When The New Arab first arrived at Azad's farm near Halabja, he was deep in conversation with local blacksmiths to help construct a new structure for his beloved fruit trees.
Yet as Azad would later tell us, these aren't just any normal fruit trees, but rather a "symbol of pride for the Kurdish nation."
The 50-year-old gardener has dedicated 35 years to exploring new innovative methods to garden, and has been revered both regionally and internationally for his achievements; the most notable of which has been a tree which has been grafted 81 times.
But life hasn't always been so rosy. Azad was one of the fortunate survivors of the Halabja chemical attack by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain in 1988, in which more than 5000 people were killed, and tens of thousands were either wounded or displaced. Still, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Kurdish spirit endures.
When one first enters Azad's seven-acre orchard, the first thing you notice is a large wall of certificates, agricultural products and letters of appreciation from his fans, leading onto a classroom which Azad uses to lecture newly graduated agriculture students.
"This farm is a public university for the future prosperity of the Kurdish nation", Azad told The New Arab. "I've received accreditation and congratulations from as far as Japan, France, the UK, Italy and Sweden. I've travelled both to Japan and France to spread my knowledge on the back of my achievements."
One of Azad's recent pursuits is testing whether a cancerous tree can infect others, via the process of connection. This experiment has caused international interest.
"The French consul in Erbil has toured my farm and has since granted me a year-long visa to present the findings of my experiment. Some of my projects take five years to complete, such is the nature of the task," Azad proudly informed The New Arab.
Time is of the essence, however. According to the United Nations, Iraq is the fifth most vulnerable country to the climate crisis. The country also suffers from regular droughts, caused by low rainfall and the building of dams by neighbouring countries Iraq and Turkey.
In the past few weeks, Iraq has witnessed weekly sandstorms, the worst in living memory. Azad hopes that his innovative methods of farming will go some way to help mitigate these present threats.
"My most crucial innovation to date, in my opinion, is the cultivation of rice through a circulatory water system that defies drought," he said, "I water the rice for half an hour every 24 hours, reusing the same water in a cyclical way. This has not only been a successful experiment, but I found that the size of my crops has doubled. Now, our farmers have no more excuses to not grow rice."
Furthermore, for the first time in Iraq, Azad has grown turmeric successfully. "Growing turmeric is another one of my important tasks. I call upon our farmers and government to let us grow this plant and export it to other countries," Azad said.
But it would seem that the Kurdish authorities are not forthcoming. Not to be deterred, Azad has grown his Facebook to over 500,000 followers, and uses his platform to advocate for greater means of farming and as an instructional outlet for prospective farmers around the world by teaching them how to take care of their plants, trees and farms.
"With the droughts getting worse, my social media posts are increasingly important. The only solution I have since found is to minimize the distance between trees, thus needing less water to irrigate our farms. We should use our trees as an umbrella to protect the soil from drying.
Several years ago, the KRG Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources banned all farmers and villagers from digging deep wells, as the Kurdish authorities claimed that the reservoir of groundwater has decreased. In doing so, many farmers were forced to leave their farms to live in the cities. Azad said the KRG policy, which is meant to preserve the underground water, is wrong.
"I've always said that if the KRG [Kurdish Regional Government] does not allow farmers from digging deep wells, our lands will be destroyed and will lead to setbacks that may take over a century to fix. When water springs go dry, the government's refusal to allow villagers from digging wells will massively impact food security and our soil will become a desert." Azad passionately told The New Arab.
Azad argued that by digging more deep wells groundwater will not be reduced, but rather the opposite. “If the surface of our lands were wet and moisturized we would need less water for irrigation. But if we lost our plants and the soil became dry, then the groundwater would even go deeper.”
But Azad is still content with his work to help the next generation. “Whatever I have done was not for the purposes of money and posts, I am just serving my homeland. I have promised Allah to dedicate what I do to him, I only want a reward from God on the Day of Judgment. ”
He is working on multiple agricultural crops. “I have grown six types of rice, 15 kinds of tomatoes, 27 types of pumpkins, and other products.”
He concluded that although the Kurdistan region and Iraq have the most fertilized soil in the world, agriculture in Iraq and the Iraqi Kurdistan region is facing annihilation due the lack of planning by the authorities, and since local products cannot compete with imported food from Iran and Turkey.
“If the authorities cannot find markets for the local products, they can establish agricultural industries so that we might depend on ourselves, and create jobs for young graduates of agricultural colleges. Let us not only depend on the income from selling oil, let us return to agriculture that our forefathers have been doing since the dawn of time.”
Dana Taib Menmy is an investigative freelance journalist from the Iraqi Kurdistan region writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities. His work has appeared in Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English, Middle East Eye, The National, among many other outlets.
Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy