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Michigan military men find second calling as dairymen

Bev Berens for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 November 2017
John Bennett (left) and Michael O'Farrell

John Bennett and Michael O’Farrell, West Branch, Michigan, are dairy farmers on opposite ends of careers – O’Farrell is just beginning while Bennett is closer to the exit sign of semi-retirement.

Besides cows, serving on the Sunrise Local Michigan Milk Producers Cooperative board, a commitment to agriculture and community, the men share another experience only those who have walked that path can truly understand: time spent in military service.

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Serving in Iraq

O’Farrell, 32, grew up in Rose City, Michigan. He worked on a friend’s farm during high school but had no desire to stick around after graduation. He joined the Marine Corps Reserve right out of high school to finance college. He did two tours in Iraq during his military commitment, landing in Kuwait on his 21st birthday during his first tour thinking, “Now I can’t drink for six months.”

Michael O'Farrell, right, served two tours in Iraq as a Mariene Corps reservistAbout a year was spent in basic and extended training before being released for home, going to school and working for a year prior to being summoned for active duty in 2006.

Attached to a unit from South Bend, Indiana, O’Farrell was a back-up Husky operator whose job was to clear routes using metal detectors and find improvised explosive devices planted in and along roadways.

Michael O'Farrell enjoyed the company of Cannines who showed up at camp

“In a way, the vehicles were one of the safest places to be; they were designed to take explosives,” he said. Their unit lost one soldier to sniper fire, but he says that in the grand scheme of things, they were very fortunate and protected.

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He also did construction in and around base camps. “By the time I went on deployment again the second time, west of Baghdad, things were winding down and we were packing a lot of shipping containers to return home.”

Michaels O'Farrell and his wife, Abbey

Abbey and Michael met and became engaged between deployments and married in 2010. Abbey earned a degree in animal science through North Carolina State University on a cross-country scholarship and later an MBA online.

Michael completed a two-year auto repair certificate through Kirtland Community College but admits it took a long time between deployments and active duty to earn that certificate.

Michael farms in partnership with Abbey, her brother Reuben and their parents at Lemajru Dairy Farm where they milk 115 cows on two robots installed in 2013. Michael joined the LLC in 2010 shortly after he and Abbey were married.

They grow all their own forages and most of the dry and high-moisture corn on 500 acres of owned and rented ground. Losing some acreage this year has forced them to do a better job producing feed on the land they control. According to Michael, that’s helped them harvest feed more timely and at better quality.

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The scale of Lemajru forces the family to really consider options and opportunities. Adding more cows and becoming a larger farm with larger headaches is not what any partner wants. Abbey studied the prospects of on-farm processing while earning her MBA, but due to lower-than-state-average personal income in the county, that idea was scrapped.

Michael O'Farrell helps manage the farm

“We want to run this operation on as few people as possible and free others up to do other stuff,” O’Farrell says. “I think that’s one area we as a farm can stay competitive.”

O’Farrell has taken a part-time job as a bus driver, opening his eyes to a whole new set of people who maintain a commercial driver’s license and are available in the summer to help with forage harvest.

Serving in Vietnam

Bennett, a Vietnam-era veteran, went to Michigan State University in 1969 on a scholarship. One friend, then another were killed in Vietnam over the next year. “I didn’t care much for college after that,” he says. “I volunteered when I was 19 years old. I was going to Vietnam to kill everything. It was stupid, stupid, stupid.”

A fit and athletic farmer, Bennett was just what the Army was looking for in 1970. He was sent back home to recruit for a month before he was scheduled to leave for combat duty in Vietnam.

When it was time to leave, his orders had changed to an easy assignment in Frankfurt, Germany, where Elvis Presley had been stationed. However, after the Munich Olympics massacre, his assignment turned into a stare-down with Russian tanks.

“We were outnumbered 30 to 1; we were in a place where we weren’t supposed to be getting shot at,” Bennett says.

“Sometimes it takes being out of the circle to know how good it is in the circle,” Bennett says, referring to the farm. “I didn’t realize how good it was until I wasn’t there.” He left the Army Dec. 18, 1973, to return home only two days before his grandfather died. What should have been a happy homecoming Christmas celebration turned into a funeral.

John and his wife, Becky, began a farming career in a partnership purchase of 70 acres with John’s father and began milking around 90 cows in comfort stalls. They installed a double-10 parlor in 2000 and milk about 200 cows. Today the partnership includes John, his brother Bob, John’s son Matthew and nephew Kyle.

From combat boots to farm boots

Transitioning from military to civilian life can be monumental for some while others move seamlessly into life without the uniform. “Farming and agriculture of any kind, it’s therapy; it gives them a purpose and different responsibilities,” says Bennett of veterans entering ag from a military career.

According to O’Farrell, the military sets people up to thrive in agriculture. The long hours and late nights, discipline and work ethic of military life translate well to farming.

Michael O'Farrell, third from the left, served two tours in Iraq as a Marine Coprs reservist

“On the farm, there is just so much stuff to do to keep you busy, you’re going, going, going and don’t have time to think about the past,” says O’Farrell. He says he believes some 9-to-5-type veterans may struggle more and fall into unhealthy patterns of drugs or alcohol when there is nothing to do once the workday is done.

Shared experiences

The common bond of being a veteran opens the door of communication between people who have lived the same experiences. A chance encounter in a shopping mall placed Bennett on a path of sharing veterans’ stories through the Ogemaw County Herald and local veteran’s museum that he helped establish.

To date, approximately 130 veteran stories have been recorded and written, some by Bennett, others by local reporters. “These WWII and Korean War veterans are dying off. It’s important for people to understand. Until you hear the stories and someone explains it to you – wow, you just can’t begin to imagine,” Bennett says.

“The man who sat down next to me in the mall in Saginaw just started talking when he realized I was a veteran too, and told me about the day he was part of the Normandy invasion. He cried; his whole body shook. He said, ‘I hope God can forgive me; I don’t know why I survived.’”

Bennett questions his own circumstances of good fortune that led him to Germany instead of the front lines. “Why didn’t I go to Vietnam? I was supposed to leave with the 111th Armored Division; then it changed. Maybe sharing the stories is my reason for being here.”

Many veterans have released emotions, survivor’s guilt and trauma that had been bottled up for decades through sharing their stories with Bennett. He says people are clamoring for the stories, and he plans to compile them into a book. He describes the opportunity as one of the most fulfilling things he has ever done.

A commitment to service

O’Farrell serves as vice president of the Michigan Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC), which offers opportunities for veterans to market their farm products under the Homegrown By Heroes label, the ability to earn fellowships that can be used to invest in improving their farm and the chance to connect with other veterans who have found a place in agriculture.

“As I look at the FVC organization, I see where farming has given me a spot to release and focus my energy in a positive way. By being part of the organization, I can help other people in farming,” O’Farrell says. “It’s not just the dairy industry, but it helps out all farmers, and it gives me another way to meet and work with other people.”

Bennett followed his father’s advice of leaving his community better than when he arrived by serving as a 4-H leader, being on the fair board and eventually helping to establish the veteran’s museum at the Ogemaw County Fair.

He marched in parades to represent his fallen friends, one of whom was a conscientious objector and an unarmed medic during Vietnam. Shot in the back while treating a member of his unit, he refused to be removed before the other wounded, dying of peritonitis infection the next day.

“I went to his funeral; I heard people say, ‘He must have been a coward and got shot in the back running away.’ Hell, no. He was one of the bravest guys [I ever met].”

Marching forward

“We have some really tough times in the dairy industry right now, but we’re making it,” says O’Farrell, crediting his military experience with the ability to look at problems differently and think outside the box. “We cut a lot of areas where I didn’t think we could save. It’s taught me to be a better manager.”

“Going forward in the farming industry you have to be mentally tough. It’s enough stress to be in the veteran industry, and throw in the stress of farming today, and wow. But if [I] can make it through Iraq and be mentally tough enough to do that, I can make it through this.”

“The bright side is, nobody’s trying to shoot me in farming.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: From left, John Bennett and Michael O’Farrell from West Branch, Michigan, both served their country through military service. Both are dairy farmers from Ogemaw County and serve on their local milk marketing co-op board. Photo provided by John Bennett. 

PHOTO 2: Michael O’Farrell, right, served two tours in Iraq as a Marine Corps reservist. Photo provided by Michael O’Farrell.

PHOTO 3: O’Farrell enjoyed the company of canines who showed up at camp while stationed in Iraq. Photo provided by Michael O’Farrell.

PHOTO 4: Michael O’Farrell and his wife, Abbey, farm in partnership with her parents and brother in West Branch, Ogemaw County, Michigan, and have been with the farm since 2010. Photo by Bev Berens. 

PHOTO 5: O’Farrell says his military training brings a different perspective to solving problems and managing a farm. Photo by Bev Berens. 

PHOTO 6: Michael O’Farrell, third from left, served two tours in Iraq as a Marine Corps reservist. Photo provided by Michael O’Farrell.

Bev Berens is a freelance writerbased in Michigan.

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