COLLEGE STATION – At a time when most young adults are thinking of far less serious stuff, two Texas A&M University graduates spent six months in Iraq helping that country build a better future.
Jonathon Glueck, 22, and Blaze Currie, 23, recently returned from Iraq where they led an effort to a develop several youth agriculture clubs patterned after American 4-H clubs.
The pair went as part of Team Borlaug, a group of Texas A&M System faculty and staff working with the U.S. military, provincial reconstruction teams and local sheiks to assist with agriculture and agribusiness development.
Team Borlaug is part of the Task Force to Improve Business and Stability Operations-Iraq, sponsored by the Department of Defense Business Transformation Agency through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We chose Blaze and Jonathon because they were both accomplished student leaders at the university and because of their previous experiences with 4-H and FFA,” said John Riggs, program coordinator at the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture. “They are also good with technology, and we knew the team would benefit from that too.”
The institute placed them with the Central Team component of Team Borlaug, which focuses its efforts on Iraq’s central provinces. To involve and engage Iraqi youth in that area, Currie and Glueck traveled with a military escort into many rural communities, working with farmers and local leaders to establish youth agriculture clubs.
“More than half of the population of Iraq is under 18 years old,” said Glueck, who graduated from Texas A&M last year with a double major in agricultural leadership and development, and agricultural economics. “And more than half of Iraq’s entire workforce is involved in some sort of agriculture or agribusiness. Young people in rural sectors are a major source of labor.”
Team Borlaug recognized that youth programs focusing on leadership, entrepreneurship and self-development would provide long-term hope for Iraq, said Riggs.
“Apart from a few extension programs and agricultural vocational schools, youth in Iraq rely almost solely on their parents for agriculture-related education,” he said. “And young Iraqis lack an understanding of future professions and opportunities in agriculture.”
Riggs said Team Borlaug, named after the institute and Dr. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner regarded as the “father of the Green Revolution,” determined sharing expertise and technical assistance through a program with elements of both 4-H and FFA would help Iraq develop its agriculture and build its future.
“The young people involved in agriculture and agribusiness in Iraq could join the clubs and learn about how to improve their country through a broader knowledge of agriculture, a better understanding of entrepreneurship and learning how technology can be used to bring a positive change,” he said.
“A lot of the work we did was in the Sunni death triangle,” said Currie, who graduated from Texas A&M last May with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural leadership and development. “We visited several rural farms, working with the farmers and local sheiks to get their approval and support for starting these clubs.”
The pair encountered some initial suspicion and skepticism, but eventually were accepted and allowed to develop local clubs and programs.
“The 4-H model worked really well within the Iraqi tribal system,” said Glueck, who was a member of Texas 4-H for 11 years while growing up in the small town of Canyon. “It’s a well-structured program and there’s a lot of interaction and mutual learning between adults and young people.”
4-H materials were translated into Arabic, and the pair worked with the military, Iraqi non-governmental groups and local sheiks to facilitate community participation and deliver the information.
During their six months in Iraq, Currie and Glueck developed seven clubs serving more than 350 Iraqi youth ranging in age from 7-18 years old.
“Our first club project was a poultry project,” said Glueck. “Poultry is everywhere in Iraq, and a poultry project is a quick and simple project to implement. We set up a kind of entrepreneurial situation where we showed young people how they could hatch and grow chicks, then market and sell their product.”
Along with modern agricultural techniques, the club projects incorporated some essential business skills such as record keeping and marketing.
The pair also taught young Iraqis how to take soil samples from farmland for analysis by scientists associated with the project, as well as how to use other modern agricultural methods and technology.
Though Currie and Glueck have returned to the U.S., the clubs they began are “still going strong,” according to Riggs. “We also currently have Team Borlaug youth development experts working in the northern and western provinces of Iraq and have the North Babil 4-H horticulture program in place,” he said.
Additionally, agriculture provincial reconstruction team members in Iraq are employing the 4-H model and there are opportunities for other state or federal agriculture programs or agencies to develop curriculum and provide educational support if they wish, Riggs said.
“Blaze and I still keep in touch with the club leaders and others involved in the effort by e-mail,” Glueck said. “And we keep in touch with the Team Borlaug members in the western and northern parts of Iraq to make sure they continue to promote and expand youth development there.”
“Young people are a very important part of Iraqi society,” Currie said. “They are the ones who will shape that country’s future, and we’re glad we were given the opportunity to help make a difference there.”
The pair expressed gratitude to Texas A&M, the Borlaug Institute, the Department of Defense and the USDA for supporting their youth development efforts in Iraq.
“We feel that by bringing this program to Iraq we’re helping empower the Iraqis to build a better future for themselves,” Glueck said.