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Farm life provides meaningful work for veteran

Gloria Hafemeister
Correspondent
Veteran Lee Otto II is operating a small farm and helping out on Watertown area farms.  He gets encouragement from his service dog Sayge who is trained not only to help him personally but also to respect and protect the variety of birds he raises on his farm.

RICHWOOD – This week, despite the chaos in the country, citizens took time out to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.

Unfortunately, many American heroes return home to find the battle is not over. Every day in the United States 22 veterans a day die from suicide due in part to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

While there is no cure, there is hope and the agriculture industry can play a part in that.

Lee Otto is a retired Army Infantry Sergeant and a veteran. He has found new purpose in life since buying a small farm near Watertown where he raises ducks, Chinese geese, pea fowl, turkeys and chickens. He markets his eggs locally and has begun some incubating and hatching on the farm. 

He obtained many of his birds and gained knowledge in the business from a local 4-H family whose daughters went off to college and turned their Chinese geese over to his care. Otto also had help from the local Abendroth Hatcheries who provided birds and advice and are very supportive of veterans.

Otto also helps out on area farms as he is able. Back injuries suffered while in the military prevent him from holding a full time job.

The Watertown veteran says he gets his mental support from his well-trained dog and Life Buddy named Sayge.

Otto says, “He’s been there for my PTSD.  He’s also there to help me through the tough times when I need to shift my focus on my service dog and not what’s going on around me”

Sierra Delta is an organization that helps facilitate the bond between veterans like Otto and their service dogs and is committed to helping more veterans pair with their special service dogs.

Since Otto is raising birds on his farm, his dog needed to be trained not to chase the birds. Now Sayge not only watches out for Otto but he also helps to guard the birds from predators.

His farm includes a small pond that the birds enjoy. The upper area of the barn is set up with individual pen areas for each of the birds. The pea fowl enjoy their lofty vantage point high atop the beans in the barn. Otto’s daughter’s playhouse serves as a home for the turkeys who deposit eggs there regularly.

Each morning he opens the barn doors and the birds head outdoors to enjoy the sunshine and graze on the grass around the buildings.

Otto has received 3 Purple Hearts for his services in the military. As a result of his injuries he has undergone three back surgeries and has more coming in the future.

Veteran Lee Otto says his service dog, Sayge, is a life buddy a that he can rely on almost like a battle buddy. "He relies on me and I rely on him. It has given me a purpose again,” the Watertown man said.

Finding Sayge

Working with a therapist through the Veterans Administration, Otto learned about how a service dog might be able to help. When he checked it out, he found there would definitely be a benefit, but he could not afford the cost.

That’s when he learned about Sierra Delta, an organization started by another Wisconsin veteran: B.J. Gannet of Reedsburg.

Otto now serves as an ambassador for the program that he says does more than just provide a dog for veterans. It also creates a community among those veterans who have a special connection.

“Sayge is both a life buddy and a service dog; a canine that I can rely on almost like a battle buddy. He relies on me and I rely on him. It has given me a purpose again,” he said of his service dog.

Since his discharge from the military, Otto has been visiting a therapist to help deal with the emotional side of serving. He says it’s not easy to come home and think about the friends he saw lose their lives. “When I first got out, I didn’t want to go anywhere or see any people. After I got Sayge, I started to get out more and communicate better.”

Since his service in Afghanistan, he has suffered nightmares but says Sayge now helps him with that.

“When my legs tremble because I’m having a nightmare, Sayge puts his paws on my legs to calm me,” he says. 

Otto looked a long time for a service dog. He thought he knew what kind of dog he wanted, but when he found Sierra Delta and met with the counselors there, they helped him select a dog that would not only be serve his needs but also would be good around his five-year-old daughter.

Once the dog was chosen, both the dog and Otto began extensive training. That training does not end when the dog comes into the veteran’s home.

“He is continually training with me and I am training with him. Every day there is a time for training and a time for play,” he says.

Besides getting support from his dog he has also been encouraged by other veterans and that led to his decision to purchase a farm. The small farm provides an opportunity to do meaningful work but still rest his back as needed.

Military veteran and farmer Georgia Meyer and her dogs Smith and Weston are striving to become ambassadors for Sierra Delta, a program that since its beginning 3 years ago has had 410 successful pairings of veterans and dogs.

Homegrown by Veterans

One of those who encouraged him along the way is another veteran Georgia Meyer who raises alpacas on a Watertown area farm.

Meyer serves as a mentor with the USDA’s Homegrown by Veterans organization that helps veterans get started in agricultural enterprises when they return home.

About the time Otto was searching for a place where he could farm and live Meyer lost her husband and needed some assistance with tasks on her farm.

She turned the building where her husband formerly ran a computer business into a local Artisan Market in Watertown. There she sells locally produced products including tundra socks from her alpaca fiber, cheese, jams, candy and eggs from Otto’s farm.

At the market Otto offers a free dozen of eggs to any veteran shopping there. Meyer and some of the other vendors donate part of the proceeds of sales from their own products to the Sierra Delta program to provide dogs for other veterans.

Meyer has been a longtime supporter of veterans, raising funds for a variety of organizations through special events and her on-farm fiber store. She served in the Army Reserve for six years after high school. Through that program she earned her degree in Occupational Therapy. She became interested in alpacas and fiber during her military years when much of the therapy that was being done with returning injured soldiers involved knitting and weaving.

Meyer recently got two dogs from Sierra Delta. She plans to use her dogs to help her as an ambassador for the program.

She points out that the Sierra Delta program does not require veterans to have served in combat to be eligible. “Anyone who has served in the military, whether on the battlefield or in other duties, has provided a service to our country and is a veteran,” she says.

Her late husband, Marcus Gallardo, grew up in Cuba. He came to the United States during the Freedom Flights from Cuba when he was just 12-years-old, paying for the trip by selling his pig named Passport.

When he served in the Navy he became a hospital corpsman and after his discharge he continued his education to become a respiratory therapist.

When he and Meyer married in 1997 they purchased a 160-year-old farm and restored the buildings in order to raise alpacas. They concentrated their efforts on developing alpacas that would produce superior fleece. Each year they hosted an educational event at their farm, inviting alpaca growers from all over to come to learn details about raising the animals and processing the fleece.

When Gallardo died unexpectedly in 2016, she needed help with some chores around the farm and hired Otto to help.

They say it has been a good relationship for both of them. 

FARM Program

Just recently Easterseals of Wisconsin’s FARM Program expanded its services through a three-year grant funded by the USDA’s 2501 program. 

“In the first year of the grant, the FARM Program’s focus has been to identify qualifying farmers and connect them with resources and the possibility of USDA funding,” says Jeff Kratochwill, director of Easterseals FARM program in a recent news release.   

Kratochwill approached David Wilson, a veteran farmer and former AgrAbility consumer in the Antigo area, to discuss this new service. Several years ago, Wilson worked with AgrAbility to obtain services and assist him with the day-to-day operations on his farm. His disability limitations, which stemmed from his military service, had begun to hinder his work.

“Easterseals Wisconsin and AgrAbility have been beneficial in helping me be able to continue to farm,” states Wilson.  “This outreach service, connecting veteran farmers with USDA programs, is worthwhile to give those farmers any assistance they can be successful.”

Wilson served in the US Army and Wisconsin Army National Guard from 1977 to 2004, retiring after 29 years of service, and has become an advocate for other veteran farmers. He currently serves on the advisory council for the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Wisconsin, whose mission is to help cultivate a new generation of farmers and food leaders and create viable careers for veterans.

“We believe that agriculture offers purpose, opportunity and physical and psychological benefits,” says Wilson.

 He believes programs like this provide an opportunity for veteran farmers to find their way in the industry.

For more information about AgrAbility and services for farmers with disabilities and veterans contact Amanda Harguth, outreach specialist at 608-262-9339.

To learn more about Sierra Delta or how to offer support call them at 774-325-4451 or email at Info@sierradelta.com.