Virginia grower to help farmers in Afghanistan

Lt. Colonel Henry Goodrich is a military man, proudly serving in the Army National Guard for more than 24 years.

Henry Goodrich is also a farmer. He operates Ben Gar Farms, a 500 acre family farm that has been in his family for well over a hundred years.

Growing grain crops and peanuts in southeastern Virginia is challenging. Farming by himself since the early 1990s has been even more challenging. Leaving it for two years is off the chart, but that’s what he will be doing when he goes on active duty to be a part of an Army-sponsored agricultural mission to Afghanistan.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to know whether I’m a farmer first and a soldier second or vice-versa,” he says.

This spring he will go on active military duty and leave with a Kentucky National Guard unit to spend about a year being both soldier and farmer.

“We will be working with local farmers, business leaders and the Afghan equivalent of our Cooperative Extension Service to help them farm and to help them rebuild their agricultural economy. It will likely be hard for me to remember we are there to help them farm, not to farm for them,” he says. I am used to doing everything my self.”

In the Afghan provinces in which his team will work there may be a few small tractors. If there are any, few Afghans will know how to operate them, and if they do, there isn’t much fuel to run them. Virtually all the work is done by hand labor, and it will be difficult to incorporate the modern technology he uses with the farming systems used in Afghanistan.

The Kentucky Guard Unit will have almost instant access to University of Kentucky researchers and Extension specialists. Prior to leaving for Afghanistan, the Guard team got some valuable training from the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky.

“They not only taught us what they know about such diverse topics as bee keeping to grape production, but they applied it to Afghanistan. These folks took time away from their every day jobs to research our needs and give us a lot of good information on things that have never been a consideration in my farming operation,” Goodrich notes.

Prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s, and subsequent internal and external wars since that time, the country was the leading agricultural producer in their region of the world. Agriculture remains the country’s leading industry.

“Helping them rebuild and in some cases build their agricultural economy is something that will stay with them long after U.S. and NATO soldiers are gone. The Army is too often associated with tearing things down, and I am proud to be a part of this team that has the opportunity to build something that will last and that will help the Afghan people regain their place in the World,” Goodrich says.

He points out their work won’t just be on the farm. They may be assigned to help build roads or power generation plants. Marketing is basically non-existent in Afghanistan, so roads, livestock holding facilities and grain storage are all vital. “They lose a lot of their crop because of a lack of means of storing or transporting it,” he notes.

The goal is to rejuvenate the agricultural industry, including the infrastructure — down to the farmer level. Making a difference has been a part of Goodrich’s life as a farmer. He is a past president of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association and has been active in the Virginia Grain Growers Association since it’s inception.

His military training is in engineering and his whole professional life has been farming. “Together this is the perfect mission for me, and I look forward to playing a small role in helping build something lasting in Afghanistan,” he says.

“The largest acreage crop with which he will work is wheat. They also grow a lot of fruit and vegetable crops — more than I thought prior to our background training. Their agricultural industry is really diverse,” he adds.

The Afghanistan mission isn’t Goodrich’s introduction to foreign military-farming operations. He was set to go on a similar mission to Iraq back in 2008. Though disappointed that mission fell through, he says it has given him more time to make necessary arrangements for his farm and his family.

By far the hardest part of his Afghanistan mission is leaving his wife Vicky and their two sons, 13 year old Benji and 10 year old Zach. Making sure their needs are met, from getting sons to sports and social events to financial planning has taken the full allotment of their time getting ready for his departure.

For example, they bought 13 year old Benji a laptop computer for Christmas, so he could communicate on a regular basis with his dad. While they can go a few miles to Wakefield and get good satellite reception, they can’t get it on their farm. Or, some programs that work with cable and land lines simply don’t work with satellite connections.

Though he should have good Internet access from the base from which he will be working in Afghanistan, the time differential and technical limitations will make communicating with home just a little more challenging.

Vicky Goodrich, who has been married to LTC Goodrich for much of his 24 year military career, says the Afghanistan assignment is a positive one. “It is a challenge, but we knew Henry would be deployed somewhere at some point in his military career. I would much rather him be somewhere doing something he enjoys and is, hopefully, less risky than some other assignments that could have been given to him,” she says.

Included in the challenge of being gone for a year or more is watching someone else farm the land he grew up on and land he has farmed most of his life. “I leased my farm for two years to one of my neighbors. They are great farmers, and I have no doubts they will take care of the land, but it was still a little strange to watch them plant a cover crop on my land this fall and not be involved in it, he notes.

Goodrich says taking two cropping years off is the only way he could do it. He notes he will be leaving during spring planting season in 2010 and will likely return after the 2011 crop is planted.

“I had some grain contracted for delivery in 2010 and fortunately the prices I booked are higher than current market prices, so that should work out fine. My neighbor who will be working the farm will have to fill those contracts. He may use some of my equipment, if he gets in a bind. I think the business end of it will work out,” he concludes

Every Guard member who is self-employed is required to have a business plan in case they are called to active duty. “I pulled one together quickly when I was supposed to go to Iraq with the Virginia National Guard. For the Afghanistan mission, I have had more time and have been able to modify and expand the original plan from 2008,” he says.

The official title of the group is Agribusiness Development Team. The team is made up of three elements. The first element is headquarters, including commander, medics and logistics. The second element is a 30-member security force and the third element is the 14 member Agricultural Team.

Unique to this mission is the lack of strict adherence to rank among the agricultural team. Included in the Agricultural Team will be five lieutenant colonels. Among them will be two true famers — Goodrich and a cattle-tobacco farmer from Kentucky. The team will also have a marketing expert, an Extension agent and a veterinarian.

“We will pull our talent together and hopefully make an impact,” Goodrich concludes.

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