Sunday, March 29, 2009
Watch a slideshow of his trip here:
Today was a big day and the last day in Iraq. We left Baghdad from the Washington Landing Zone, which is across the street from the Presidential Palace. The Iraq Army guards weren't too friendly when I walked over to get a closer look while we were waiting for Brigadier General Smith to arrive in the Blackhawk Helicopters from Camp Victory. I don't even think it was my lack of Arabic speaking skills that was the problem. They just take security seriously, and for good reason.
While en route to the Regional Embassy Office (REO) Al-Hillah, we flew over the ancient ruins of the Tower of Babel, located a stone's throw from the Euphrates River. The ruins were only partially excavated. Archaeologists would have a field day in this country. I have been reading about the Tower of Babel in the Bible my whole life. I never thought it possible to see the remnants.
When we arrived at REO Al-Hilla, I was again overwhelmed when a group of Texas soldiers was on hand with a Lone Star flag they unfurled; we gathered around for a photo. These men and women are the best. Period.
We had a productive meeting with the director general for agriculture of the Babil Province, director of extension and several agribusiness men.
We later toured a state-of-the-art farmers’ market and met with an entrepreneur whose privately owned non-governmental agribusiness included the production of yogurt, juice and cheese. His staff included Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. Even the Americans who had years on the ground in Iraq were surprised to see how this diverse team was working together. Could it be this is the example of what progress can be made when people put aside their differences and work together?
We made it back in time to Sather Air Force Base, Camp Victory, Baghdad to make our flight to Kuwait. It only took us more than one-and-a-half hours to get through customs. Now, we are waiting for our ride to the hotel for the night. I would tell you how much fun international travel is, but I just can't.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Watch a slideshow of his trip here:
My bag arrived late last night. Whew.
We toured an agricultural college, ag research farm and met with the Senior Deputy Minister of Agriculture of Iraq, the Director General for Agriculture for the Karbala province and the Karbala providential reconstruction team today, but I must say, the highlight of the trip was having lunch with the 413 Civil Affairs Battalion, Bravo Company, based in Lubbock, Texas, and other Texas soldiers.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner, Todd Staples, has lunch with fellow Texans from the 413th Civil Affairs Battalion Bravo Company based out of Lubbock, TX and the 177th Field Artillery Unit based out of Schweinfurt, Germany at FOB Husayniyah in Karbala, Iraq on Thursday, March 26, 2009. Department of Defense Photo by Tina Hager
These fine Texas soldiers have been in Iraq since last fall. They are stationed at Forward Operating Base Husayniyah.
I told them how grateful and appreciative all Texans are for their sacrifices and service. They gave me both an American and Texas flag flown over the base.
U.S. Army Spc. Dennis Harris of Lubbock, TX presents a United States flag to Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples at FOB Husayniyah in Karbala, Iraq on Thursday, March 26, 2009. The Commissioner was visiting Iraq as part of a trade and development mission promoting Texas products and agriculture initiatives. SPC Harris is a member of the 413th Civil Affairs Battalion Bravo Company based out of Lubbock, TX. Department of Defense Photo by Tina Hager
These soldiers represent the best of America. Please join me in asking God's blessings on them and their families, and to bring them home safely and soundly.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner, Todd Staples, poses for a photo with troops from Texas from the 413th Civil Affairs Battalion Bravo Company based out of Lubbock, TX and the 177th Field Artillery Unit based out of Schweinfurt, Germany at FOB Husayniyah in Karbala, Iraq. March 26, 2009. Department of Defense Photo by Tina Hager
I have a major announcement: I am told my luggage is in Kuwait! I haven't seen it yet, but have it from an official source it is on its way.
We joined the Director for TFBSO at dinner with several U.S. generals, the Iraq Minister of Industry and Minerals, the Chairman of Iraq Investment Commission and the spokesperson for the government of Iraq (all PhD's with extensive international educations including the investment minister receiving all his degrees in the USA) to discuss Iraqi redevelopment and progress.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples meets with an Iraqi agriculture expert during a visit to the Karbala Greenhouse Extension in Karbala, Iraq on Thursday, March 26, 2009. Department of Defense Photo by Tina Hager
Their focus and strategy was about developing partnerships and ensuring a stable environment for investment and development.
It is estimated over 75 percent of the lands in Iraq are owned by the government (compared to 97 percent privately owned in Texas). The government of Iraq is contemplating allowing for the private ownership of some commercial real estate development, including allowing for international ownership.
One thing is certain, the sooner the Iraq economy is stabilized and reinvigorated, the sooner our brave troops can come home. I am thankful our Department of Defense, Texas A & M staff and U.S. companies are working so hard to facilitate development so our valiant military can head home.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Watch a slideshow of his trip here:
Day 3 (afternoon)
Still no luggage. Yet, hope springs eternal.
Our convoy headed south today toward Iskandariyah in the northern part of the Babil province. We had a slight delay as U.S. troops investigated a possible improvised explosive device, or IED, which apparently turned out to be a false alarm. I didn't complain about the delay.
We received a briefing from Sabah al Khafaji, the general director of the State Company of Mechanical Industries.
The Iskandariyah Industrial Complex once employed about 30,000 workers and is now only marginally utilized. Touring the buildings reminded me of the old Glass Containers manufacturing facility in my hometown of Palestine that was closed and partially torn down in the mid 1980s.
While the buildings and equipment are dated and in need of much repair, Khafaji and his team, with the assistance of the Task Force to Improve Business and Stability Operations – Iraq (TFBSO), were busy churning out Case New Holland tractors, greenhouse frames, irrigation systems, farm trailers and implements. Team Borlaug members are working to get this equipment in the field and have good working relationships with the managers.
Team Borlaug is seeking private companies to invest resources and newer technology to improve efficiency and output. The successful rebuilding of Iraq and continued stability in the region is in large part dependent on the success of these operations as the jobs are badly needed for the high number of unemployed and underemployed Iraqis.
Understanding the need for a skilled and trained workforce, the Iskandariyah Vocational Technical School is located beside the industrial complex.
Naseer Abdul Jabar leads this versatile vocational training center that was stripped to the bare walls during the massive looting that occurred several years earlier.
We observed class sizes that ranged from about eight to 30 students. Courses were numerous and included computer training, welding, generator repair and various metal shops. Hands-on learning was available for many of the vocations as a result of modern equipment made possible by the efforts of TFBSO. They have a long way to go, but they certainly have overcome much.
A one-hour meeting with Dr. Hussein Jabir, Agricultural Advisor in the Prime Minister's office, turned out to be two.
Dr. Jabir and his team of experts had many questions about Texas and our powerful agricultural economy.
His priorities centered around needing assistance with the administration and efficient management of water resources, animal genetics and overall animal health issues; scholarships for agriculture students needing undergraduate and graduate degrees; and the development of water usage associations/policies to ensure the efficient use of water.
While the country has enormous agriculture potential being influenced by the historic Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and was once serving as a major agricultural exporting country, it now is a very stressed country with severe water shortages, limited recharge of aquifers, and salinity problems. There doesn't seem to be an overall water strategy, which gave me the opportunity to introduce them to Texas Statewide Water Plan and how it was developed and is continuously revised.
Animal health (Foot and Mouth disease, Avian Influenza and Brucellosis are all concerns), food safety/food processing conditions, the lack of genetics and modern feeding operations are all major limitations.
Fortunately, I was able to share with them the story of how Texas producers, agribusinesses, universities and state/federal governments partner together for success.
They anxiously seek partners, the latest technology and proven know-how. I conveyed how America and Texas both have a deep investment in Iraq, and how we are committed to seeing them prosper. Once travel becomes more conducive, there is no doubt more Texans will follow.
Did I also mention my assistant, Cody, was the one who actually checked our luggage at the same time, yet his made it here and mine still hasn’t?
Our first meeting was at the New Embassy Compound (NEC) where we received detailed briefings from representatives with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Foreign Ag Service and a Brigadier General and Lt. Colonel with Multi-National Force – Iraq. Stability for Iraq has definitely come a long way as compared to a few years ago. This has allowed for agricultural teams from across the world to work directly with this country’s people. Production is limited because of older farming methods and lack of quality seeds. A badly damaged irrigation system also hinders yields. Iraq imports about 70 percent of its agricultural needs and I'm told they spend about $3 billion in food imports annually.
In 2008, Iraq imported about $893 million of agricultural products from the U.S. with more than $400 million worth coming through Texas ports– it was a banner year. I will be certain to let the Iraqi officials know we appreciate their business, particularly when it was recently announced Iraq reached a major agreement with Australia for wheat.
General Ray Odierno, the Commander of Multi-National Force – Iraq, has an indescribable job as he follows Gen. David Petraeus’ efforts to bring stability to the region and bring our troops home. I first met with Gen. Odierno in Ft. Hood when the Texas Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense and Texas A&M University partnered together to develop a Recovery Credit System to address endangered species habitats.
Commissioner Staples meets with General Ray Odierno, Commander, Multi-National Force - Iraq. Photo by: Cody McGregor
It was good to visit with Gen. Odierno again – this time at the Al Faw Palace inside Camp Victory – and now with a fourth star on his shirt.
Gen. Odierno and the lead entity for our trip, Task Force to Improve Business and Stability Operations in Iraq, understand the complexities of establishing a stable economy in Iraq. Gen. Odierno said he was pleased to see us in Iraq and knows a successful agricultural sector is a critical part of Iraq’s development. I look forward to following up with him and sharing my observations after we wrap up this trip. Each time I meet with Gen. Odierno I am impressed by his sincerity, knowledge and leadership. I have great confidence in a successful outcome as he leads our troops.
Lunch was at DFAC in Camp Victory. While DFAC sounds impressive, it simply designates the dining facility for all us non-military folks.
Commissioner Staples pictured with mle marker sign erected by American military troops. It is located on the balcony of the Al Faw Palace, Camp Victory, Iraq. Photo by: Cody McGregor
I know the food choices have to be limited while out in the field, but there is no reason our troops should go hungry while in Camp Victory. The Department of Defense has succeeded in ensuring a variety of choices are available for our military personnel, including ice-cream sundaes for dessert. Only Blue Bell would have made it better!
An uneventful flight from DFW to Dulles to Kuwait to Sather AFB in Baghdad is a good thing. The only mishap involved my luggage, which still hasn’t arrived.
We left Camp Victory upon arrival (after stopping by the PX for some needed essentials lost along with my luggage) and headed to where we are staying in the International Zone (formerly known as the Green Zone). Security was tight, as was expected, but no threats of any kind observed.
Our group met for a briefing with Team Borlaug of Texas A&M University and staff of Paul Brinkley, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Business Transformation, in the common room and then each headed to our own rooms. My bed looked good as it was the first one I’d seen since I left Texas 32 hours earlier. Did I mention my luggage was left at Dulles?
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
You can watch the hearing on the House media Web site.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The really good news? Most shows have major scholarship funds where youngsters have the privilege of competing for top honors in livestock competitions and earning prizes that enable them to continue to pursue their education.
Whether you attend your local county show or one of Texas’ four biggest livestock shows in San Antonio, Fort Worth, Houston or Austin, take pride in the fact that you are celebrating the heritage of the Lone Star State by supporting these events that encourage our youth to pursue their dreams and promote Texas agriculture.
The Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo in Austin is still running; try to catch it before it wraps up on March 28.
Monday, March 23, 2009
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
In honor of National Agriculture Week, March 15-21, I’d like to call attention to the role agricultural producers play in our national and global economies. With more than 22 million people employed in our nation’s agriculture industry, American farmers and ranchers are not only the backbone of our country – they are instrumental in feeding and clothing people all around the world. New technologies are also offering opportunities for agriculture to play a major role in meeting our nation’s energy needs.
Texas producers should certainly be recognized this week, as they play a critical role in our state’s economy. Did you know that the economic impact of agriculture in Texas exceeds $100 billion? Even during these challenging economic times, Texas farmers and ranchers continue to provide us with the most abundant and affordable food supply in the world.
Please join me this week, National Ag Week, in acknowledging the increasing importance of agriculture in today’s world. Extend a heartfelt thank-you to a farmer, rancher, food processor, grocer, farm supply store employee or any other of the millions of people across Texas who help ensure that we have food on our dinner tables, clothes on our backs and so many other of life's basic necessities.
Friday, March 13, 2009
The meeting served as a reminder that agriculture doesn’t stop at the borders of rural Texas. Whether you live in a rural, suburban or urban part of the Lone Star State, we all depend on the production of our state’s farmers and ranchers for the food we eat and the clothes we wear. The potential for bioenergy also grows every day in the agriculture industry as new technology is developed and economically implemented.
As Texas’ population grows, rural Texas still packs quite a punch. In fact, the population of rural Texas is greater than the populations of Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming and the District of Columbia combined! And if you haven’t visited rural Texas in a while, check out our GO TEXAN Rural Community Program for a listing of all the great places to see.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
In fact, weather experts all agree that the area stretching from central Texas to the Gulf is the single driest part of the United States. Farmers in this area are deciding whether they will even be able to plant this season. Cattlemen are taking their stock to auction at record numbers because of short pasture conditions. I'm told the current drought conditions we are experiencing only come along once or maybe twice in a 100-year cycle.
We’d like to remind producers to take advantage of the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Hay Hotline at 1-877-429-1998. This is a great resource for those who have extra hay to sell or a pasture to lease, and for those who need hay. We also encourage producers to take advantage of our Disaster Resource Information Packet (DRIP), which provides pertinent contact information for state, federal and private agricultural disaster assistance programs. The DRIP packet is available on our Web site at www.TexasAgriculture.gov.
Even with this rain being spread across our dry and thirsty land, forecasters say it will be a tough spring. Lord, thank you for this rain today and please send us some more – our state's farmers and ranchers are in real need.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Texas and American farmers and ranchers produce the safest, most abundant and most affordable food supply in the world. Want proof?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, citizens in the United States on average only spend 7 percent of their consumer dollar on food. This compares to the United Kingdom at 9 percent, Mexico at 24 percent, India at 32 percent and China at 35 percent. Be sure to let your federal officials know this as they contemplate making changes to the safety net for American farmers and ranchers that could result in catastrophic changes to our affordable food supply.
Monday, March 9, 2009
According to the Texas A&M Real Estate Center, 2008 statistics indicate an overall positive shift in Texas real estate values. From 2007-2008, the price of Texas agricultural lands increased an average of 10.5 percent. And, as sales data for the first quarter of 2009 trickles in and projections are made for the rest of the year, trends indicate buyers are active in the market and banks are lending.
Real estate is an appealing investment during a bear market, and while the Texas real estate economy is in a correction phase and market participants need to keep abreast of the latest information, data indicates buyers are looking for quality property. This is what they can find in the Lone Star State--our pledge to private property owners’ rights and economic development make Texas a great place to invest.
You can read more about a variety of issues affecting property owners and the real estate market on the Real Estate Center's Web site.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Earlier this week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel led me on a tour of George Bush Intercontinental Airport. These dedicated men and women take great pride in protecting the economic engine of our state and country: agriculture.
Through the combined use of science, technology and law enforcement skills, we have a tremendous safety net to keep out unwanted pests and diseases that can otherwise cripple Texas agriculture, which annually makes an economic impact of over $100 billion to our state’s economy.
Each year, millions of travelers come to the U.S. through our international ports in Texas alone. It is comforting to know our partners at CBP are defending American agriculture and protecting the interests of Texas farmers and ranchers.
While the Texas Department of Agriculture works diligently at roadside inspection stations to prevent pests and diseases from spreading to agricultural products within the state, all Texans should be proud of our federal partners who are also on the frontlines joining the efforts of our dedicated inspectors.
Friday, March 6, 2009
Meteorologists are saying this drought Texas is experiencing right now is one that only happens once or twice every century. This, coupled with an economic crisis that’s lowered agricultural values, but increased production costs, is presenting a significant challenge for Texas farmers and ranchers, and we must do what we can to help those who work diligently to provide us with the food on our tables and the clothes on our backs.
In the meantime, I’d like to encourage Texas producers in need of hay to utilize the TDA Hay Hotline to find sellers.
Click HERE to read Gov. Perry’s official request.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Six months ago, Hurricane Ike hit rural Southeast Texas devastating communities and agricultural lands. Today, Texans have a chance to help farmers and ranchers rebuild the homes, ranches and lives devastated by the storm.
You can lend a hand to your fellow Texans by donating supplies or volunteering your time through our latest relief effort: "Operation New Fences." Ranchers lost an estimated 4,800 cows and 5,600 calves in the storm surge of Hurricane Ike. Those cattle can’t be replaced until new fences are built.
I urge you to help these hard-working Texans in their time of need. Click HERE if you need help, or if you would like to assist in rebuilding the 1,700 miles of destroyed fence line in Chambers, Galveston, Liberty, Orange and Jefferson counties.
Read some of my past blog posts on Hurricane Ike:
Oct 27, 2008- Testimony Before Senate Committees on Hurricane Ike
Sept. 23, 2008- Aerial Tour With Houston Astros Player Carlos Lee
Sept. 22, 2008- Slideshow From Aerial Tour of Hurricane Ike
Sept. 20, 2008- Texans Answer the Call for Assistance
Sept. 17, 2008-Aerial Tour of Areas Devastated by Hurricane Ike
Sept. 16, 2008- Update on Hurricane Ike Help for Texas Farmers and Ranchers
Sept. 15, 2008- Texans Need Your Help After Hurricane Ike Strands Livestock
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
It’s National School Breakfast Week, and today I continued my campaign to remind children all across the great state of Texas about the importance of starting their day with a healthy, nutritious breakfast and the role of our dedicated farmers and ranchers.
I talked with Joe Bickett of FOX 7 News live from Lucy Reed Pre-Kindergarten School to showcase the quality meals that are available all across Texas. Every day in our state, over one million students participate in the national School Breakfast Program. But, we can do more to win the war on child obesity.
Parents and students must always remember that good grades start with good nutrition
You can watch my interview here:
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
I recently worked with C.D. Fulkes Middle School students in Round Rock to create a Public Service Announcement (PSA) that talks about the advantages of eating a healthy breakfast at school. The PSA, which is currently running on TV stations statewide, is really fun and features animated characters, Mr. Breakfast and YoGurl. You can watch the PSA here.
Monday, March 2, 2009
Dr. Hickle is working on an innovative program to give medical patients new media access to educational information about their specific diseases. Once again, Texan ingenuity leads the way.
Click here to listen to our brief discussion.