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From the cockpit to tractor cab: A Navy man’s return to the family farm



     “You can do whatever you want, you just can’t come back here.” Chris Gould still remembers those words from his parents when he was told there wasn’t an opportunity for him on the family farm after high school.

     While he could’ve chosen any educational or career path, Gould’s innate calling to serve, and the lure of financial assistance, led him to apply for a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship at the University of Illinois. After graduating from the U of I in 1991, Gould was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Navy. He received orders to attend flight school in Pensacola, Florida, before being selected for jet training in Kingsville, Texas. He received his wings in September 1994.

     During his 10 years of service, Gould graduated from the “Top Gun” Fighter Weapons School, was a tactics instructor for the East Coast Hornets, and served in deployable, warfighting fleets, but the most impactful moment came on September 11, 2001.

     “On the morning of September 11, I was driving to work and was listening to news reports like everyone else. Shortly after I got there, it was decided a few jets, including mine, would get loaded with live missiles and fly onto the USS George Washington off the coast of New Jersey. We took turns sitting Alert 15 for the next few days, which means we had to sit in our flight gear and be airborne within 15 minutes of the launch order. On the morning of September 12, I woke up and was walking out on the flight deck and we were in New York Harbor watching two pillars of smoke barreling up from downtown New York,” he recalled. “That was impactful.”

     It was amid the intensity of military life that Gould found ties to his agricultural roots. The first connection came from his call sign, “Farmer.” “To most people in the U.S., farming is crazy. Like they don’t get it. They don’t even understand that there are still farmers,” he said. “Just that I grew up on a farm was weird for them and they thought it was hilarious. So, I just defaulted to ‘Farmer.’”

     While the squadron of F-18 pilots was small, only 18 officers, Gould found himself serving alongside “Grouch,” who grew up on a sugarcane plantation in Louisiana. “It was fun to compare notes with him,” Gould said. “But again, very, very rare to have that many or to have really any farmers that I knew of.”

     When Gould moved back to Maple Park with his wife, Dana, and three young children in 2001, he didn’t have a strong background in agronomy or anything related to the business aspects of farming. He also didn’t have the luxury of time.

     His father, Eldon, was appointed administrator of USDA’s Risk Management Agency and looked to Gould to take over the farm. “In about a two-week period, or what seemed like two weeks, I went from being an occasional tractor driver to running a business, which are two totally different things,” he said. Thankfully, his military training instilled in him a sense of confidence in the face of uncertainty. “When I started to feel intimidated, I always looked at that next guy and said, ‘If he can do it, I can do it,’” Gould said. “It’s about recognizing that people have figured it out before me, and I can figure it out, too.”

     He also found support from his local agronomy retailers and grain merchandisers and completed the two-year Illinois Ag Leadership Program and learned by doing.

     Now, after being back on the farm for more than 20 years, Gould continues to lean into his military experience as he finds parallels between his two careers. “The speeds are a lot different, but honestly, there’s a lot of the same technology,” he said. “It’s all about precision, down to the inch.”

     As Gould guides the family farm into the future, his kids are following in his flight path. His daughter, Vanessa, is returning to the farm and is starting to take on some responsibilities. His son, Drew, also went through ROTC at the U of I. He recently finished Navy primary flight training and was selected for jets, like his dad, and is soon heading to Meridian, Mississippi, for advanced flight training. While his career as a fighter pilot took him to new heights, Gould said there really is no place like home.

     “I didn’t realize how much I love being here,” he said about the Kane County farm. “Waking up on a nice summer morning and looking down the driveway seeing corn growing tall and tasseled. I just love it, and the best part about that is Dana loves it, too.”

Editor’s note: This story is part of the Cultivating Our Communities campaign, a collaboration by Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, Illinois Department of Agriculture, Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Specialty Growers Association to showcase Illinois’ diverse farmers.

This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit


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