COLUMBIA, S.C — Soldiers from a South Carolina Army National Guard unit are toting rifles and teaching soil conservation at the same time, trying to use their home-grown knowledge to improve the lives of farmers in southwestern Afghanistan.

Fifth-generation South Carolina farmer and 27-year Army veteran Maj. Dwight Bradham is the senior officer in charge of the group, known as the South Carolina Agribusiness Development Team.

“We are the first unit of this type to operate in southwest Afghanistan,” Bradham, 47, of Aiken, said by telephone from the unit’s post in Helmand province.

Guard units from nine states are serving elsewhere around the country in an effort that began in 2008.

Their work is aimed at helping Afghan farmers improve agriculture and turn away from growing poppies, which powers the opiate drug trade that subsidizes the Taliban.

“If we can help them produce crops that make financial sense, and help them support their families, they will switch,” said Bradham, who still farms in Clarendon County.

The group of about 60 soldiers is the second such South Carolina agricultural development team to take on the mission.

A third unit is in training, and Gov. Nikki Haley’s husband Michael announced he will deploy with it in early 2013 for a year. It hasn’t been announced where it will deploy.

Haley, who joined the Guard as an officer in 2006, has never been deployed overseas. After serving as a medical service corps officer, he now is a strategic planning officer in the Guard’s Columbia headquarters.

Guard spokesman Col. Pete Brooks has said Haley’s background as a businessman will help the team, which also includes security officers and other support personnel.

“About a dozen of us have a strong agricultural background and several have professional `ag’ educations,” Bradham said.

His unit is halfway through its yearlong deployment. Team members are focused on helping local farmers improve agricultural methods, as well as building a network of extension agents that farmers can rely on for information, Bradham said.

“I look at it as farmers helping farmers,” said Maj. Denton Smith, of Blythewood.

“Farmers speak the same language and have the same goals, growing it bigger and better and more of it, whether crops or livestock,” Smith said. “We want to support ourselves and our families.”

Smith, 36, who grew up farming in Pennsylvania, said the crops are familiar to both groups with grains such as corn, wheat and barley, as well as staples like cotton and peanuts. Common vegetables include cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, okra and melons.

Afghan cotton has shorter fibers and is used to stuff pillows and to hand loom fabrics. Corn is used for cornmeal and as an animal feed, Smith said.

Timothy Davis, a civilian Defense Department contractor who is an agribusiness specialist with the group and also is from Blythewood, said he felt right at home among the crops.

“I was ready to break out a frying pan and make a good ol’ Southern meal,” Davis said of the okra, onions and black-eyed peas. “I recently had a discussion with an (Afghan) agriculture professional about the uses of corn. He was surprised to learn about the Southern affection for cornbread.”

Davis said one of the biggest issues they are trying to tackle is “gaps in the economic chain from farm to table.”

“They are looking for tools to produce the food and fiber, and to get it to market,” he said. If those can’t be found, “we have to rely on good management practices to help solve most of the problems.”

The Afghan agriculture is subsistence level, and farmers have few mechanical aids to rely on, although the program has helped bring tractors to some areas, Smith said.

Major differences are that Afghan farmers have smaller areas to plant than many American farmers. Also, water is scarce in many areas. Irrigation may be done using furrows and floods, he said.

The country is emerging from a 10-year drought, Smith said.

Master Sgt. Timothy Hutto, 44, also from Aiken, said his experience with livestock and crop production shows even small things can make a big difference.

“Just explaining grazing techniques and how to rotate fields, helps them increase body fat and cut down disease and malnutrition in their livestock,” Hutto said. Helping adapt the timing of breeding is another way to increase production.

Before deploying, each group of soldiers attends weeks of intensive training, which includes classes on topics as bee-keeping, livestock management and food preservation, said Mac Horton, head of Clemson University’s Sandhill Research and Education Center northeast of Columbia.

“Due to the years of conflict they have endured, including the invasion of the Soviets, the Afghan agricultural base has suffered greatly,” Horton said. “Drawing on the agricultural expertise that we have in our state, it is a real foundation of this effort.”

Horton said the units from the various states stay in contact while in Afghanistan, and at times get in touch with land-grant universities in their home states.

Those schools provide up-to-date technical support for issues like identifying soil types, various irrigation issues, fertilizer application, pest management, food marketing and harvesting and storage practices.

At present, other Guard units from Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Texas and Wisconsin are in Afghanistan, said Rose Richeson, spokeswoman with the National Guard Bureau. Other states that have sent units in the past include Kansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, California, Iowa, Illinois, Nevada and Arkansas.

Idaho has committed to join the effort in the future, Richeson said.

Up to now, some 2,585 Army, Air National Guard and civilian team members have deployed with the units, she said.