Farm Rescue is nominally based in Fargo, ND, but like so many contemporary endeavors, is an affiliation of people and skills working out of multiple locations. I met up with founder and President Bill Gross via conference call when I was in Bowman, ND and he was in Alaska. Bill is a UPS pilot, and like many in the airline industry, his sense of space and time is a bit different from the rest of us. He’s based in Anchorage, has a house in Seattle, and owns a share in his family farm in Jamestown, ND.
“I was 22 when I got hired by Pan Am and worked for them until the day they closed; December 1, 1991. I’m the youngest of five. My grandfather homesteaded in North Dakota. My parents took over the farm. They had financial struggles in the 1980’s and sold off half their land. When I was growing up, we had 2,500 head of cattle, by the end of the 1980’s all but 100 cattle were sold.” Bill and a brother in Minneapolis own what remains. They farm part of it themselves and rent some out. “There’s excess capacity. We have sixty head of cattle; a neighbor has three hundred. The neighbor oversees daily operations of them all in exchange for using their land.”
“I used to go on missions trips overseas through the church, in Croatia and other countries, but I wanted to do something at home. I got this idea of buying a big tractor when I retired and being a Good Samaritan by doing planting for others. My heart was always in farming; this was going to be my way of farming and helping other people.” I told a friend, Kevin Mateer, a chaplain in Army. He said, ‘Why wait until retirement? Do it now, you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. And why be a random Samaritan? Target people who are injured. Farming is the most dangerous occupation in the world.’”
Bill realized that Kevin was right on two counts. He should act now, and focus on helping farmers who are injured. “So I founded Farm Rescue ten years ago, bought a domain name, incorporated in North Dakota, had a $99 banner made, and started going to farm shows in the winter. I got free booth space from event holders and made up a brochure. I didn’t know what I was in for. Our slogan became ‘Helping farm families in crisis.’”
Bill had three volunteers that first year. He got equipment sponsors, raised $40,000 to $50,000 and assisted ten families. Then the organization snowballed. Farm Rescue has aided 325 farm families to date in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, and even Montana.
Farming is a time sensitive occupation. If a farmer gets hurt at planting or harvest, an entire year’s crop can be lost. “The first guy we helped was Matt Beale, just south of Dickinson. April 11, 2006. His right hand had gotten cut off and we finished his planting. We get applications from families who suffered fires, tornadoes, hurt children, and cancer; we get so many applications about cancer.”
“Now we have 1000 volunteers and so many applications we schedule months in advance. We have work from when spring comes through the fall. In any given season, we have volunteers from fifteen different states; multiple teams in multiple states. Some are retired; others use their vacation time. All sorts of people volunteer. Most come for at least ten days; it’s their vacation. They bring their campers and their families. Others are retired and stay up to three months.”
Bill is the head and heart of Farm Rescue; he has risen over 90% of their revenue in the past ten years. But he is assisted by three staff; one in Fargo, a coordinator in Sioux City, IA, and an Iraq war veteran in Colorado Springs who handles logistics.
“We don’t give money to farmers. It’s not a hand out or a bailout of any crazy thing like that. It’s to help a farm family get the work done during a crisis. It helps them get back on their feet. Every small farm is important to every small town. My town of Cleveland ND closed the high school when I was a junior. I finished by correspondence. Now there is nothing but a PO in a trailer and one elevator. That’s what happens when farm families go out of business and the towns close up. I wouldn’t want to think we get to the point we only have large corporate farms. Our stated mission is just to help people but there’s so much more. It’s about supporting rural communities and rural America.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“I figured you would ask that. It’s not something I’ve given a lot of thought to, which is how you get your best answers.
“From my perspective, I believe that how we will live tomorrow is to help each other more. Our country does not have the resources to help everyone. You see where people start sharing cars in big cities. In Farm Rescue you have volunteers coming from all over to help people. Not just your neighbor. People are helping others, strangers. Some of it is Good Samaritan work. But some is just good sharing. Even farmers, if they ran things more like a coop, sharing equipment, they could be more efficient. As we are more efficient using our resources, whether money or land or material resources, people will share more.
“In America we need to create more Avenues of Goodness. It doesn’t matter if it’s in your family or through your employer or a non-profit; we have to find more creative ways to pool our resources.
I’m getting married next week. My fiancé is Filipino. The Philippines is a poor country. Her family farms four acres of land, plant by hand, plow with oxen, harvest by hand. They lack what we consider necessities, but they do have community. I believe in America people do have that spirit, but it has to be promoted more.”