BOISE To help poor Afghan villagers make money on potatoes instead of opium poppies, Idaho farmer Pat Rowe borrowed a root cellar design common across his home state's famous potato country in the 1930s and 1940s.
The 68-year-old Rowe, whose family raises tubers and wheat on 2,000 acres near American Falls, went to the country as part of a $6.4 million U.S. Department of Agriculture program meant to fill gaps in Afghanistan's food supply chain and develop agriculture to compete with the forbidden poppies that fuel the country's heroin trade.
As part of his work in Bamiyan, located about 100 miles west of Kabul, Rowe said it was important his potato sheds not be too sophisticated. They had to be built with materials readily available in the impoverished valley between the Hindu Kush and the Koh-i-Baba mountains with only dirt roads, a gravel runway, scant trees and almost no electricity.
Before leaving, he took notes from neighbors on Idaho's Snake River plain who had an old root cellar on their property.
"You look at what people are using and see what they are doing," Rowe said of his trip. "You don't want to be a crazy foreigner with all these ideas. You've got to be practical with the application."
Rowe's work in January 2006 won mention earlier this month by first lady Laura Bush.
She was in France for the International Conference in Support of Afghanistan on June 12 when she brought up Rowe's root cellars in a speech before an audience that included French President Nicolas Sarkozy, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.
"Afghan potato farmers in Bamiyan have learned storage methods from an Idaho potato farmer that are making their crops more profitable," said Bush, who had made an unannounced trip to Bamiyan four days earlier.
Paul Sippola, the Central and South Asia program officer for private Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit development outfit CNFA, which ran the Department of Agriculture aid program, said Rowe's retro cellar design was used in about 50 potato storage sheds in Afghanistan.
It's now being replicated with a few modifications to suit local needs in Pakistan's Kashmir region, where seed potato farmers' livelihoods were devastated by the 2005 earthquake, Sippola said.
"It's essentially the same one that Pat developed," he said in a phone interview. "Pat's work, which started in Afghanistan, has really grown. It's fed over into some of our other programs because the success of it has been really pronounced."
Rowe is a veteran of nearly 30 U.S. government-sponsored trips to developing countries, including Egypt, China and Zimbabwe to help promote new agricultural techniques.
Farmers in Bamiyan, an ancient village on the Silk Road that spent 1,500 years in the shadow of two huge Buddha statues before they were dynamited by the Taliban in 2001, had no efficient way to store potatoes following their harvest, leading to drastic food-price increases and shortages.
"When the harvest is on, there's a glut," Rowe said. "If they could store them there, they can double or triple their money. "I was told once they were built, price of potatoes doubled as soon as harvest was over. If you had enough of those sheds built, it would make more food available to people at a reasonable price."
Afghanistan has seen a spiraling heroin trade and resurgent violence, even as the U.S. and NATO have poured thousands of new troops into the country. Last year, more than 8,000 people were killed in insurgency-related attacks, and violence has claimed more than 1,500 lives this year.
Still, Rowe said he felt safe in wintry Bamiyan, where he remembers there was a skiff of snow on the ground, the surrounding mountains were bleak and bare, and his 45-minute return flight to Kabul was delayed for days by storms.
"It was colder than hell," he remembers. "It was just plumb uncomfortable."
Winning a mention from Laura Bush is a sign that Rowe's root cellars accomplished what he'd intended.
"Just the fact that somebody in Bamiyan remembered," he said. "Something went on good there. The people are good people. The folks I worked with, I'd swim the Snake River for them."