From combat to cowboy duties: A helping hand in Nebraska

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Garrett Dwyer on his family's ranch. (Photo by Bill Kelly)
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Garrett Dwyer remembers when he decided to make a commitment to return to his family's ranch in Nebraska. It was during the times he was on guard duty as a Marine in Iraq, with plenty of time to think.

"I was sitting there on post a lot of times and it was like I want to come back home and I got some plans I want to do at home," Dwyer said. "I was just thinking about every possibility of what I could do to make (the ranch) better."

Today, bouncing along in his pick-up on his father’s ranch in Nebraska, Dwyer is close to realizing his dream, thanks in large part to a program at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture.

The program, called Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots, encourages men and women straight out of the military and often looking for jobs to take ownership of farms and ranches in Nebraska. It provides not just the education, but the cattle, to get started.

Weldon Sleight, dean of the college in Curtis, saw an opportunity to attract new, motivated students to campus while matching the college's mission of rural economic development.

"We're going to get them here," Sleight said.

The program is less a new approach than a collection of existing benefit packages and ideas targeted at a specific group. Veterans already have GI Bill benefits to continue their education. The college launched an aggressive marketing and publicity campaign to let veterans know they were welcome on this small campus tucked away in southwest Nebraska.

Using a $1,000 grant from an area foundation, the college prepared "care packages" for Nebraska service members that included welcome items like clean socks and beef jerky… and a brochure about Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots.

Wade Shipman left his family's dairy farm in Ohio to join the Marines. He hopes the "Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots" program will establish him as a rancher in Nebraska. (Photo by Bill Kelly)
A sign in Elgin, Nebraska lists the 69 men and women who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Photo by Bill Kelly)

Dwyer was among the first to jump in.

But it wasn’t easy. His family ranch had changed a lot as he'd grown up on the acres outside of Petersburg, Neb. For five generations dating back to the late 1800s, the family was well-known for raising the unique Red Angus breed of cattle, noticeable for their copper colored hides in a region more familiar with the Black Angus. At its height, the ranch stretched for hundreds of miles. Surveying the herd and fence lines sometimes had to be done in a small plane.

Dwyer explains that his aging father had reduced the herd to less than 100 animals. Much of the pared down acreage is leased to other ranchers — and Dwyer wanted to change that.

He first enrolled in classes focused on the technical and business skills needed to run a farm or ranch. It's essential, but for an older student like Dwyer it was an adjustment going from the Marine Corps back to class. He recalls "sitting there in class and all these kids right out of high school all know more than I do. I either forgot that or I didn't know that so I just pretend I knew what was going on."

Dwyer did fine in his classes and that led to the second level of assistance offered in the Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots program. The college connects students with an established program of low-interest, government loans to buy up to a 100 cows. Borrowers are charged less than 2 percent interest.

This is the foundation of the project, because owning a herd of cattle is unusual for a young rancher these days.

“That's collateral for me," Dwyer said. "You own your cows our tractors whatever the case. That's yours. You own that. You go to the bank and you say I have this collateral I want to buy a section of pasture now."

U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics reviewed by The High Plains Journal revealed there's an average of 44 cows in an average herd in the U.S. on an average size ranch of just over 400 acres. Figuring the market value for land is $2,140 and the average price for a good beef cow is $1,000 puts the price tag for this average-sized farm at $885,968 for land and $44,000 for the cows.

The emphasis in every aspect of the curriculum at the College of Technical Agriculture is on entrepreneurship. Before the veterans apply for the low-interest loans they also get help producing a long term business plan. Since this is the difference between working for a ranch and owning a piece of it, Sleight, the college dean, believes this can be very attractive to recent veterans.

After his service as a Marine sniper, Wade Shipman knew he wanted to become a rancher.
Garrett Dwyer during his stint as a Marine in Iraq.

"That's not such a far-fetched for a military kid that's put their life on their line to protect this land we own," Sleight said. "That becomes what we want and we'll show them how to do it."

Consider the experience of Wade Shipman, who always assumed he would stay put on his family's dairy farm in northern Ohio. That was before suburban growth completely boxed in the operation and made growing the farm impossible. And today, sitting in the rodeo arena on the Nebraska college campus between classes, he looks and sounds more western cowboy than Ohio dairy farmer.

The "Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots" program is a perfect fit for him, he said, explaining that veterans "in my situation would make good entrepreneurs and ranchers out here in rural Nebraska where they very badly need."

While taking a break from his combat duties as a Marine sniper in Afghanistan, Shipman read an article in Successful Farmer magazine about a Nebraska rancher who wondered what would happen to his operation after he retired. Shipman wrote him a letter and "they are the ones that turned me on to the school down here."

Not only did he enroll, he stayed in contact with the rancher with whom he is creating a long-term business relationship. Shipman explains the goal is to connect retiring ranchers with recent veterans "before it gets to the point gets there where they are retired or passing away so you can learn from them and learn how the operations ran so when the reins get turned over to you, you have an understanding of how to do it."

By setting up lease agreements with his ranching partner, Shipman has a place to maintain the herd he acquired using the low-interest loan. The classwork prepares him with the business, breeding and animal care skills. A business plan improves the odds for success. Eventually Shipman hopes to have both the income and the collateral that he might be able to acquire the Nebraska ranch from his mentoring rancher.

Dwyer, meanwhile, has the family land as a base, but he doesn't yet own it. Too often, Dwyer said, families have not adequately prepared the next generation financially or in training on the business side. In some cases he's seen when "the son's been working on the place for 30 or 34 years and he's got nothing, He's got no land to his name. He's got none of the cattle. He's just working for his dad." Dwyer said that's a tragedy because "he's got nothing and no sense of ownership."

But Dwyer has built a small cabin away from his family home, but on the family's land. With a front porch looking west, one bedroom and brand new appliances, it's all a bachelor rancher needs.

With the gas fireplace warming his tiny home on a chilly spring morning Dwyer is living the life he dreamed about during those difficult days at war in Iraq. He calls it "transitioning."

"It's almost therapeutic being here," he said quietly. He likes living on his own "away from all the people and big cities and doing my own thing and living where I want to live.