War and cattle: How one Nebraskan made it from two tours in Iraq to ranching in the Sandhills

War and cattle: How one Nebraskan made it from two tours in Iraq to ranching in the Sandhills
January 27th, 2023 | Leo Adam Biga, Flatwater Free Press

Garrett Dwyer runs about 500 head of Hereford and Angus cattle on his Bartlett ranch on the east edge of the Sandhills. The land he’s on today has been in his family since 1894, when his great-great grandfather homesteaded the place. Dwyer, who grew up here with his three sisters, is now the fifth generation in his family to ranch this land.

But Dwyer didn’t take over this ranch until he did something far from home. For five years, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps, including two combat tours in Iraq. Now, he’s taking advantage of a national nonprofit initiative, the Farmer Veteran Coalition, that aims to re-energize small agriculture by supporting military veterans who want to work the land.

Dwyer well knows that small family farming and ranching is increasingly rare. The century-long trend of families abandoning or selling off farms has slowed, but not entirely halted, in recent years, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture census data. 

The Farmer Veteran Coalition is attempting to bend that trend line, while helping service members transition to a post-military career.

Some veterans, like Dwyer, 36, grew up on a farm and left to enlist, always intending to come back. 

Other farm kids-turned-veterans have been lured back by the opportunity to carry on a legacy or to start one of their own. And still others with no farm or ranch background are grabbing the chance to get trained to farm for the first time. 

In Dwyer’s case: “It’s pretty special to have something like this that enables me to continue to work and ranch the same land as my early grandparents,” he said.

The Dwyer Ranch and football is all Garrett Dwyer knew as a kid, until the morning when the high school sophomore watched as planes smashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. 

“I remember very vividly watching that on TV and thinking, well, we’re going to go to war with somebody,” Dwyer said. “That sealed the deal for me then, so I knew that’s what I wanted to go do. I wanted to serve.”

He enlisted at 18 as soon as he graduated from Pope John Central Catholic High School in Elgin.

Soon, he found himself assigned to patrol duties outside the central Iraq city of Ramadi, in the middle of a dusty, destroyed urban landscape far different from the rolling pastures back home.  

He knew returning to the family farm was an option when he got out. He also knew he needed to learn modern farm management and business practices to succeed in competitive modern agriculture.

Once back in civilian life, he enrolled in the University of Nebraska’s Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture. He completed one program, Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots, geared to veterans. He became that group’s public face as the Curtis-based ag college sought to attract more veterans. 

He then did another, 100 Cow Advantage, that offered business training and mentoring.

His hardest struggle: morphing from battle-hardened Marine to student-civilian.

“School was filled with 18- and 19-year-olds and then there was me. It was culture shock going from where I’d been and what I’d done to getting thrown in with kids,” he said. “That transition was a real tough thing for me to handle.”

Meanwhile, the national Farmer Veteran Coalition learned of Dwyer. In him, the coalition saw a rugged, soft-spoken steward of the land, a poster farmer-veteran for its mission. 

Soon, Dwyer was traveling the country promoting the Farmer Veteran Coalition and serving on its board of directors.

Nationwide, FVC counts 37,000-plus farmer-veteran members across all five branches of the service. Many are service-disabled vets. Members are eligible to apply for grants. 

Its largest monetary resource, the Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund, has awarded more than $4 million to members. Grant applicants must devise a business plan as part of their application. Dwyer received a grant when first starting out on his own. 

He loved that the Farmer Veteran Coalition understood that, if you are lucky and work hard, farming can pay the bills. 

It can also heal. 

“Agriculture is a very tough business,” he said. “It is also I think therapeutic to put veterans into working with the land. Just that physical activity, even the mental hardships that come along with farming and ranching…Veterans like the challenge of it. There’s always something new and always something to do. Nothing stays the same.”

As with military service, he said, farming requires initiative in order to succeed. There’s no one else to do the work for you, he said. No one else who gets the credit, or the blame. 

“You reap what you sow…That’s rewarding in itself.” 

He’s found that the lifestyle helps ward off the demons that can come with PTSD, which he was diagnosed with upon his return stateside. 

“The biggest thing to help with that is staying busy,” he said. “It’s hard to really sit back and think about the past with family and work chores. It will keep your mind off those things. That seems to be the best medicine right now.”

His own PTSD has eased in severity, he said, in part because he feels fortunate to have “another mission” to give him purpose. Others haven’t been as fortunate – Dwyer has lost friends to suicide. 

“Unfortunately, some of my buddies didn’t move on,” he said.

Because Nebraska farmers are spread out across the state, hobnobbing with fellow vets who actively farm isn’t always easy. But in Dwyer’s case, his nearest neighbor, Travis Rich, is also a Marine veteran. Rich still serves in the Air Force Reserve.

They share the Marine Corps service and experience. They grew up near the same time and place. They’re also married with kids. Dwyer has four. Rich has three. Both their wives are nurse practitioners. 

“We’ve got kind of the same thing going on. It’s neat to have all that,” said Dwyer. “We know each other now rather well.” 

Dan Hromas with Prairie Pride Acres, formerly Prairie Pride Poultry, raises grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork and sells it in part at farmer’s markets. 
Hromas, a military veteran who served in the MIddle East, is one of a half-dozen Nebraska veterans to receive a grant from the Farmer Veteran Coalition to start or build a career in agriculture.

Across fence posts, over beers at a bar or in online meetups, farmer-veterans tend to have each other’s backs, they say.

Dwyer is among 307 veterans in Nebraska who have been assisted in some way by the Farmer Veteran Coalition, the group says.

Dwyer and five others have received grants, including Marine veteran Dan Hromas with Prairie Pride Acres in central Nebraska and Brenda Dutcher, a member of the Nebraska Army National Guard, who with her husband runs Briar Rose Farms in Humboldt. 

Dutcher used her grant to buy a large trailer to transport, refrigerate and sell pasture-raised beef at farmers’ markets. Having a resource like the Farmer Veteran Coalition is, she said, “important to help farmers starting out avoid debt.”

Dwyer used his grant to buy a truckload of alfalfa for his herd, which he’s more than tripled in size.

He says he struggled his first couple years on the ranch after taking out loans to modernize the ranch’s equipment. But more recently, the balance sheet – and life – have stabilized.

Still, Dwyer well knows: Farming is always a crapshoot. 

“Even in the last few years I’ve seen just about everything, from flooding to drought, then COVID,” he said. “The market prices fell off, now they’re bouncing up due to inflation. Nothing surprises me anymore.” 

He also navigated disputes with his parents over how to run things. Often they preferred the status quo, and he wanted to ranch differently.

“You don’t want to do what they did or what grandpa did. If you do that you’re not going to get very far.”

His folks are no longer actively involved in the operation. Now Dwyer is intent on learning new things. He wants to make the ranch better. He wants to secure a legacy for his own children.

“I tell everybody I’m working for my kids now. That’s what it’s all about. If they want the opportunity to come back here, I want it to be there for them. It’s a tough, challenging process to pass this onto the next generation.”

Some days, he wonders what he got himself into. Most days, he has no regrets. At the end of the day, even hard days, he thinks it’s a good way of life. He thinks it’s a good place to raise a family. 

He sees the challenges, but also the rewards. 

“All the work you put into your operation, at the end of the day you can look back and say, hey, I did that.”

As Dwyer has become his own rancher, more support for veterans in agriculture has emerged. 

One, the AgVets program, is a three-year training program for veterans interested in, or already involved with, agriculture. The federal program, facilitated here by Nebraska Extension and the Center for Rural Affairs, includes workshops, field demonstrations, business planning and mentoring – much of it led by military veterans who now farm. 

Dwyer is glad to see new resources for veterans re-entering agriculture or entering it for the first time. 

Sustaining a farming operation can be hard. It can be a lonely, overwhelming experience, Dwyer said. It’s why he leans into the camaraderie of fellow warrior-farmers. Their shared enemies today? Weather extremes, pests, government regulations, grain prices, bank notes and market fluctuations, he said. There’s plenty to talk about.

“We all have the military in common and we’re all in agriculture,” Dwyer said. “Being able to talk about farming and ranching operations is pretty neat.” 


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