Samia Sakandari, 31, an agricultural trainer with a US-funded aid program, shows village women in Mir Bacha Kot, Afghanistan, how to properly prune grapes for export. She is part of a project to turn local grape growing into a profitable international business. (Pam Constable/The Washington Post)

Abdul Qadir, a farmer in the fertile Shomali region north of Kabul, grows grapes much the same way his father and grandfather did. He tends his vines close to the ground, crams clusters into big plastic sacks, drives them 25 miles to the capital and sells them from his car for about $3 a bag.

Abdul Qudoos, a grower and trader from the same district, has abandoned such old-fashioned ways. He ties his vines to concrete trellises, chills grapes in a cold storage facility, packs them in imported boxes and ships them by container to India and Dubai. This year, he was able to invest $200,000 in his expanding fruit business.

Qudoos, 38, made that leap with support from a U.S.-funded agricultural marketing program that American officials call a small but exceptional success in a decade of economic assistance. The project has endured many difficulties, including Taliban attacks and resistance from farmers. But now, it may face its biggest challenge. With most U.S. troops scheduled to withdraw by next year, and an uncertain presidential election set for April, the project must soon be turned over to Afghan hands.

And that raises the question of whether the ambitious program will produce more thriving farmers like Qudoos or will wither on the vine.

“I risked my money and I sent my grapes beyond Pakistan, farther than my family had ever done. Most people aren’t willing to do that,” said Qudoos, proudly holding up an imported packing box with his company name and a colorful fruit logo. “I took some loss at first, but now I am making 30 percent more than we ever did before.”

(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

For several years, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has worked to help small Afghan farmers shift from traditional local crops, such as wheat, into high-value exports. Better-quality grapes and nuts, they point out, also can out-earn opium poppies, which find eager buyers in the drug trade.

The grape program has faced an array of obstacles unique to Afghanistan, such as land mines left in vineyards from years of war and threats from Taliban insurgents. It has also required participants to imagine a different way of life and to take financial risks for the prospect of long-term gain — concepts that remain rare in this traditional, rural society.

‘It’s like training wheels’

Like all USAID programs, the grape project must be turned over to Afghans, partly because of U.S. transition policy and partly because of new requirements from international donors that 50 percent of every aid program be budgeted through the Afghan government.

William Hammink, the USAID director in Kabul, said that the agency “will remain a close development partner with Afghanistan for years to come” but that “a major part of our transition is to ensure that everything we do is Afghan-led, with Afghan ownership and commitment to sustainability.” He called the farm marketing program an “exciting example of what is possible in the future.”

Much of the expertise and field training has been provided — with USAID support — by a California-­based nonprofit group called Roots of Peace, which has worked in Afghanistan for a decade and prepared local managers to carry on its work. But as foreign financial and technical assistance shrinks, there are concerns that Afghan officials and private partners may be unable or unwilling to adapt.

“We haven’t coddled anyone, but we have to get more Afghans invested in this opportunity, because we will be fading out,” Gary Kuhn, executive director of Roots of Peace, said during a recent visit. To sustain high-quality fruit exports, he said, local traders and bureaucrats will need to assume new risks and responsibilities. “It’s like training wheels,” he said.

On paper, the project’s record is impressive. It has helped 19,000 farmers plant new orchards and vineyards, trained 85,000 in better techniques, and subsidized cold storage plants and initial fruit shipments abroad. Today, USAID officials said, trellised and chilled grapes earn the highest profit margin of all Afghan produce. In 2010, one hectare of wheat netted $2,000, ordinary grapes $5,700, apples $6,200 and trellised grapes $11,000. Opium poppies netted $4,100.

Resourcefulness and diplomacy have helped the program overcome glitches and threats. Officials provided thousands of wooden grape trellises but found farmers using them for firewood, so they switched to concrete posts. Field workers were threatened by the Taliban, which often targets Western aid programs and strongly opposes those that employ Afghan women. But Kuhn said Afghan intermediaries reached a modus vivendi with local insurgents.

“At first, we faced resistance from farmers too. We provided them with a lot of posts, but they were not keen on changing,” said Abdul Razzak, a veteran agricultural technician with USAID. “But slowly they have realized that the system works and they are getting better-quality grapes. Now they are coming to us for posts.”

‘We started from zero’

Still, for every enthusiastic beneficiary like Qudoos, a hundred farmers remain skeptical or unaware of the program. And the grape project highlights the difficulties facing even relatively successful development efforts here.

In Shomali, years of conflict had turned most vineyards into charred ruins, and small farmers spent every penny replanting them over the past decade. Some said they could not afford to rent space in cold storage facilities or did not trust traders to ship their crops and pay them back later.

As Kuhn and a group of visitors drove through Shomali last week, they passed endless mud-walled gardens with low-growing bushes bearing grapes that would start to spoil as soon as they were picked.

At several trellised vineyards belonging to program participants, the visitors were greeted warmly. But at one farm, where village women covered in burqas were being taught to prune grapes, the patriarch said the visitors would not be allowed to travel outside the compound to see the nearby packing plant.

At a second vineyard, owner Said Zubair proudly displayed rows of new trellised vines bursting with green and red grapes. Yet he also complained that he could not afford to pay for access to the packing plant. None of the local growers knew of any program that would give them credit.

“We started from zero, and we learned that it is so much neater and easier to brace the grapes up high,” Zubair said. “But I don’t have the resources to go to the cold house, and the traders take our grapes on loan, so most farmers don’t trust them.”

Another new outlet for Afghan fruit, the country’s first juice-
processing plant in Kabul, has encountered graver troubles. In December, a suicide truck bomber struck outside, destroying almost half the facility. Today, it is back in operation, and owner Mustafa Sadiq last week treated visitors from Roots of Peace — which provided him with start-up support — to glasses of sweet melon, berry and pomegranate juice.

But Sadiq complained that he had difficulty connecting with far-flung small farmers to bring him their leftover fruit and had to import skilled technicians from India to run his European machinery. He said that after the attack, he received neither sympathy nor help from Afghan government ministries, which he described as corrupt and incompetent.

A few miles across the capital, in the Deh Maskan produce market, Abdul Qadir unloaded his station wagon, which was full of warm, drooping grapes. He said he knew that trellising and chilling would enable them to last longer but said he could barely afford $150 per week in generator fuel to irrigate his vines, let alone invest far more in a dream — like sending perfect grapes to India.

“If I had the money, I would put all my grapes on pillars and send them to the refrigerators,” said Qadir, 38, who tends about 1,000 grape bushes. “I inherited my grandfather’s land and way of doing things, and I sell about 70 sacks here every day. It’s enough to make ends meet, and it is a blessing from God.”