Profiles in courage: When the call of duty rang, these Minnesota farmers answered

November 11, 2019 / Categories: Association News, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association

This article appeared as the cover story in the November-December 2019 issue of Soybean Business.

About 20 million Americans have served in the United States Armed Forces, accounting for about six percent of the population. About a third of Minnesota’s veterans hail from rural areas of the state.

Every Nov. 11, America pays tribute to its soldiers serving in the Armed Forces. This year, we salute Minnesota farmers who stepped away from the combine, left the farm and their families to serve their country with honor and dignity.

Bob Worth

1970. War raged in Vietnam. Meanwhile, back in Lincoln County, young Bob Worth worked the land with his father, Bill, on the family farm in southwestern Minnesota. Worth recalls feeling a bit torn at the time. He wanted to serve his country, but just out of high school at 18 years old, he was eager to begin his farming career. Worth found a compromise when he signed up for a six-year commitment with the National Guard. In the Guard, Worth would have to commit to one weekend each month and two full weeks in the summer and fall, which allowed him to continue to pursue farming.

“The military was a great experience,” Worth says. “I love farming and that’s why I liked the National Guard – I could do both.”

Soon Worth was off to basic training in Ft. Lewis, Wash., where he trained for four months. He started as an 11 Bravo Infantryman and worked with helicopters.

“They called that the ‘ground pounder infantry,’” Worth says. “We walked everywhere. We did the same training that the regular Army did.”

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Bob Worth, MSGA director and Lincoln County farmer

After his six-year commitment was completed, Worth served another two years in the National Guard until 1978, earning a rank as a staff sergeant. His squad was often deployed to provide assistance in the Midwest following natural disasters.

Worth says he made lifelong friends during his National Guard service.

“You really do get to learn a lot about people and trust,” he says. “You trust those people with your life. And when you’re a squad leader, you’re leading 12 guys and their life is dependent on you.”

He honed his leadership bona fides during his eight years in service, a skill that would pay off in spades for Worth throughout the ensuing decades.

“The military taught me to work with other people in leadership roles,” says Worth, a longtime American Soybean Association (ASA) director and former president and current board member with the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA). “You learn about teamwork and chain of command, knowing who and what to ask. They don’t teach you about ag in the military, but self-discipline, things like that, you learn a lot.”

Worth has traveled to Washington, D.C. dozens of times in his capacity with ASA. During his Hill Visits, he’s taken time to pay his respects to the fallen heroes at the Korean War and Vietnam War memorials.

“It takes your breath away to see all the names,” he says. “Serving your country is a noble thing.”

The ‘Air’ up there: A Zurn family affair

The occupational bonds between Bill Zurn and his son, Eric, extend far beyond their family farm in Becker County. Together, the Zurns have 50 years combined service in the Air National Guard. For several years, their Guard service overlapped, with father and son traveling together the 42 miles from the farm to the Guard base in Fargo, N.D. 

“We’d get up and farm together and then go to the Guard together,” says Eric, 46, who runs the business side of the Zurn’s farming operation. “We work together every day in one way or another.”

Bill signed up for the Guard in 1968. When his six-year commitment was nearly up, he decided to stay longer. Bill served in the Air National Guard until 1995, when he retired as a senior master sergeant. He worked as a civil engineer, and was a member of the Guard’s rapid runway repair unit.

“You get camaraderie in the Guard,” Bill says. “Once you do something like that with a bunch of guys, you’re all working together and you come back as a unit.”

Bill still tended to the family farm, where he continues growing soybeans, wheat and sugar beets to this day. The military, he says, taught him about the value of teamwork and leadership. 

“You learn how to manage people. First you start out lower than whale (feces) and then you work your way up,” says Zurn, a director with the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC). “Because of that, you have to learn how to get along with people and work together. That helped me in my life, and on the farm, too.”

Eric signed up for the Guard in the aftermath of the 1990 Gulf War. He was unsure of the future of farming for his generation. At the time, he recalls, northwest Minnesota’s farm economy was in a rut.

The Zurns: the family that guards together stays together.

“The ag prospects weren’t good. It was tough times and it looked like a lot of big operations were coming,” Eric says. “”I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

He signed up in the fall of 1990 and attended North Dakota State University while still enlisted in the Air National Guard. When he’d return to the farm, Eric began realizing the economic outlook wasn’t so bleak after all for family operations.

“By the time I returned home, many corporate farms had crashed and burned,” he says. “When they started losing money, a lot of land came up for rent.”

Eric became a mechanic in the Air National Guard. He left the Guard for a few years in the early 2000s, but always harbored dreams of returning. Everything fell into place when his younger brother, Nick, agreed to take on a larger workload, making it possible to reenlist and earn the rank of First Sergeant, managing more than 500 soldiers.

“It was as close to ‘human resources’ as you can get in the military,” he says. “I wasn’t in charge of the mission, but I was in charge of the people so they could do the mission. I managed other people and I guess I brought that back to the farm.”

Working on machines on the farm helped prepare Eric for the Guard, not the other way around.

“If it touched the airplane, I worked on it,” he says. “Because of that, I went where the planes went, like Alaska and Panama.”

Many of the fellow Guardsmen Eric worked with also had farming backgrounds; they would bond over their shared experiences. Eric says he remains in contact with several of his fellow farmer-veterans.

“I’d go to meet people from different bases and we’d talk about grain marketing plans,” he says, laughing. “I’d sit and talk with them about ag. I was fortunate to work with great people – we farmers, we all find each other.”

Military service runs deep in the Zurn family lineage. Bill’s father and uncle served in World War II and his cousin served in Korea. Bill says he’s proud to be a link in the chain.

“I’m a big supporter of the military,” Bill says. “The sacrifices soldiers make for their country, their families, is something I never stop appreciating.”

Waving the flag

Jim Jirava knows exactly how much time he spent in the Vietnam War, right down to the minute.

“I served in Vietnam for 14 months, 11 days, two hours and 10 minutes,” says Jirava, a longtime MSGA director. “I remember every day.”

Jirava grew up on the family farm in Becker County. When he graduated high school in the 1960s, his selection in the Vietnam draft seemed a matter of when, not if. Instead of waiting in limbo, Jirava volunteered to enlist.  

“I thought if they’re going to draft me, I just as soon get it over with,” he says.

Jim Jirava is a Vietnam veteran and MSGA director

His service career began on Sept. 23, 1968. After basic training, Jirava was supposed to receive a two-week break. Instead, his division was sent straight to Vietnam. Jirava was an artilleryman and a corporal, but broke his back a few months into his tour and was laid up in the hospital for six weeks. After he was deemed healthy, Jirava became a battalion mail clerk.

“The thing about Vietnam, your life may depend on your (fellow soldiers) at any moment,” Jirava says. 

Jim says he “lucked out” when he was discharged and returned home to northwest Minnesota for good in April 1970.

“I went straight back to farming – I was that dumb,” laughs Jirava, whose family farm has been in operation since 1911. “I was very happy (to get home), you bet.”

Two years later, he married his wife, Margaret. The Jiravas have been together for 48 years. Jim is a member of the Vietnam Vets of America, the VFW and remains heavily involved in Flag Day celebrations every June.

“We do programs in schools, build a monument and every year we have a flag retirement,” he says.

Soldiering on

Josh Safar farms just down the road from Jirava. The two growers also have military experience in common. After graduating from high school in 2008, Safar signed up for the National Guard. He didn’t start farming full time until he reached his 20s, but remembers walking with pride when he’d leave school early to help out on the farm.

“It was fun when they’d pull you out of school and you’d hold your head high because you were knew you were going into the tractor instead of school,” he says.

He left for basic training in September 2008.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “I had no reason to say no – just wanted to see what would happen.”

By March 2009, he received his mobilization orders and went straight into deployment training. For 13 months, Safar was stationed in Afghanistan.

Farmer and veteran Josh Safar and his wife, Rachel.

“You just kind of knew it was coming,” he says of his deployment. “It was one of those deals where the job sucked but the people made it a blast, really. There were a lot of good guys in our unit.”

After being discharged in 2010, Josh started farming full-time with his father, Richard and his brothers, Matt and Zach. Safar is 30 and married; he and his wife, Rachel, are expecting their first child.

“(The military) was an experience,” he says. “It put things in perspective.”

The rigors of the military taught Safar more than any formal education could.  

“I learned a lot about leadership and communication skills, just about anything you can think of,” he says. “I learned more in the military than I ever did in school. It was a lot of discipline.”

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