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Servicemembers trade in combat boots for cowboy boots

Program at Nebraska College of Agricultural Technology gaining popularity

Students at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture can partake in the 100 Beef Cow Ownership program, which enables them to secure a low-interest loan and procure their own livestock. /Courtesy photo

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A few years ago, the Nebraska College of Technical Agricultural (NCTA), which is affiliated with the University of Nebraska, announced a new program: Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots. The two-year technical program targets Servicemembers transitioning out of the military and looking for a civilian career.

"An estimated 45 percent of the active military is from rural areas, and they deserve a way to go home and find quality work," said Dr. Weldon Sleight, who has been the NCTA dean for five years. "Jobs are often harder to find in the cities, but out here, farming and ranching offer plenty of opportunities."  

In fact, the number one leading career in the Midwest is agriculture,  and with 70 percent of the agricultural land in the U.S. expected to change hands as older ranchers retire, there are more than enough jobs to be had.

Yet the programs at NCTA are intended to offer graduates more than a job - the goal is to teach entrepreneurship and even help students achieve that before their two years are over. The college not only pairs students with retiring ranchers so that they might take over an existing operation, but also assists them with obtaining low interest (typically less than 2 percent) loans through the Farm Service Agency (FSA) in order to purchase livestock.

"Military are often mature and have been taught discipline and protocol, which fits perfectly into our concepts of having ownership," said Sleight.

Nebraska native Garrett Dwyer, 25, was an early graduate from the program and, as a result, has now been able to take over the management of his family's ranch, which has been owned and operated by his family for 100 years.

Dwyer, who spent four years in the Marine Corps, was looking for what to do next as he prepared to ETS in 2008. His parents offered up a suggestion based on advertisements they'd seen for NCTA's new program.

So Dwyer entered the program using his GI Bill and, in 2010, he graduated. Through the 100 Beef Cow Ownership arm of the program, he was able to get a loan and purchase his own herd of cattle, which he can then use as collateral for future expansions on the ranch.

"When I went to school, there was only one other military guy I think," Dwyer said. "I sort of wished there were more since we had something in common, and otherwise it was high school kids, but I can't complain. The program, the training and schooling are the best around."

The NCTA, which lies in the small 700-resident town of Curtis, Neb., has already been nationally recognized as leading the way for those in uniform to learn about ranching, from veterinary medicine to horticulture to agribusiness management. Students attending NCTA also have access to the resources of the much larger University of Nebraska, which is home to many of the leading agricultural researchers in the country.

Despite the publicity, the Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots program currently has an enrollment of just seven students; it is looking to add more.

"We are lacking the bodies to fill positions in the industry - what a great thing to tell a college student or a Soldier coming home who is not sure what to do next," said Stephanie Nichols, Student Services and Admissions Coordinator at NCTA. "In this job market, we can pretty much guarantee our graduates work the minute they leave. That's amazing."

For more information, visit or call (800) 328-7847.

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