‘Red Cross of ag’ helps families in need
February 20, 2015
Bill Gross logs a lot of windshield time behind the wheel of planes, cars, and tractors.
A UPS airline pilot, his last ag gig was at the controls of a 9560R John Deere pulling a 1890 air seeder, helping a farmer in need. That's what he does, along with countless volunteers and three paid employees.
Farm Rescue has been called the Red Cross of agriculture. The successful 501(c)(3) assists farmers with planting, harvesting and haying when there's a major illness, accident, or natural disaster that would otherwise prevent the work from being done.
To date, nearly 300 families in crisis have received help.
Labor and equipment arrive like a diesel-driven cavalry, working as many as 1,000 acres per farm family. Families provide seed, fertilizer and fuel. When deployed, semis and pickups bear the Farm Rescue logo and volunteers wear a crisp uniform and cap.
Leo Edwards of Plaza, North Dakota, incapacitated after heart surgery this year, got help with wheat harvest. About 10 volunteers harvested 657 acres. They were better than professional. "They were more like family," Edwards says.
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Farm Rescue makes room for 50 families like Edwards' on an annual basis. Operations are funded by businesses, organizations, and individuals with donations in the spirit of strong rural community and independent family farms.
Major sponsors are Wal-Mart, a John Deere dealer, and Bremer Bank. The non-profit mobilizes equipment and personnel across the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and eastern Montana. And it does it when and how a farmer would have done it – right on time. .
"We don't give out money, that's not what this is," says Gross, who came up with the concept in 2006. "That won't necessarily help at all. We give farmers what they need. They need the work done."
Before Farm Rescue, Gross, who is founder and president, was flying over the nation's farmland and soul-searching about a modest mission to retire to. A Presbyterian who had served in missions overseas, he had a conversation about an idea of volunteering his farming services at home with a lifelong friend, and that friend helped him to see something larger and more immediate.
"I was going to be a random Good Samaratin when I retired, just going around helping people farm," Gross says.
Gross is 48 and he logs 1,000 hours a year in his legacy agency, living and working for UPS out of urban Seattle. Farm Rescue has its offices in Jamestown, North Dakota.
Gross identifies with other former farm and ranch people who travel from the city to volunteer. They come from as far away as New York, involving 15 states at any given time, working with expenses paid and manning loaned equipment to do what they know how to do. Grow food.
"It reconnects them with their roots," Gross says.
Raised on a family ranch in central North Dakota, Gross remembers neighbors getting hurt or ill but feels there's more pressure on today's farmer. "There aren't the kids there were staying on the family farm that there once was. Today's farms are much larger and the profit margins on commodities are so narrow."
RDO Equipment Co., the country's largest dealer ownership group in the John Deere world, has been a sponsor from the beginning. They supply all the equipment. "Everybody likes to be part of something great," says Todd Thompson, regional general manager.
Thompson said a fleet of tractors, combines and balers is shovel-ready for the project. The dealership makes available $2.8 million in equipment for the project on an annual basis.
The case list for 2014 reads farm accident, cattle accident, ATV accident. Cancer, heart attack, pneumonia, Alzheimer's, brain aneurysm, staph infection and surgery.
There is an application process and a board of directors to approve services. The process is confidential and thoughtful.
"We try to help the most urgent and severe cases," Gross says.
Logistics mean planning an itinerary and a route for a group of cases, starting in the western part of the Dakotas and moving east with the work, then north, then looping back.
Gross said once he had the idea for the agency shaped, he was confident he would find the backing. No business in a rural community, he says, can afford to see a large farm fail. "I knew businesses would support it because it benefits them as well. Banks, feed stores, electric cooperatives."
Gross now owns the farm he grew up on, and has it leased out.
Donations to Farm Rescue are tax-deductible. There is a gift shop, a benefit banquet, and volunteers can be sponsored.
Gross points out there is ripple effect when Farm Rescue steps in. "We take pressure off the friends and neighbors who might have helped so that they can focus on their own property."
That's exactly how Edwards saw it. He didn't apply, he got a call from Farm Rescue when a friend told them about his need. He was skeptical.
"I wasn't sure what to think about it at first," Edwards says. "But I got to thinking and kind of swallowed my pride a little bit you know and figured it would be easier on my family and on me, and on my friends and neighbors who were helping."
Wheat harvested, Edwards is now recovering in the community where he was born and returned to farm in 1972 after serving in the Armed Forces.
The first year of Farm Rescue, it was only Gross and five volunteers working into the night. They still managed to take care of 10 families.
Farmers still feel like family to Gross. "I didn't forget where I came from."
To donate, volunteer, refer for help or ask for assistance, contact Farm Rescue at http://www.Farmrescue.org or call 701.252.2017.