About 60 S.C. National Guard soldiers have left for Afghanistan to help local farmers grow bigger crops and raise healthier livestock.
In a sense, the soldiers will serve as agriculture extension agents - except they'll be in uniform, wear helmets and body armor, and carry rifles.
In fact, part of the troops' training involved working alongside Clemson University extension agents and taking classes on soil science, crop production, livestock management, and food microbiology and preservation.
They also trained at the school's Sandhill Research and Education Center in Northeast Richland, learning agriculture-related chores.
The S.C. Guard unit's Afghanistan assignment is "just another extension mission," said Mac Horton, Sandhill director. "When someone says they need Clemson's help with an agriculture issue, it's our obligation to help."
South Carolina is among a dozen states taking part in an agriculture development program the Pentagon launched in 2008 and assigned to the Army National Guard.
Providing technical expertise to Afghan farmers is key to the military's effort to win the hearts and minds of the people. Officials say a successful agriculture mission can bring stability and prosperity to Afghanistan.
Agriculture makes up about a third of Afghanistan's $12.9 billion-a-year gross domestic product and provides nearly 80 percent of the country's jobs.
Military leaders also say if Afghan farmers can profit from raising crops like wheat, barley, corn, rice and grapes, they will be less likely to grow poppies. Opium, extracted from poppies, fuels the country's illicit drug trade, fosters widespread corruption and helps finance the Taliban.
The S.C. National Guard unit was specially formed about a year ago for the agriculture assignment. Its soldiers represent just about every unit in the Guard - from infantry to combat engineers to communications.
Many of the citizen-soldiers also have backgrounds in agriculture, said Col. Keith Dunn, commander of what the Army calls an agribusiness development team.
"It's a new team built from soldiers who had the specialties that we needed," said Dunn, of Columbia.
The S.C. unit will be assigned to work in a provincial district, similar to a county in South Carolina. The district will be in eastern Afghanistan, which is mostly mountains but dotted with fertile river valleys.
Not all the troops will work with farmers, Dunn said. The unit also will take along its own security force, as well as soldiers who handle administrative and personnel chores.
Even though they will be more than 7,500 miles away from Clemson, the unit's soldiers will be able to "reach back in real time for technical assistance and support," said Lt. Col. Frank Rice, a Clemson graduate and the team's deputy commander.
For example, if a goat appears to be suffering an eye ailment, soldiers will take a picture of the eye and e-mail the image to Clemson for a diagnosis.
Soldiers also will take along soil-test kits to ensure farmers are using the right type, amount and mix of fertilizers, added Rice, of Greenwood.
To win the farmers' trust, the troops will perform the soil tests in the field instead of mailing samples to Clemson, Rice added.
"We're taking a pallet-load of soil tests with us," Rice said. "It'll be a whole lot better if the farmer sees the results right then and there. It's about credibility."
Before deploying, the team spent nearly three months at Camp Atterbury, Ind., sharpening skills they will need to survive in Afghanistan, including convoy protection and identifying roadside bombs.
"We haven't been together very long, but we have a focus and we understand our mission," Dunn said. "We're ready to do it."