DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
The Quincy Herald-Whig via Associated Press
PLEASANT HILL, Ill. (AP) -- The news from Iraq hits home for Eric Dolbeare.
He's been to some of the places, or at least recognizes the locations, and knows some of the people.
"A friend sent an e-mail, a quote from a person from Fallujah commenting about troop withdrawal," Dolbeare said. "I knew that man. I'd been to his place and had supper. It's interesting when you see that."
The Pleasant Hill farmer spent 18 months in Iraq with a provincial reconstruction team, a joint effort of the U.S. State Department and the military, and it was an experience that has had a lasting impact on both Dolbeare and the Iraqis.
As the team's only agriculture adviser, Dolbeare worked to help farmers improve infrastructure and adopt modern agriculture practices in the Fertile Crescent, the flat and fertile area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
"It was using my farming experience and formal education in agriculture to try to help pass on some information I thought the Iraqis could really benefit from," Dolbeare said.
Exposed to danger anytime "outside the wire" of the team compound, Dolbeare saw convoy vehicles and fellow team members hit by enemy fire and occasional rocket attacks.
He balanced the safety concerns with facilitating sessions to help Iraqi farmers learn better techniques to care for their dairy animals and train Iraqi women to continue the effort on their own.
Another key project targeted reintroducing hybrid seed corn to Iraqi farmers.
"Hybrid corn was far superior to what they were using. Farmers recognize that ... but just because it's a lot better doesn't mean rapid adoption," Dolbeare said. "With farmers having a history of receiving inputs at a very low cost, they are very reluctant to pay out of their own pocket the price of seed. There was quite a bit of sticker shock."
Ag professionals and seed importers worked with Dolbeare on the project, now in its second year, with more test plots being planted to highlight & not; improved yields and a small group of farmers already buying some of the seed.
"I feel really good about this," Dolbeare said. "I wanted to do it in a way the Iraqis would eventually take hold, not have my idea placed on them, but move forward on their own. That appears to be happening."
Dolbeare watches other happenings in Iraq, including the withdrawal of some American troops, with an experienced eye. While it's easy to assume the troop withdrawal means the war is over or there are dramatic changes on the ground, reality is different.
"There's still 49,700 troops and quite a few civilians over there working hard to help Iraq move forward," he said.
Iraq has sufficient income to make needed improvements for success in farming, but what it doesn't have is the expertise and technological know-how.
"That's how Americans have helped and can help," Dolbeare said.
Instead of working to provide a tractor or other equipment for Iraqi farmers, "I really tried to provide information that would last beyond the tractor running out of fuel," he said. "I think they can still benefit from that."
Dolbeare has been home since late March, busy first with spring planting and now the fall harvest.
"I would still find myself thinking quite a little bit about what was going on in Iraq, the ongoing nature of projects I worked on," he said. "There were times for the first couple months I would wake up thinking I was in Iraq."
The time away changed Dolbeare, making him more appreciative of what America offers.
"We live in a really beautiful part of the world. It's nice to walk out and see the leaves, grass, corn, beans, the way people take care of their properties," Dolbeare said.
"More important than that was I drove 25 miles to get to a Rotary meeting and never once worried about roadside bombs, small-arms fire, someone walking in with a suicide vest. I totally took for granted our security," he said. "Certainly there are things that happen. You hear about bad situations, but by and large as Americans we take our safety for granted. And we can do it. That's real noticeable for me."
Just as noticeable is his willingness to return to Iraq -- under the right circumstances.
"To go back to help with something real short-term, I would consider it," he said. "But I'm not expecting to go back."
Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, http://www.whig.com
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.