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With just one injury or period of illness, a whole farm family can lose their livelihood in a matter of weeks if their crop is not planted or harvested within a small window of time each year. Seeing the strains on farm families increasing all the time, Bill Gross decided to create an organization to help them in times of great need.
Founded in 2005, “Farm Rescue is a nonprofit organization which plants or harvests crops free of charge for farm families that have had a major injury, illness, or natural disaster,” says Gross.
Rita Jarrett, Farm Rescue’s Office and Outreach Coordinator explains that, “when a farmer is injured and ill and they cannot get in to get their crop planted or harvested, that is devastating because that affects their whole livelihood. If they don't bring in the crop for the year, they have no money for the year.”
This is where Farm Rescue comes in to help the families. Using “a small army of volunteers that come from all over the nation”, Farm Rescue will ensure the planting or harvesting is done in time to protect that family’s income.
Though based in Jamestown, North Dakota, Farm Rescue currently operates in “North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and eastern Montana,” says Gross, “and our hope is to grow to a larger geographical area and help even more farm families in the future.”
Farmers must go through an application process before receiving help from Farm Rescue, during which their case is reviewed by the organization’s board. As soon as they are accepted, though, a team of volunteers will make plans to visit the farm and get to work.
The application process can be started by a simple phone call and can be initiated by a family member or neighbor who sees the farmer needs help.
“When you think of farmers, they're really independent people, it's hard for them to ask for help,” says Calli Stoudt, the Program Coordinator. “They're very, very humbled to ask and they're really touched that when they do ask for help, people will come.”
Farm Rescue's volunteers are sometimes retired farmers and but they can also be people who have no experience with farming, people who simply want to help. After just a few lessons on the combine, they are up and helping families bring in their crops.
The pressures on today’s farmers are many and with the invention of modern farming technology, farmers now have much larger areas to farm than before. While this is a good thing when everything is well, it means that each farmer must spend all their time on their own farms and are unable to help their neighbors like they used to.
Pete Von Bank, a Farm Rescue volunteer, explains that “nowadays, with so many acres to do, most of these neighbors don't have the time to help so I know what happens when you can't do your work. It's hard for the family, hard for the person, just hard on everyone.”
If saving the family’s livelihood were not enough, Farm Rescue volunteers also become friends with the families they help, often eating dinner at their table with them and spending time getting to know them.
When the Leiers had to go Minneapolis for one of their sons, Nathan, to have surgery on his back, they knew that Farm Rescue volunteers were rescuing their crop but they were also happy to find that they had become friends with their other children.
The Leiers’ gratitude towards Farm Rescue is felt by each member of the family. Alissa Leier, aged fifteen, says that “my parents had to be with Nathan to make sure that he could get better and it was a huge weight lifted off our shoulders to know that Farm Rescue was coming to help.”
For Larry Leier, the farmer himself, it is difficult to keep the emotions he feels towards Farm Rescue from becoming overwhelming. The volunteers not only helped them with their livelihood but took the stresses of farming away for just enough time to let the family focus on Nathan.
“A farmer has a lot of pride,” says Larry. “He doesn't want to ask for help but I guess I have to say, I swallowed my pride and called them and they came.”
Gross makes sure people know that the farmers aren’t receiving a handout. The families receive no money or financial aid from Farm Rescue. It is the time and energy that the volunteers give them that is the most valuable help they can get, time and energy that can save a year’s income, if not more.
Farm Rescue has grown greatly in the past seven years. From the four or five volunteers in the first year, they have grown to a list of around five hundred volunteers from around the country, all ready to be called on the help when it’s needed.
Gross is far from a farmer by trade and, working full time as a pilot, it is his dedication to the lives of farmers across the nation that drives him to make sure Farm Rescue keeps growing. His memories of living on a family farm when younger are enough for him to understand the joys as well as the stresses of farming.
“I came from a family farm myself and have seen the devastation that an injury or illness can cause to a family. They need to get their work done to protect their livelihood and I thought there should be a formal organization to help farm families during an unexpected crisis.”
The organization will keep growing and helping people for as long as they need help and thanks to one man’s vision, hundreds of families are being rescued from circumstances far beyond their control. And in doing so, they simply create more volunteers from those who, having been helped themselves, are determined to help their neighbors when they need help.