Lowell Sun: 9/11 pilot John Ogonowski's Legacy Lives on in Fields Worldwide

| Todd Feathers

DRACUT -- John Ogonowski was probably thinking about the pumpkins ripening in his fields, 15 years ago today, as he was preparing to pilot American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to New York.

After several days of cross-country flights, the Dracut native was due 10 days off, said Peggy Hatch, his widow. And it being September, there was plenty of work to do on the farm.

Farming is in the Ogonowski family's blood and by the time he was 8, John was already an accomplished tractor-driver. His love only grew as he got older. When he wasn't in the air, he had his fingers in the earth.

"That was his recreation," Hatch said. "He didn't like to go fishing or to a ball game. He like to get on his tractor and till a field."

Ogonowski never made it back to his farm. He and 2,995 other people were killed in the terrorist attack of that infamous September day. But his legacy as a farmer has lived on and spread across the world through the United States Agency for International Development's farmer-to-farmer program, which was named in his honor.

Every year, around 750 American farmers volunteer two or more weeks of their time to travel oversees and share their expertise with fellow farmers, primarily in developing countries.

The volunteers help host organizations and farmers with everything from business management and supply chains to food safety and methods to boost production. More than 1 million farm families have been helped.

Host organizations have increased annual sales by more than $442 million and income by more than $132 million since the program began in 1985, according to the program. And while the tragedy of 9/11 and two subsequent wars have fundamentally changed the relationship between the United States and countries in the Middle East, the farmers who travel to that region find not hostility or danger, but a shared community and mission.

"The program works really well because of the volunteers we get, a lot of salt-of-the-earth types," said Gary Alex, USAID program manager of the farmer-to-farmer program. "There is this very personal diplomacy that works very well. ... Quite often it ends up they're speaking the same language, even though they're speaking different languages."

One longtime volunteer is Gary Geisler, a calf and heifer nutrition specialist from Wisconsin. He had never traveled outside the country until joining the John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer Program back in 1994. Since then he's assisted farmers in six different countries, from Jamaica to Lebanon.

What he's found is that farmers everywhere want the same things: peace, security and a better life for their families.

That message, and the value of the farmer-to-farmer program, was driven home during his second trip to Lebanon, in 2014.

He was driving with Kheir Jarrah, an employee of the veterinary clinic that was hosting him, to have dinner with Jarrah's family.

The two had met on Geisler's first trip to Lebanon, but this time their relationship was different. Geisler had had returned, and that seemed to convince the Lebanese farmer that Geisler really cared.

As they traveled down the dusty road to Jarrah's farm, he turned to Geisler and asked if he knew the names of the 9/11 hijackers. One of them, Jarrah said, was a distant relative of his.

It was a surreal and disarming moment for Geisler. He asked why Jarrah would tell him something like that.

"He said 'Our part of the family is not like that and I want you to know that and I want you to meet my family and for them to meet you,'" Geisler remembered. "I think that really points to what this farmer-to-farmer program is meant to do ... it helps to build trust."

"Farmers aren't fighters," he added. "Farmers are producing food, they're raising animals, they're growing crops."

Today, farmers grow crops on land in Dracut that John Ogonowski had planned to buy. They are immigrants, three families from Asia and Africa who were given the opportunity thanks to the Farmer-to-Farmer program and the Ogonowski family.

Hatch said she wishes her husband could have seen all the good that's come from the program.

"I think it would have meant a lot to him," she said.

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