This story is part of our "Best of 2011" series of reports, airing Dec. 26 to Dec. 30, 2011, on NET Radio, looking back at some of the top Signature Stories from NET News throughout the year. It originally aired March 29.
Drive along the slow rolling hills of State Highway 14 through the Nebraska Sandhills and you'll pass through the 13 block long town of Elgin. Off to the east side of the road is a big metal sign put up to honor the men and women who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are sixty-nine names out of a community that barely has 700 residents.
Elgin, Nebraska and the small towns and farms and ranches across Nebraska which service members left behind would love to have them come back to work after their tour of duty. A handful of programs around the country hope to give them the skills and encouragement they need to do just that. One ambitious project begun by the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture provides not just the education but the cattle.
Garrett Dwyer remembers when he decided to make a commitment to return to his family's ranch. It was during the times he was on guard duty 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," recalls Dwyer. "I was just thinking about every possibility of what I could do to make (the ranch) better."
A sign posted by the residents of Elgin, Nebraska lists the names of 69 men and women who have served, and in some cases given their lives, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The "Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots" program originated at the Nebraska College for Technical Agriculture.
Click here to see the latest United States Census Office breakdown of where veterans live in Nebraska.
The Dwyer's ranch had changed a lot as he'd grown up on the acres outside of Petersburg, Nebraska. For five generations dating back to the late 1800's, the family was well-known in the area 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. It's a source of pride even if there is a lot less land and a lot less cattle.
Today, bouncing along in his pick-up, Garrett 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. He decided while still in the Marines, he wanted to change all that. He explained to a visitor, "I don't know if I am a dreamer but that would be a goal of mine to put this ranch back together to what it once was."
Planning for that day is possible in part because of a unique program called "Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots." It encourages men and women straight out of the military and often looking for jobs to take ownership of farms and ranches in Nebraska.
Garrett Dwyer was one of the first to benefit from an idea that took root at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture. The dean, Weldon Sleight, 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 states emphatically.
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. NCTA 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 $1000 grant from an area foundation, current student prepared "care packages" for Nebraska service members that included welcome items like clean socks and beef jerky. "In those care packages," added Dean Sleight, "is a brochure about the 'Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots.'" For those who enroll, the first steps are classes in technical and business skills needed to run a farm or ranch. It's essential, but for an older student like Garrett 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 lead 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 hundred cows. Borrowers are charged less than 2% interest.
This is the foundation of the project, since owning a herd of cattle is unusual a young rancher these days. Explaining "that's collateral for me," Dwyer says obtaining his own cattle is essential for his long term success. "You own your cows or 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."
US 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 averaged 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. A young rancher faces a million dollar price tag before they even start.
The emphasis in every aspect of the curriculum at NCTA 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, Dean Sleight believes this can be very attractive to recent veterans. "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 explains. "That becomes what we want and we'll show them how to do it."
As a kid Wade Shipman 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. Sitting in the rodeo arena on the NCTA 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, explaining that veterans "in my situation would make good entrepreneurs and ranchers out here in rural Nebraska where they very badly need." As a result he is on track to become a rancher in Nebraska.
While taking a break from his combat duties as a Marine sniper in Afghanistan, Shipman was 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, but 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 loans. The class work 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.
For Garrett Dwyer, he has the family land as a base, but he doesn't yet own it. Too often, Dwyer says, 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 says that's a tragedy because "he's got nothing and no sense of ownership."
The program Dwyer helped pioneer may keep his family's operation out of those circumstances. He's already 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 Garrett Dwyer is living the life he dreamt about during those difficult days at war in Iraq. He calls it "transitioning."
"It's almost therapeutic being here," he says 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.
With the "Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots" program, Dwyer hopes other veterans will find the same peace of mind, to the benefit of rural America. "Why not bring them back to rural communities to farming or ranching or even a Main Street business and get them up and going again and starting their own farms and ranches."