Written by Evan Eagan

Though she’s been around farming most of her life, Elaine Bellows never planned on becoming a cattle rancher.

After a 32-year career in nursing—20 of which were spent in the Army—Bellows was more comfortable in an emergency room than on the open range.

Then tragedy struck.

Her husband, Greg, of 25 years unexpectedly passed away last year leaving her as the sole owner and operator of Bellows Farm, the family’s 275-acre cattle operation in Eaton Rapids, Michigan.

Rather than sell off the farm’s assets, and rent the land to another farmer, Bellows decided to take control and push forward as the head of the farm. Now, as she reorganizes the business from a Holstein to Hereford cattle operation, Farmer Veteran Coalition is there to provide a little assistance during this tough time.

“One day I wasn’t (farming), the next day the whole thing was my responsibility, and my mentor was not available for questions,” said Bellows, describing her unfortunate path to taking charge of Bellows Farm. “I’m the woman of the house, who’s become the man of the house and the farm owner/manager overnight.”

Cattle ranching isn’t the first later-in-life career move for the 65-year-old farmer veteran. At the age of 34, after her children were born and in grade school, Bellows went back to school and earned an associate degree in nursing. After serving 10 years as a civilian nurse, she realized in order to advance in the field she needed further education. Looking for ways to pay for school led her to explore her options with the Army Reserve.

“The Army would pay for my degree and I would be obligated for a length of time to pay it back,” she said. “It sounded like a great ‘part time job’ and I commissioned into the U.S. Army Reserve as a first lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps, and enrolled in college to get my bachelor’s degree in nursing.”

During her 20-year career in the Army, which included eight years on active duty and began shortly after Desert Storm, Bellows served with a combat support hospital unit before being selected for a special detail with the Inspector General.

In 2006 while serving with the Inspector General, Bellows received orders to Iraq for 12 months, where she traveled to various forward operating bases for inspections, investigations and soldier assistance.

“I am very proud of my military career, and couldn’t have done it at 18 years of age,” Bellows said. “Being allowed to enter as an experienced nurse I was more mature, more confident, better qualified and able to comprehend the potential consequences I’d signed up for. Serving through the military gave me a deep feeling of satisfaction that I’d accomplished a very special and unique task not many experience.”

In the year since Bellows took over the farm, she has been focused on growing the Hereford breeding stock while phasing out the Holstein beef herd. She has also changed the focus of the farms’ 170 acres of tillable land from corn, which was used to feed the Holstein beef cattle operation, to crops.

In April, Bellows was awarded a Farmer Veteran Fellowship thanks to generous support from Newman’s Own Foundation which she used to purchase a Hereford bull.

“I’m very pleased to have received funds to purchase a Hereford bull for breeding the cows,” she said. “My newly purchased Hereford yearling bull will be put with the brood herd late summer once this year’s calving has completed.”

Today, Bellows, who is assisted by her farmhand, Thomas, is focused on a first successful season that will, hopefully, end with their finances in the positive.

“As this is my first year being totally responsible for the farm’s success, I’m focusing right now through to the end of the season and harvest of the crops that have been planted,” she said. “Seeing this first year through to completion and hopefully showing a bottom line in the black will make me feel quite good. A good first year can be replicated quite easily with the notes and book keeping of the first year. Thankfully my husband’s notes did that for me.”

Bellows has the following advice for veterans considering a career in agriculture:

“Give it plenty of thought, especially if you didn’t grow up on a farm,” she said. “Visit farms, get a job working for someone on a farm, which will give you experience under your belt and that will help you decide if you are cut out for the demands of farming. To the outsider it may look easy, but there is a lot more to it than you can ever imagine, until you take it on.”