North Dakota-based organization plants and harvests for those in crisis
By JENNIE ZEITLER
Farm Rescue began in the heart and mind of Bill Gross, a pilot with United Parcel Service (UPS), who wanted to spend his retirement helping people.
After listening to a friend advise him that there is no time like the present, Gross went home and started research to set up Farm Rescue, a 501(c)3 organization designed to help farmers in crisis.
Gross grew up on a dairy farm in Cleveland, N.D., the youngest of five children.
“None of us stayed on the farm. We couldn’t because things were pretty heavily mortgaged,” Gross said.
He attended the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks, paying for his education with student loans, grants and scholarships (with a nearly 4.0 grade point average.)
Since Gross worked on 21 credit hours Tuesdays and Thursdays, he was able to fly about three times a day on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, accruing flight hours at a phenomenal rate compared to fellow students.
“I was able to finish all my pilot certifications way faster than anyone else,” he said.
He was accumulating so many hours of experience that he was assigned to fly UND President Tom Clifford, School of Aviation Dean John Odegard and members of the UND finance department to Bismarck to speak to the legislature.
After graduating, Gross started flying with Pan Am. He has been a Boeing 747 captain with United Parcel Service (UPS) for 19 years, flying worldwide.
“My parents always believed in helping people; my mom was a very Christian lady,” Gross said. “I have gone on mission trips to Romania and Croatia to build houses and teach Bible studies, using my UPS vacation time.”
In the mid 1990s, Gross started thinking that there must be something he could do to help people at home, and the thought just stayed in the back of his mind.
“On one long-haul flight, we started talking in the cockpit about what we wanted to do when we retire,” he said. “I said that I would get a John Deere tractor and be a random Good Samaritan going back and forth across North Dakota helping farmers.”
“I wanted to return to my roots; I always liked farming but couldn’t and I was going to stay put when I retired and help people,” said Gross.
A few years later Gross found himself in a similar conversation over dinner with an old roommate who was an Army chaplain.
“He asked me what I was going to do when I retire, so I told him,” Gross said. “He was the first person who didn’t say, ‘That’s crazy.’”
Gross’ friend asked him why he was waiting for retirement; a person never knows what tomorrow will bring.
Then his friend asked him why his good deeds needed to be random?
“I thought, ‘This is it,’” Gross said. “I knew this was my mission field — to be in the fields of farm families. It took seven years for the ideas to come together.”
Gross couldn’t think of a single reason not to just go for it. Once he got home, he walked in the door and got on the computer to research domain names.
“FarmRescue.org was available, so I took it,” he said.
That first winter of 2005-2006, Gross went to farm shows with a $99 banner letting people know he wanted to help farm families in crisis.
In spring 2006, using his own money and a handful of sponsors, Gross and three volunteers planted crops for farmers.
“The whole reason for Farm Rescue is that there are fewer family farms, fewer children on farms and not as much help available,” Gross said. “We plant or harvest fields for families experiencing injury, illness or natural disaster.”
Farm Rescue is unable to help in situations involving death because of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) restrictions.
Farm Rescue is a 501(c)3 organization and receives no federal funds. It has about 250 business sponsors, support from foundations and many donors.
The major donors are RDO Equipment Company (named for founder Ronald D. Offutt), Walmart, The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Bremer Bank, Newman Outdoor Advertising and Clear Channel Outdoor.
Farm Rescue employs four people. The Board of Directors, the workforce and Gross are all volunteers.
Farm Rescue has more than 700 volunteers nationwide, people who have contacted the organization.
“We don’t use all of them every year, depending on where we go to help farmers that year,” Gross said. “But we encourage people to volunteer.”
“A lot of people take their vacation and come help every year, they like doing it so much,” said Jill Susa, sponsorship and grants coordinator with Farm Rescue.
Kurt and Amy Kramin of Renville, Minn. were one of the farm families helped in 2011, due to severe burns Kurt suffered on his face and right arm.
“He had first, second and third degree burns on his arm, and received skin grafts on his right hand,” said Amy. “We were extremely grateful to Farm Rescue. We were very surprised that a service like that even existed; we didn’t know about them when they contacted us.”
“We don’t give out any money,” said Gross. “This is not a handout, a bailout or any government program. This is a grass roots nonprofit organization where virtually everyone is a volunteer. We don’t use the farmer’s equipment; we always use sponsored equipment. We are a mobile farming operation.”
“They were here about two days,” said Kramin. “It was like a whirlwind; their equipment is so big that it didn’t take very long.”
“We want to help the maximum number of farm families in the least amount of time, and we often work 24 hours a day in shifts,” Gross said. “We are typically at a farm for a day or two. We plant up to 1,000 acres per farm and then move on to the next farm.”
Farm Rescue is now taking spring planting applications. All applications are confidential.
For more information, call (701) 252-2017 or visit online at www.farmrescue.org.