Afghan Farmers Shift To Mint, Melons

Afghan customers check an item which is displayed for sale during the Agricultural Exhibition in Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh province north of Kabul, Oct. 29, 2008.
Nadir Bahktar's stall at a northern Afghanistan agriculture fair had the faint smell of Christmas.

Before him sat an array of tiny $2 bottles filled with pure mint oil, a pungent liquid that smelled like concentrated candy canes and was strong enough to bring tears to the eyes. The concoction was advertised as a cure for aching joints.

"No, you don't drink it," he scolded a customer with a wag of the finger before making a rubbing motion over his knees.

Bahktar and his mint oil joined honey producers, melon growers and carpet weavers on Wednesday at the seventh and final U.S.-funded agricultural fair of the year, outdoor forums to help farmers and exporters meet up and sign business deals.

Bahktar has attended several of the fairs in order to advertise his mint oil and mint-flavored drinking water. "Business is good but we're trying to improve it even more," he said at his fair booth Wednesday.

An agriculture fair in Kabul last year attracted 160,000 people. But this year the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. government aid arm that sponsors the fairs, pulled back the size of the event. Still, 50,000 people showed up to look at the 200 booths. Some 60 overseas buyers attended.

The U.S. and Afghan governments are eager to encourage farmers to grow legal crops as opposed to opium. Afghanistan grows 90 percent of the world's supply of the plant, which is the main ingredient in heroin.

That drug trade fuels an increasingly violent militancy in the country: U.N. officials say the Taliban derives $100 million a year from it.

Loren Stoddard, director of the alternative development and agriculture office for USAID, said the fairs also help farmers in the war-torn country who have missed out on years of farming advancements.

Farmers and buyers have signed more than $10 million worth of contracts during 14 fairs the last two years, he said. The U.S. has spent about $1 million hosting the events.

"In the United States we have the yellow pages. If you want to buy some irrigation equipment, you open up the Yellow Pages," Stoddard said. "That doesn't exist here. Ag fairs are a way for everyone to see who sells irrigation equipment."

Buyers from regional markets, like India, attend the fairs in hopes of importing Afghanistan's produce. The country grows gleaming red pomegranates and juicy grapes, but its road system makes getting produce to market quickly difficult, and it has few storage facilities.

USAID is helping teach farmers new techniques. James Kunder, the acting deputy assistant administrator for USAID who was visiting Afghanistan this week, said Wednesday that a farmer he spoke with at the fair told him his old melon exports to India suffered a 30 percent spoilage rate during transportation.

After USAID helped provide him with packaging for his produce, the farmer's spoilage rate dropped to 5 percent.
By Associated Press Writer Jason Straziuso