'Operation Harvest Light' Launches to Help Iraq's Date Industry
By Maj. Anna Friederich, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq, May 1, 2006 Iraq once supplied roughly 30 percent of the world's dates, an estimated 600,000 tons. But with fewer than 15 million date palm trees left in Iraq, production has dropped to only about 250,000 tons of the fruit annually.
To control the progressive loss of the crop and regenerate the industry, the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture and coalition forces have teamed up to combat the problem by conducting aerial spraying in April and May.
Officials from the Najaf, Karbala and Babil provincial agriculture departments met with coalition forces representatives April 27 at the regional embassy office in Hillah to discuss "Operation Harvest Light," an operation to spray date palm trees with insecticide to eliminate insects that threaten to obliterate the crop.
Iraq dates were once considered top quality because of their high sugar content, superb flavor and texture. Drought, security issues and insect infestation have contributed to reduced yields in recent years. In addition, Iraq's small crop-dusting helicopter fleet was destroyed during the conflict, and the agriculture ministry's pesticides were looted in the chaos following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization had carried out previous aerial spraying during the sanctions period before the war under the auspices of the Oil For Food Program. No large-scale aerial spraying has been conducted since 2002.
Army Maj. Jeff Smith, civil affairs officer, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, spearheaded the meeting, bringing the group together to discuss the schedule and solicit the representative's expertise. Together, they reviewed maps of the provinces, along with past statistics on insect hatch rates and palm tree density, to develop a plan of attack.
"In recent years, ground spraying has been used, but (has) proven to be less and less effective against the insects," Smith said.
Due to the structure of the date palm tree and the way it is infected, aerial spraying is most effective, Smith said. "In addition, spraying at this time will pay off, because the bugs are at a stage where they have hatched but are not mature, meaning their bodies are still soft and will absorb the chemical, killing them."
Coalition forces, in conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture, contracted a company to conduct the spraying. Iraqi security and coalition forces will provide security measures for protecting the pesticides, fuel, equipment, crew and aircraft prior to and during the spraying operation.
Army Master Sgt. Ronald Wegner, operations sergeant, 490th Civil Affairs Battalion, 4th Infantry Division, assisted in the meeting and emphasized that the Iraqi government and Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture are in the lead in this operation.
"Every one of you sitting here are the experts, and we are here to assist in any way we can," he said.
One of the main concerns was spraying priorities. Imad Lefta, Hillah's mayor, said milder weather in southern Iraq caused the insects to hatch sooner in some areas, requiring earlier spraying than in other areas. The group took this into consideration, and concluded the meeting by developing a prioritization of spraying by province and geographic area inside each province.
The scheduled crop dusting is part of a larger Iraqi government program, which will provide jobs in farming, packaging, and the date industry. The program also focuses on the distribution of dates on the global market.
(Army Maj. Anna Friederich is the public affairs officer for the 4th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.)