What began with the idea of breeding high-quality, AKC-registered golden retrievers quickly turned into giving back to those who’ve served the country in the military: by donating a puppy to a veteran who farms.
Lonny Smith and his wife, Kim, co-own Red Hive Golden Retrievers in Bellefontaine, Ohio. The AKC-registered puppies they raise are very light-colored, a shade known as English cream.
Desire to give back to veterans
When they became breeders a few years back, they decided they wanted to provide a service or companion dog to a veteran-based organization, which, in turn, could help identify someone in need.
A friend showed them the Farmer Veteran Coalition website, and it didn’t take long for them to realize every farm — and in particular, every farmer-veteran — needed a good farm dog.
“We looked at a few videos on their website and knew right away we could help to get a great companion dog with a veteran; and it didn’t have to be a highly trained service dog, but just a loving companion to a good buddy,” Lonny Smith says. “The idea of being able to provide an exceptional puppy to a veteran who chooses to continue to serve the country by helping to ensure our food security made it an easy decision to work with them.”
The Smiths wrote up a proposal and submitted it to the national office of the Farmer Veteran Coalition. The FVC connected Lonny with Nick Babcock, chapter president of Farmer Veteran Coalition of Michigan, which serves more than 500 U.S. veterans involved in agriculture.
“We’re an organization of farmer-veterans who are engaged in all types of agriculture,” says Nick Babcock. “From hoop house production to row crop farming, from livestock to microgreens, from aquaculture to beekeeping, our members are doing all of it. So, as we like to say, we have the opportunity to lay down our combat boots and rifles and pick up muck boots and shovels.
“Any farmer knows we can have long days — and just like in the military, we’re task-oriented, and we’re at it until the day is done. Along with days being long, they can be lonely at times, so when we met with Lonny from Red Hive Golden Retrievers, we knew right away it could be a great opportunity to pair up veterans so they can have a companion and be there for each other, to alleviate any loneliness and isolation that might exist,” Babcock says
In early October, after accepting applications in what they deemed a pilot program, and carefully “vetting the vets,” as Lonny Smith put it, Farmer Veteran Coalition of Michigan and Red Hive Golden Retrievers awarded Freedom’s Belle, the first Operation Farm Dog puppy, to U.S. Army veteran Greg Babcock. Greg, Nick Babcock’s father, turned out to be the best fit among the veterans who went through the vetting process.
COMPANION: Freedom’s Belle gets to know one of the many sheep she’ll encounter on her family’s farm in mid-Michigan.
Choosing a farmer-veteran
In 1978, Greg Babcock enlisted in the Army as a military police officer, and served 36 years before retiring. During his time in service, he commissioned and served as an operations officer with the Joint Staff at U.S. Northern Command, and was the deputy provost marshal with the National Guard Bureau. He currently raises livestock as part of the family farm.
“After serving in the military, one of the issues I had was some anxiety,” says Greg Babcock. “My wife had been looking for a pup for me for a long time to try and help me cope with that. Belle’s been a godsend for me and our family. We just absolutely love her. She’s been with us for about a month now. She’s a fast learner, she’s growing fast, and she likes to cuddle — which is exactly what I need in dark places.”
One of the things Greg Babcock struggles with is confinement. During his service, he dealt with disaster planning and worse-case scenarios. Even today, he says he’s always looking for it. But with Belle now by his side, he says he doesn’t look for it anymore.
“Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve actually slept with the lights off,” Greg Babcock adds. “Belle’s a blessing to have around. And I’d suggest to all our veterans that if they’re interested, get involved in agriculture, as there are so many opportunities. And reach out to Farmer Veteran Coalition and inquire about Operation Farm Dog. Don’t hesitate to get a companion dog, for they’ll be there in your time of need.”
AWAITING HER NEW HOME: Freedom’s Belle stands outside at Red Hive Golden Retrievers before being awarded to Greg Babcock.
Red Hive plans future puppy awards
The Smiths at Red Hive Golden Retrievers plan three litters a year, and they intend to provide one puppy from each litter to a farmer-veteran. The Smiths’ goal is to engage other breeders around the country to join forces with them to provide 100 puppies to farmer-veterans nationwide.
“The freedom and prosperity we’re blessed with has largely been won through the dedication and sacrifice of those who serve, or have served, in our military,” says Lonny Smith. “We feel that providing exceptional companion puppies to our great farmer-veterans is something we can do to say thank you for the sacrifices they’ve made to assure the freedom and prosperity we enjoy. We hope other breeders, and even agricultural organizations from across the country, will feel the same and join us in providing a farm buddy to our veterans.”
Because of the complex nature of taking on the responsibility of ownership and care for a dog, Farmer Veteran Coalition of Michigan will have an open application period for Operation Farm Dog. It will expand the program with at least three more AKC-registered golden retrievers in 2020. If you are interested in being considered for one of the companion dogs, contact Farmer Veteran Coalition of Michigan at firstname.lastname@example.org for an application.
Learn more about Operation Farm Dog and see more photos of Freedom’s Belle at redhivegoldenretrievers.com, Visit the Farmer Veteran Coalition at farmvetco.org and Farmer Veteran Coalition of Michigan at its Facebook page.