Agrisoya is presently involved in the production and processing of soybeans. Why did the company decide to pursue soybeans instead of other agricultural needs?
Soybeans are the cheapest form of protein, and developing new sources of protein is obviously incredibly important for a developing region. Every society needs protein: it’s the one thing that we need even more than we need carbohydrates. It’s how we feed ourselves and it’s how we feed our animals.
Why do you think soybean production wasn’t here already?
In the 1990s, there was local production of soybeans on a small scale. However, Saddam Hussein destroyed a large amount of the agricultural infrastructure here, particularly the irrigation systems. Soybeans obviously need water, so that curbed production considerably. As a result, there has been zero soybean production in the Kurdistan Region in the last 20 years. The knowledge has been lost.
So what have you done to change that?
We’ve done four years of trials here, and we have ongoing ones as well. This last summer, we established that soybeans could be successful here on a larger scale. Our hope is that the KRG will target soybeans as a strategic crop because, as I said, protein is vital to food security. People can’t be sustained simply on corn or wheat, but they can on soybeans.
So you’ve been here off and on since 2005. How have things changed in that time?
The focus on agriculture has changed. For a long time, people said agriculture was not something they were concerned about. Essentially, it wasn’t a priority in Kurdistan. Other investments offered a much faster return on investment. With agriculture, it’s typically a seven-year investment. Before you can even begin to plant you have to invest in infrastructure like water, wells, and equipment. Over time, there have been some key individuals, such as Dr. Talib Murad, who have pushed for the idea that agriculture is just as important as oil or housing. Some of the estimates we’ve seen indicate that, if the borders were to close down for even two days, it would have a catastrophic effect on the poultry and cattle industries. So, self-sufficiency is a necessity.
What other obstacles has Agrisoya had to deal in terms of establishing itself here?
Working with the farmers has been great and their knowledge of the land is unbelievable. However, introducing a new crop to the region has been difficult. Coming from the western world, we have always looked for the next big thing and we haven’t really relied on what our grandfather’s grandfather did. This is mainly because we don’t have the history or culture that’s present here. We have century farms in America and we get really excited about them. They have family farms here that go back thousands of years. So, breaking that cycle and introducing something that is new or innovative is a huge challenge. Getting them to try new crops, new ways of treating the land, or new ways of tilling has been hard for us. It’s just something that we’re not used to and we have to respect that.
It sounds like it is a positive and a negative. The farmers know their land really well so they know what may work, but they also know it so well that they will resist changing the traditions.
We’ve had to learn how to introduce these new ideas and let the farmers take them, adjust them, and, hopefully, implement them. Our goal is not to control large areas of land; our goal is to have soybean production be controlled by local farmers. We want to assist in that however we can because we feel that the transfer of knowledge is the fundamental aim. As I said, we don’t have a desire to control this sector: we want to be the processors. We want to take raw soybeans and turn them into something that is edible either for human consumption or for poultry or animal feed.
What is it exactly that these farmers are resistant to? Is it simply the method of planting?
The planting technology is relatively new. It’s called no-till planting. In Kurdistan right now, at the end of the wheat harvest, every farmer will deep plow his land, about two or three feet into the ground, and then turn the soil over. They do this because it’s what they’ve always done. However, this process dries out the soil, especially during the summer months. This is precisely the reason why no-till planting was invented. It conserves the moisture in the soil. Water resources here can be scarce, especially during the summer. So, any practice, specifically no-till planting, that allows you to conserve resources is a beneficial practice.
We have successfully built a factory in the region, which is using locally grown soybeans to produce soybean meal for the poultry industry. For the first time, there is locally grown protein being processed and fed to the local poultry industry with no outside imports. I think is huge step and big success, and I am proud to have been a part of it.
It seems like implementing these new ideas will require a complete shift in the prevailing mentality. Do you think this is the case?
I think it’s the willingness to innovate that is the key. More than anything, what the agricultural sector needs is to embrace the idea of long-term thinking. For example, farmers that continuously plant wheat will certainly make the most money in the short term. However, wheat and corn take nutrients from the soil. So, if you plant wheat or corn over and over again, your soil will become deficient and the land quality will suffer as a result. If, however, farmers embrace the idea of a three-crop rotation with soybeans, corn and wheat, the opposite is true. Each crop takes a certain type of nutrients and produces a certain type as well. So, if the farmers rotate properly, then the land remains balanced and fertile.
Overall, how successful has Agrisoya been in promoting soybean production in the Kurdistan Region?
I believe, for the most part, we have succeeded in using our research to educate local farmers about the advantages of soybeans and about our methods of soybean production. We’ve had a lot of interest from the local farmers and have seen them successfully take the risk of planting a new crop. Many farmers have been receptive to our research and have come to understand that planting soybeans in addition to wheat is very positive. By doing this, they utilize their land more efficiently and obtain both additional income and healthier soil. We have also successfully built a factory in the region, which is using locally grown soybeans to produce soybean meal for the poultry industry. For the first time, there is locally grown protein being processed and fed to the local poultry industry with no outside imports. I think is huge step and big success, and I am proud to have been a part of it.