How one Nebraskan made it from two tours in Iraq to ranching in the Sandhills

1 month ago Fremont Tribune

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 it. Dwyer, who grew up there, is the fifth generation in his family to ranch the land.

But Dwyer didn’t take over the family 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 reenergize 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 halted in recent years, according to census data.

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

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

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

“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,” Dwyer said.

Ranching and football were all he knew as a kid, until the morning when the high school sophomore watched as planes smashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“I remember very vividly watching … 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 age 18 as soon as he graduated from Pope John High School in Elgin.

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

He knew returning to the farm was an option when he got out of the service. He also knew he needed to learn modern farming practices to succeed.

Once back in civilian life, he enrolled at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis. He completed one program, Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots, geared to veterans.

He finished another, 100 Cow Advantage, that offered business training.

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,” he said. “That transition was a real tough thing.”

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

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

Nationwide, the Farmer Veteran Coalition counts 37,000 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, who must devise a business plan to apply.

Dwyer, who received a grant, loved that the coalition understood that, if you are lucky and work hard, farming can pay the bills.

It can also heal.

It’s “therapeutic to put veterans into working with the land,” Dwyer said. “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.”

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.

His 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.

“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.”

With farmers spread across the state, hobnobbing with fellow vets who farm isn’t always easy.

But Dwyer’s neighbor, Travis Reich, also happens to be a Marine veteran. Reich now serves in the Air Force Reserve.

They share the Marine experience. They grew up in the same place. They’re also married with kids — Dwyer has four, Reich three. Both their wives are nurse practitioners.

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

Across fence posts 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 helped in some way by the Farmer Veteran Coalition, according to the group.

Dwyer and five others have received grants, including Marine veteran Dan Hromas, who runs central Nebraska’s Prairie Pride Acres, 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 sell 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 few years on the ranch after taking out loans to modernize 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. “Nothing surprises me anymore.”

Now Dwyer is intent on learning new things. He wants to make the ranch better. He wants to secure a legacy for the next Dwyer generation.

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

He’s glad more support for veterans in agriculture has emerged.

One example: AgVets, a three-year training program run by Nebraska Extension and the Center for Rural Affairs. It offers workshops, field demonstrations and business planning — much of it led by military veterans who now farm.

And he’s glad to have the camaraderie of fellow warrior-farmers. Ag can be a lonely, overwhelming experience, Dwyer said. But it’s easier with friends who can talk about their new shared enemies: weather extremes, pests, grain prices, bank notes and market fluctuations.

Dwyer sees the challenges of ranching. But he can also see 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,” he said.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

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