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Cashmere project to boost Afghan economy

March 1, 2013
by Coleman Cornelius

Agricultural scientists at Colorado State University have landed a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to establish an enterprise farm that will produce high-quality cashmere fiber and will earn a premium for farmers in war-torn Afghanistan.

College of Agricultural Sciences researchers Ajay Jha, Nancy Irlbeck and Kraig Peel are launching a project to build a sustainable cashmere industry in rural Afghanistan.A team from the CSU College of Agricultural Sciences will soon begin work with local farmers to build a herd of 2,000 cashmere-producing goats in the western province of Herat, Afghanistan. The demonstration project will span two years.

The goal is to spark sustainable economic development by helping Afghan farmers identify superior goat genetics, and by teaching farmers best practices in animal husbandry, fiber harvesting, cashmere grading and marketing, and economic principles for success, said Ajay Jha, an assistant professor and project leader. He departed last week to kick off the cashmere project in Afghanistan.

Economic opportunity

Ajay Jha, an assistant professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences, has led several international development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.“We want to help create a profitable and sustainable enterprise with cashmere,” said Jha, who has worked on several international development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We are focusing on how we can establish a model that can be replicated, scaled up and sustained beyond the project timeline. We’re really trying to help bring some synergy for economic opportunity back to Afghanistan.”

Creating peace and stability

The U.S. Department of Defense's Task Force for Business and Stability Operations is among the federal agencies that fund university projects in international development – often related to agriculture – because food and economic security are critical to creating international peace and stability.

Harvested with a combing process, cashmere is downy soft and is used for year-round garments.A cashmere project is ideal in Afghanistan for several reasons, the CSU researchers noted. First, the Asian nation already is one of the world’s top cashmere producers. But unlike China and Mongolia – countries that produce cashmere of notable quantity and quality – Afghanistan lacks consistent product quality and linkages to the premium market; that’s where the CSU team comes in.

Cashmere's popularity

The finest cashmere is whisper-soft, combed from the goat’s fine undercoat, and is light-colored or white. Open any high-end clothing catalog and it’s easy to see why: Light-colored cashmere wool may be dyed colors ranging from pastel to Popsicle – and rendered in four-season garments. Cashmere has become so popular that many stores and brands tout entire cashmere shops within their retail outlets and on their websites.

Cashmere fiber comes from the undercoat of many goat species.So a first step for the CSU researchers is helping Afghans establish improved herd genetics by selecting sires and dams with desirable traits, such as light-colored and white fleece, said Kraig Peel, an assistant professor and director of the CSU Western Center for Integrated Resource Management. Part of Peel’s role will be improving goat genetics through cross-breeding and reproductive techniques, such as artificial insemination.

Well-suited for Afghanistan

“Goats can thrive on lower-quality forage and in harsh climates, so they are very well-suited for Afghanistan,” Peel said. “Cashmere can also be a very lucrative product when farmers have established superior genetics and all the important management practices and market linkages. That’s where we hope to help.”

Cashmere-producing goats thrive even in harsh climates.Nancy Irlbeck, associate dean of academic affairs in the CSU College of Agricultural Sciences, will contribute knowledge of nutrition and fiber harvesting. Higher-quality cashmere often is harvested through a combing process, rather than shearing, so training and fiber grading will be a key part of the demonstration model, she said.

Improving quality of life

“It’s exciting for us to establish an enterprise project that features best management practices and could really help people in a part of the world that’s been devastated by years of war,” Irlbeck said. “Our college prides itself on work that helps improve quality of life for people around the world, and this project is an example.”