I have some comments and questions that relate to this article. First, the ag. system in central Helmand is or was: The farmers were or are cash crop, double cropping farmers and have been since the 1970s, planting the first crop in Oct/Nov, when the hot season crops have been harvested. This first crop was traditionally wheat and then wheat and opium poppy. Harvested in May or so. The area is irrigated mostly off the giant irrigation system of the Boghra canal off the Helmand river built in the 1940s/50s.
The second season crop, the hot season, is planted after the winter crop (wheat and/or poppy) is harvested and can include corn (used locally mostly for the preferred winter corn bread) mung bean, and some vegetables .
There is a third early planting season in March which includes cotton and peanuts. Peanuts have been mostly planted in the area near “shovel siphon” in Nad-i-Ali but was growing in popularity before poppy took over the region. The early planting results in highest production but the crops can be planted in the regular hot season. And at least cotton is a crop demanding a lot of hand labor as does poppy. Both cotton and peanuts could be reasonable competitors with poppy if the government(s) would keep the prices at reasonable (for the farmers) levels.
The irrigated area noted developed north of the Nad-i-Ali area, near the giant military based built out in the flat desert area, apparently has only one cropping season and mostly involved opium poppy and irrigated off either drilled wells or from waste from the military base.
Question: In what season is this one crop planted, winter or summer?
And this single season cropping would result in several months of non-use of land. One of the traditional problems with these flat desert lands developed for agriculture (like in Nad-i-Ali which is just on the other side of the Boghra canal) has been the salt content in the soils that require good drainage and continuous use (leaching) if crops are not to be affected. When the fields are left fallow for periods of time, the salts are brought to the surface via evaporation, in the region which sees some 4 inches of rain a year and more than 100 inches of evaporation.
Could some of the reduced production result from the salts in the soils? There were similar problems in the Nad-i-Ali area with the new settlers who learned about bad drainage and water logging in the 1960s as I remember. And many of those new settlers with little or no experience in farming in such harsh conditions left their farms. Some one third of the settlers were settled nomads.
As the new farmers north of the Boghra canal developed their land, did they dig drainage ditches? Did they over irrigate with bad drainage? Apparently many were displaced share croppers from Nad-i-Ali but were of the wrong generation to remember the drainage problems.
And what is the quality of the waste water coming off the military base for irrigation?
We tested the quality of the drainage water coming off the Nad-i-Ali area main drain which the farmers were re-using for irrigation and it proved to be acceptable for irrigation in a system with reasonable drainage. (According to the soil/water lab at Colorado State University)
What to do with all these people who are leaving their land? Make sure their land has adequate drainage. If needed, build an adequate drainage system in these newly developed lands…as we did in the 1970s for central Helmand. Make sure of the quality of the irrigation water. Get them into double cropping legal crops…like cotton and peanuts. Make sure there is a good market for their legal crops. If necessary, subsidize the price of cotton. Most of these farmers know and like the cotton crop and understand how to grow it for maximum production. It puts lots of people to work. There is a cotton gin in Lashkar Gah to process and sell the raw cotton. But it might take some effective technical assistance, as in the past. But, first, put the people back to work in their agricultural system, the basis of the local economy.