Just call Michael Clayton a down-home ambassador.
The water conservation expert from Princeton, Ky., seems equally at home with farmers in Western Kentucky, Iraq or Afghanistan.
"I'm just a 'country diplomat,' " Clayton said in a call from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. "But diplomacy goes a long way with a good smile and a warm handshake."
Since December, Clayton has been shaking hands with farmers in the province of Ghazni, as one of 56 U.S. Department of Agriculture officials working to encourage foreign agriculture. It's part of an overall strategy that also includes National Guard Agribusiness Development Teams, also known as "Combat Farmers" or "Dirt Warriors."
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One of the nine ADTs stationed in Afghanistan is from Kentucky, although they are in a different province from Clayton, who is working with an ADT from Texas.
Back in Kentucky, Clayton, 51, and his wife, Karen, have a farm near Princeton. "We live right close," he said. They have four daughters and a son — their oldest is 24 and the youngest is 13, all home-schooled.
Karen Clayton said that day-to-day things sometimes get tough with Mike away. But overall she's very supportive.
"I feel like he's doing what he's supposed to be doing, and that makes it OK," Karen Clayton said.
This is Mike Clayton's second tour of volunteering in three years.
"The family was pretty excited when I went to Iraq. They were a little more hesitant about Afghanistan," he said.
On the job in Princeton, Clayton dispensed technical and financial advice on "the wise use of natural resources — soil, water, plants, animals and people — and the long-term sustainability of those resources," he said.
Sometimes that would entail walking over a farm to give ideas for specific improvements.
That kind of hands-on work is much more difficult in Afghanistan, Clayton said, where every movement requires security.
(Part of the province is "very kinetic," he said, meaning dangerous. In the two months he's been there, he said, six people have been killed by roadside bombs and another has been shot.)
But the basic message is much the same as back home, he said.
"We're just trying to make a connection, let people know they can trust their government and get information and rely on their government for services," he said.
After 30 years of war, invasion and insurgency, the land and the farmers need help.
"People over here are just trying to make a subsistence living; they've had to abuse the land just to survive," Clayton said. "It's really a crying shame."
Decades ago, Afghanistan had a flourishing agricultural industry, known for its fruit and nut exports.
Now, many valleys are reduced to hardscrabble, with little irrigation capacity. In some places, ancient underground water tunnels known as karez, crucial in regions that get little rainfall, have fallen into disrepair. Much of the country's present agriculture is devoted to poppy production for the opium trade.
Even though an estimated 85 percent of the Afghan population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, there are few people left with the knowledge of how to rebuild the farm economy, Clayton said.
"A whole generation of farmers was lost," he said. "A lot of these people don't really know how to manage the land anymore. It's a huge task."
And that's where Clayton comes in, via the U.S. State Department, which recruited volunteers. When the USDA sought workers in 2005 to go to Iraq, Clayton said, he felt "almost called" to raise his hand, but it took a while for approval and funding to line up.
From November 2008 to February 2010, Clayton was in Iraq, where he helped get the local commercial poultry industry back up and running in Mahmudiyah, just south of Baghdad.
Since December, Clayton has been in Afghanistan, where he is primarily working with Afghan government officials. As part of a $38 million, multiyear effort, the United States is helping to rebuild the pool of people that villagers can turn to for help, sort of the Afghan equivalent of the university extension service.
"We're hoping just to build capacity in the government. They have recognized this as a priority to rehabilitate the water supply and get the people able to take care of themselves," Clayton said.
Ghazni province averages 12 inches of rain a year; much of the water that villages have to work with comes in the form of runoff from snow melt. The government hopes to reduce erosion to help watersheds retain more water.
Clayton said Afghanistan isn't ready for large-scale poultry operations like the project in Iraq.
But the government is encouraging a cooperative mentality to spread technology such as drip irrigation, rather than flood irrigation, to increase production beyond the subsistence level.
Afghanistan does export fruit, such as apricots, plums and table grapes.
"Ghazni can raise some good fruits and vegetables. But the real problem is there is no value added, no cold storage, and no processing plants," Clayton said. So Afghanistan sells fruit to Pakistan, which cans or dries it and then resells the fruit back at much higher prices.
"Afghans can grow some good-quality stuff," he said. "They just don't have the roads and other market infrastructure. They can grow the stuff but they're not growing enough of any one thing to be able to sell it."