Conservation Coordinator Signs Up to Rebuild Farms in Iraq

April 23rd, 2008 - by admin

Lee Juillerat / The Capital Press – 2008-04-23 22:39:28

April 18, 2008) — His interest is agriculture, but Jim Vancura is outfitted in full body armor whenever he’s away from the base. He’s lost 50 pounds since arriving in Iraq in November, which he says is good because the armor weighs 40 pounds. Jim Vancura is learning about life and agriculture in Iraq, but not the way he expected.

Jim Vancura volunteered to spend a year in Iraq as an agricultural specialist because one daughter, Amy, is in the Air National Guard and a second, Melissa, plans to enter the Guard after graduating from high school in Klamath Falls later this year. He said he also feels a personal obligation to try to assist the Iraqi people.

“It’s terribly important for the future of Iraq that we move forward,” he said. “I think the regional construction teams are really the best solution. We’re on the right track, but it’s not going to be done overnight.”

He’s been in the war-ravaged country since November working for the Foreign Agricultural Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that’s helping Iraq farmers develop and operate agricultural programs.

Because of security concerns for Americans working in Iraq, when Vancura goes outside the military base where he lives and works, he travels in a military convoy, wears full body armor and rides inside a Humvee, with only a narrow opening to see the passing countryside.

“Planning for the development of a new country from within a shoebox,” he said of the view from the belly of the Humvee. “I can see the country, but I can’t get out and actually touch it.”

Vancura signed up for the yearlong Iraq assignment after spending 14 years as project coordinator for Ore-Cal Resource Conservation and Development in Southern Oregon’s Klamath Basin. He began his career with the federal government and planned to retire in late 2007, until he decided to apply for the Iraq post. He was in Klamath Falls earlier this year visiting his family – wife, LeNada, and daughters, Amy and Melissa – and friends.

Vancura is stationed at a military base in Iraq’s Kirkuk province, which he describes as “the breadbasket of Iraq. It’s all agriculture.”

When he originally arrived in Iraq, he said he really didn’t know what he would be doing. Within a few weeks, Vancura and his bosses agreed on a project, working to improve a network of canals that serve about 200,000 acres of farms.

“That’s very similar in size to what we have in the Klamath Basin,” he said. And, like the Klamath Basin, the region receives only about 12 inches of precipitation annually. The project involves removing reeds and silt from the canals, which were built in the early 1980s but haven’t been maintained since 1989. Just as importantly, it includes providing jobs for some of the thousands of unemployed young Iraqi men.

“One of the biggest problems in all of Iraq is unemployment,” Vancura said, noting jobless numbers are as high as 60 percent, an estimated 100,000 in Kirkuk province. In Iraq, men are regarded as the providers so “when they’re unemployed they really have a sense of worthlessness.”

The number of young Iraqi men, up to about age 30, being hired for cleaning and repair of the canals, is being increased from about 2,500 to about 5,000. They’re paid $10 a day.

“And they’re happy to have it,” he said. “We’re hoping it will result in a better economic situation. We’re intentionally not using heavy equipment or herbicides.”

The work isn’t aimed at just providing jobs. He thinks the canal improvements should allow better deliveries of water to the region’s mostly small farms. The primary crops are wheat and barley, but also include corn, cotton, fruits and vegetables.

Vancura’s work days are long, typically from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., partly because of the time lost in traveling and translating, either in the field or at meetings with Iraqi counterparts. He works Sundays through Thursdays to coincide with Iraqi schedules.

Before returning to Iraq, he will meet with Foreign Agricultural Service officials in Washington, D.C., for a progress report and to promote a proposed soil survey, what he describes as a “very valuable tool,” for the province.

Vancura hopes his year will prove worthwhile.

“I don’t know if I particularly will be a success – that’s something I might not know until I get home and can look back – but I think I’ve got my hands on a good project. It has every opportunity to have good benefits for the Iraqi people.”

What does Jim Vancura do on his days off?

Not much.

Vancura is embedded with U.S. troops at a base in the Kirkuk province of Iraq. Because of security concerns, he seldom leaves base. “There’s nothing to do,” he said of life on base, except laundry, working out at a gym or visiting the exchange. “One of my fun things is to buy a cigar and go sit someplace and smoke.”

As he’s learned, the security measures, which include traveling in a military convoy wearing full body armor, are worth the effort. During a five-day stay in Hawijah, where many farms are located, Vancura went along on a raid as an observer when American troops found several IEDs, improvised explosive devices.

“They blew them up. It was pretty exciting.”

Strict security measures are in place because terrorists target Americans. “It’s dangerous, but we’re as safe as we can be,” he said. “Our safety is about as good as can be expected. Anytime we leave the base, we are technically targets.”

Freelance writer Lee Juillerat is based in Klamath Falls, Ore. E-mail:

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