although it wasn’t boot camp, the training was intensive, with soldiers putting in 12- to 14-hour days.
“We had a pretty long and packed curriculum,” Pittman said.
Pittman has done design work on everything from ashrams in Thailand to ranches in Mexico, making his expertise in the field unparalleled.
And it’s not just the military interested in permaculture training, he said. Pittman has taught more than 250,000 pupils around the world, including in the former Soviet Union, across Latin America and throughout Southeast Asia.
“There’s a lot of people looking for how to continue doing what they’re doing without impacting the planet so much and without impacting their wallets so much,” he said. “We’re finding more and more people turning to permaculture.”
Ultimately, for the soldiers heading to Afghanistan, it’s about learning the ways of a culture and lifestyle they’ve never experienced before. As such, the success of their training can’t be measured until they’re faced with those situations, Arina Pittman said.
“Permaculture helps the soldiers get in the same mind-set at the people they’re helping,” she said. “Nicole Hill
photo National Guard members at Gemini Farm in Las Trampas, N.M., learn to use draft horses to till land.