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REBUILDING A COUNTRY

Turlock farmer helps peers maximize profits in Afghanistan; returns to harvest almond crops

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REBUILDING A COUNTRY

Gary Soiseth worked with farmers in the Arghandab District of Afghanistan, teaching them that split pomegranates can be sold to juicing factories instead of just used for animal feed.

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POSTED August 30, 2013 10:28 p.m.

Gary Soiseth, owner of Turlock’s Soiseth Farms, is one of the hundreds of almond farmers across the county who are in the full swing of harvest season.

He’s helping rake, shake and move the tons of almonds his family has just spent years producing. 

Upon first glance, Soiseth is the quintessential Turlock almond farmer.   He’s soft spoken, smart and knows his way around almonds. But Soiseth also knows a thing or two about farming almonds in a place 7,000 miles away from Turlock. A place where soldiers outnumber farmers, tanks outnumber tractors and farming is a much riskier business.

That place is rural Afghanistan.

Up until a week ago, Soiseth spent the last four years of his life working as an agricultural expert in  Afghanistan’s Wardak province. As a representative for both the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States military, Soiseth’s main objective was to build and promote a quality agricultural economy in the area.

“One part of my work there was getting to work with the farmers directly,” said Soiseth. “I was actually training with them one on one, looking at thinning issues, pruning issues, irrigation, pest management issues and saying ‘this is what you can do and this how you can put crops on cycles.’”

One of the major projects that Soiseth was working on was promoting export of the country’s crops outside local regions and into more major markets.

 In 2011, Soiseth’s team was looking at a way to create a market for the country’s pomegranate crops. His work was centered around subsidizing pilot shipments of pomegranates from the remote area of Kandahar, where Soiseth was located, to a juice a facility in the country’s capital city, Kabul.

According to Soiseth, in the first year after the crop shipments were subsidized, 450 metric tons were sent to the juice facility in the capital city. 

The following year, the amount of shipment soared to 2,500 metric tons, this time without government aid or subsidy.

“By arranging the connections between the growers, traders, transporters, and juice facility owners, my team of Americans and Afghans demonstrated that this new market opportunity was viable and could increase the profit margin of pomegranate farmers,” said Soiseth.

Unfortunately, the victory was short lived. At the end of 2012, a suicide bomber attacked the facility in Kabul, destroying the factory and taking three lives.

Despite the hardships, Soiseth said that being in Afghanistan taught him how resilient the human spirit truly can be, and how he hopes to apply that to his farm here.

“These guys have a very short life expectancy and they take every day and don’t take it for granted,” said Soiseth. “Unlike us, they can’t just take out their orchards and start fresh like we can, so they work with what they have and it’s pretty amazing.” 

Soiseth flew back into the States earlier this week, and along with shaking off jet lag, he jumped right back into shaking almonds. He’s expecting his farm, along with other area almond farms, to have a good production year.

“Things are looking great,” said Soiseth. “Even the older generation crops are producing at maximum capacity, so it’s looking like a good year.”

As far as returning to Afghanistan, Soiseth stated as much as he cherished his experience, he doesn’t have plans on heading back any time soon.

He said he is looking forward to being back in Turlock with his family and spending his time as a third-generation Turlock farmer.

 

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