Farm Horizons, Aug. 2016
Farm Rescue aids families in times of need
By Brianna Mathias
Injury, illness, and natural disaster can disrupt the lives of hard-working farmers, by disabling them from working on their family farms. Luckily, there is one organization that stands ready to deliver farms from such tragedy.
Farm Rescue, created by airline pilot Bill Gross, is a non-profit organization that helps families keep their farms running during times of hardship.
“Our mission is to help out families that have faced illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters, so they are able to continue their operations,” Gross said.
This group provides planting, haying, and harvesting service for afflicted families who have either applied, or been referred to Farm Rescue for assistance.
“Farmers are independent, and a lot of them don’t want to ask for help,” Gross said. “Half of the families are referred to us by friends or neighbors.”
Gross grew up and went to school in Cleveland, ND, a small town between Bismark and Fargo. He said he grew up on a fairly large family farm.
“My dad had some injuries when he worked on the farm,” Gross said. “A hired man got killed. I saw neighbors struggle with illness. We had accidents on our farm.”
Illness and injury was only one factor that inspired Gross to start this non-profit. Back in the ‘80s, Gross said, many farms had begun to struggle financially. His own family ended up having to sell around one-half of their cattle and a good portion of their land.
“The public school closed down because there weren’t enough family farms,” Gross said. “Then the grocery store closed down, and the gas station. There’s nothing in Cleveland, ND anymore, just an elevator and a post office.”
Gross said he has seen firsthand what can happen to family farms, and a community when things go wrong.
Because his family was unable to help him continue farming, Gross moved on to college and became an airline pilot. He has been flying for 31 years, 27 of those years professionally.
“My heart never left the farming community, even though I was flying internationally,” Gross said. “I went on several mission trips overseas, but I thought, there must be something I can do at home.”
When people would ask what he wanted to do when he retired, Gross said he’d reply by saying he would buy a big John Deere tractor and go around and be a random good Samaritan. He planned to go around, searching for family farms that were going through rough times, and do what he could to help.
Once, when Gross told his plan to an Army friend of his, the friend asked why he was waiting to retire, “why not start now?”
“I had a strong desire to help farm families in rural communities,” Gross said. “I wanted to keep these farms from being in debt. When we help keep family farms out of debt, we help whole communities.”
Gross said Farm Rescue is beneficial to the next generation of farmers, because if a family can avoid financial crisis, they have a better chance of being able to pass their farm on to their children.
Farm Rescue sprang into reality when it helped its first family in 2006. Since then, the organization has helped about 375 family farms in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Montana.
Gross said that volunteers come from all over the country, some are from big cities and have never seen a farm, but are interested to discover where their food comes from.
“The volunteers inspire me,” Gross said. “Many return year after year. We have a 98 percent retention rate. If volunteers continue to come back again and again, you know that the organization is good. If there wasn’t something tangible, something good about it, they wouldn’t stay.”
Robert Stoltman, a volunteer from Sauk Rapids said he has helped on about seven farms.
“They allow me to operate machinery I’ve always loved, as well as help give people something that they truly need,” Stoltman said. “We’re always anxious at first when we meet the families, but once we spend a few days on their farms, we blend right into the family.”
Stoltman said volunteering for Farm Rescue is a pure form of helping out, versus just donating money.
“Most people throw money in stuff, and I’m not a real believer in that,” Stoltman said. “With Farm Rescue, you get to see what your work is going toward, you see the product. You can feel the gratitude of the family when you get there and when you leave; sometimes they’re sad we have to leave, I’ve left in tears before.”
One volunteer from Buffalo, Nyles Gentz, has not yet had the chance to work on a farm.
“I just joined about a year ago, but I’m looking forward to helping out,” Gentz said. “I grew up on a farm in Southwest Minnesota so I saw farm accidents. This is a really good organization.”
Gross said Farm Rescue creates an “avenue of goodness.” By this, he means that the organization is an outlet for people who want to practice volunteerism, but are not sure how to go about it.
“A lot of people want to help, but they just need somewhere to start,” Gross said. “This is their way of returning to the farm.”
On a few occasions, Gross said, families have referred to volunteers as “angels in blue” because of the color of their outfits.
“Seeing that we’ve helped people, kept them out of debt, is amazing,” Gross said. “It’s nice knowing we’re making an impact on farms throughout our region.”
Farm Rescue is currently taking volunteers. To apply, visit their website at http://farmrescue.org/get_involved/volunteer/.