N.C. Military Helping Farmers in Iraq
Agricultural knowledge can come in handy where it’s least expected. When Wake County Farm Bureau Member 1st Lt. John Burt joined the U.S. Army 10 years ago, he didn’t anticipate he’d be working with farmers. Now deployed to Iraq for the second time, he’s using his agronomy degree from North Carolina State University and his experience from working on his family’s farm to help Iraqi farmers rebuild and become sustainable again.
Burt is a military leader authorized to submit small businesses for a micro-grant that is sponsored by the U.S. military. The grants are small, never totaling more than $5,000, but are designed to help small businesses improve operations and in turn bring economic stability to areas of Iraq that are rebuilding.
The recipients of the micro-grants are thoroughly vetted to ensure the legitimacy and sustainability of their business ventures before being awarded the grant.
Burt and his platoon have been providing micro-grants for farmers on the outskirts of southern Baghdad who need help getting water to their crops. Burt says the existing system of pumps to bring water from the Tigress River to the farmers was in need of repair, and with a micro-grant, the company was able to provide pumps to get water from the larger canals to the smaller canals that the farmers can use for irrigation.
Additional grants have been used to get supplies to the farmers.
“We’ve been able to provide water, seed, fertilizer and pesticides,” Burt says. “The rotation before us used a grant to create a farmers’ co-op where farmers can rent tractors and equipment to work their fields.”
Not all of the micro-grants are given to farmers. Some have been used to boost other businesses like ration shops and mechanic shops. Burt’s company has been responsible for 16 grants in the past eight months.
The grants are also helping the soldiers build relationships with people in the area.
“Even during the surge, (the Iraqis) said nobody talked to them or came to see them,” Burt says. “Now they say how much they appreciate what we’re doing and how much it’s helping them. They really trust us and feel comfortable with us for their security.”
And by working closely with members of the Iraqi police, they are able to help the citizens gain trust in their new security.
“Working with the Iraqi security forces frees us up to do other things and allows the people to see them as the good guys and enforcement,” Burt says. “It helps them rebuild Iraqi relationships and get ‘wasta.’”
“Wasta” is an Arabic term for influence and credibility.
“By building up the industry here, it gets rid of the bad people that cause problems and enables the good,” Burt says. “They feel safe and they’re getting the help they need, and they won’t do anything to jeopardize those relationships.”
Burt’s platoon is currently wrapping up its grant projects in Iraq and preparing to return home in February.
…and Closer to Home
North Carolina Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company workstation specialist Ken Colvin does double duty. He is also Sgt. 1st Class Ken Colvin with the North Carolina National Guard. Colvin initially joined the U.S. Army in 1987 to become a Russian linguist, but by the early 1990s, it was clear to him that computers were his calling. When Colvin joined the National Guard in 2002, he put his professional computer skills to good use.
“I felt a real calling after Sept. 11,” Colvin says. “And I had the skills to make a difference. My dad was a WWII veteran, and he passed those values down to me. Part of it is patriotic, but part of it is feeling that somebody’s got to do it, and if I can’t count on me, who can I count on?”
When Colvin joined the National Guard he was employed at Farm Bureau working in information technology. The skills he had gained professionally transferred to his Guard job of computer support and communication security.
But the true test came in November 2008, when for the first time in his 17 years of service, he was deployed. While Colvin was deployed in Iraq from November 2008 to September 2009, he was in charge of the computer help- desk for his brigade, which included about 2,000 user accounts. Even more importantly, Colvin was responsible for communication security or making sure encrypted radio communications couldn’t be decoded by opposing forces.
Though Colvin hadn’t anticipated being deployed to Iraq after so many years of service, he is happy with the work he was able to do. His family is proud of him, too. “My daughters were shocked when they heard the news,” he says. “But I think they were proud to have their dad in Iraq.”