KLAMATH FALLS -You might call what Kerry Locke was doing in Kyrgyzstan "potato diplomacy."
Locke, a crops and horticulture agent for the Klamath County office of the Oregon State University Extension Service, recently showed farmers in the former Soviet republic how to improve potato production in the Tien Shan mountains, as a volunteer for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Locke is one of a number of Americans and experts from other countries helping former Soviets survive on their own agriculturally now that the ties with Russia have been cut.
"They need all the help they can get in terms of trying to feed their population and getting their economy going," Locke said in an interview shortly after returning from Kyrgyzstan, one of the first republics to break from Russia.
About double the area of Oregon with a population of 5 million people, Kyrgyzstan is blessed with numerous highland pastures and once served as the USSR's lamb and mutton belt, Locke said.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, however, those markets collapsed, leaving Kyrgyz herders looking for a new profession.
"Some of the people I talked to had even been engineers but they're trying now to be farmers because that's the only opportunity they have to feed themselves," Locke said.
Gastronomically speaking, Locke did not get off to a good start his first few days in and around the town of Kochkor, population 60,000, where he talked potatoes for two weeks.
"In Kyrgyzstan they say a traveler is sent from God, so they're really kind to you," Locke said. In one home he was given kafir, a fermented milk that tasted kind of like runny yogurt. "I knew I shouldn't have drunk it, but to be polite you can't say no."
He soon felt the impact. "I was kind of green up until about noon and after that wasn't feeling too bad. But it took me about half the time I was there to recover from that."
It didn't take long for Locke to see the extent of the problem in Kyrgyz potato production: The region was producing just more than one ton per acre compared to 30-40 tons per acre in Oregon's Columbia Basin.
For one thing, the herdsmen-turned-farmers had little experience growing potatoes and thus were not rotating their crops, a standard U.S. practice that prevents potato insects and diseases from building up in the soil to decimate the crop.
On top of that, the Kyrgyz have little or no access to pesticides that keep pests in check. Yield-boosting synthetic fertilizers are not available either. "There's no regulation, so they have no idea about the concentration of what they are buying," Locke said.
Yet another problem, one not found in this country, is that much of the seed stock for new crops is laden with viruses and other diseases that sap yields. "They just save back seed from the previous year, which is built up with virus and everything else in it," Locke said. "And sometimes they eat the best potatoes and plant the worst, just exactly the opposite of what you should do if you're trying to get a good crop."
Through interpreters, Locke urged farmers to emulate the U.S. practice of rotating potatoes with other crops, such as alfalfa and cereal grains.
"Essentially, (in Oregon) we're in a nine-year rotation," Locke said. "Within that nine years we only plant potatoes three times at the most."
A normal rotation in Oregon starts with alfalfa, a three- to five-year perennial crop, followed by one year of potatoes that are then rotated annually with other crops, such as cereals, for three to five years until alfalfa goes back in.
One ideal alternate crop in Kyrgyzstan would be wheat, which the Kyrgyz bake into a popular bread called nan. "Eaten at all three meals, it's probably the most important food in their diet," Locke said. "They call potatoes their 'second bread.'"
Locke also advised the Kyrgyz to plant a "green manure," or legume, cover crop such as Austrian winter peas in the fall after harvest to build up both soil fertility and health.
"The peas fix nitrogen, the main component of fertilizer, from the air," he said.
The Kyrgyz plant mostly light-skinned white and red potatoes but no russets, which are very popular in the United States. "But they taste really good," he said.
One condition in Kyrgyzstan that Locke could do nothing about was the meager presence of tractors and farm implements that have enabled Americans to be so productive. With little or no access to pesticides and manufactured fertilizers they are truly growing crops organically.
Locke said he was impressed with how nice the Kyrgyz were to him.
"They're just as interested as we are in improving their daily lives," he said. "I was very comfortable there."
Prior to visiting Kyrgyzstan, Locke spent several weeks in Uganda helping that country with its potato crop.