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Thursday, March 10, 2011 11:17 pm


Standing atop a mountain in Afghanistan last year, Springfield resident Thomas Vermeersch looked down and saw the potential of a country now embroiled in war. Despite the rocky, mountainous terrain of the arid region, the people long ago had built terraced fields and designed irrigation systems.

“All of it built by hands over many, many centuries,” says Vermeersch, a public health veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beardstown. Vermeersch in January returned from a year-long stint in Afghanistan, where he served as a civilian expert, tracking livestock nutritional quality as part of a comprehensive effort to help Afghan citizens rebuild their agricultural sector. “I just marveled at their ingenuity and their ability to coax crops and sustenance out of such a harsh environment. I thought, ‘Why am I here? These people are geniuses,’” Vermeersch says about the view from above.

Back down in the valley, young and old villagers alike asked Vermeersch and accompanying soldiers for supplies and help, leading Vermeersch to ask, “Where did this sense of self-sufficiency and ingenuity go?” Eighty percent of the native workforce depends on agriculture for its livelihood, but much of Afghanistan’s population is protein deficient, he says.

Vermeersch says his and the USDA’s work – from training local veterinarians to collecting and sharing animal nutrient data – could help rectify that problem, and, he hopes, help develop a robust agricultural sector that can better serve the people and bring more stability to the country.

Fir more information on USDA's work in Afghanistan, visit