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What It Means to Be a Farm Rescuer

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“I wanted to be the Good Samaritan, driving around in a John Deere tractor, helping farmers who looked like they were having a tough time.”

With a laugh, that’s exactly how Bill Gross describes the desire and driving force that led him to create Farm Rescue, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to farming families experiencing unexpected crises.

Building on Bill’s vision and idea to provide much-needed assistance during peak farming seasons like planting and harvesting, Farm Rescue has now been helping farm families in crisis for more than 10 years.

But Farm Rescue’s roots go much deeper and are made up of more than just one man’s idea.

A Heart in Agriculture
Growing up on a farm in Cleveland, North Dakota, Bill has been around the agriculture industry as long as he can remember. At one time, his family farming operation was among the largest in the state, with 10,000 acres and 5,000 heads of cattle.

After tough times during the 80s shattered his vision of staying on the family farm forever, Bill’s parents encouraged him to go to college and pursue other dreams. After graduating from the University of North Dakota, he began a career in commercial aviation, starting with Pan Am and today, serving as a Boeing 747 captain with UPS Airlines. He also began doing mission work around the world – building homes, working in orphanages, and leading Bible studies.

“But my heart always went back to the farm,” Bill recalls. His love of agriculture combined with years of mission work got him thinking about what he could do to help out people back in the U.S. He was aware farming could be a very dangerous business and with changing dynamics in family farms and operations, that it was becoming more difficult for some to receive help when it was needed.

“Since I didn’t do it as a career, I always wanted to do something in farming when I retired,” Bill said. As he started telling others about his desire to help farmers in need – being the “Good Samaritan in the John Deere tractor,” – some would laugh while others would tell him it was a valid idea. But it was the words of one of his oldest friends that acted as a spark, igniting his Good Samaritan fire.

“I told my former college roommate, Kevin Mateer and his wife, Meredith, about my idea,” Bill said. They didn’t laugh. Instead, Kevin said to Bill, “Why wait until you retire?”

Building a Mission
After the vote of confidence from Kevin, the idea for Farm Rescue really began to take shape. Bill started brainstorming ideas for a name and came up with Farm Rescue. Next, he began developing his business plan.

“I wanted to run this organization as a unique nonprofit and a true nonprofit,” he said. His idea was to run the organization strictly with volunteers, and pay out no money.

“I didn’t want to give a handout or a bailout, or simply try to throw money at a problem then move on,” he said. “It was decided, we’re going to stick to our roots of work ethic and helping out others, because that’s what these families need. They need work done.”

Once Farm Rescue was officially incorporated and received its nonprofit status, there was still work to be done…before actual work could be done. Bill knew Farm Rescue depended on a significant commitment from a company willing to provide the large agriculture equipment needed to fulfill the organization’s mission. The first one he approached was RDO Equipment Co.

“I arranged a meeting with members of management at RDO Equipment Co.,” he said. “I told them my dream and my goal to help families experiencing unexpected crises.”

Much to Bill’s pleasant surprise, RDO Equipment Co. quickly agreed to be Farm Rescue’s official equipment partner.

“They didn’t have to ‘think about it’ or go back and ‘crunch the numbers’ of what it would cost to partner with us,” he said. “They were eager to help right away. That was pretty amazing.”

According to Keith Kreps, Executive Vice President of the agriculture division of RDO Equipment Co., “Our management team felt strongly that this was an excellent cause to support, as it directly impacts the people who make our business work.”

With a guaranteed fleet of machines and volunteers in place, Farm Rescue was ready to work. The organization helped its first case on April 11, 2006, a family in western North Dakota, near Dickinson. 10 years later, in October of 2016, Farm Rescue helped its 400th case*, a family in eastern North Dakota, near Casselton.

Because it came onboard from the start, RDO Equipment Co. has had the unique privilege of being involved with every Farm Rescue case and with every family. Especially meaningful to Keith, as he notes, “Farm Rescue’s vision and RDO Equipment Co.’s visions are so similar.”

National Farm Rescuer Day
While Bill hoped to spread the word of Farm Rescue and share the story of all the good its volunteers were doing to help others, he never expected his mission to be recognized with its own national day. But, a few weeks ago, that’s exactly what he found would happen. Beginning this year, National Farm Rescuer Day will be celebrated annually on the third Thursday in March.

“Over the years, people began referring to our group and volunteers as ‘farm rescuers,’” he said, referring to how the official national day’s name came to be.

While certainly exciting publicity for Farm Rescue, having a national day offers a completely different significance to Bill

“This is an opportunity to honor all the people who volunteer to be farm rescuers, to recognize the families being helped, and to celebrate the businesses that so generously sponsor Farm Rescue and our mission,” he said.

The timing of National Farm Rescuer Day this year is particularly special, as Bill is looking forward to honoring one of Farm Rescue’s first volunteers, Erwin “Smokey” Wright. A longtime friend of Bill’s, Smokey was among the biggest supporters of Farm Rescue. He passed away on March 11 at the age of 80 and his funeral is on March 16, which happens to be the inaugural year’s National Farm Rescuer Day. The team put together a special tribute video, honoring Smokey who was, in Bill’s words, “the ultimate Farm Rescuer.”

Expanding and Growth
Based on his North Dakota roots, Bill started Farm Rescue with the intent to help families in his home state. And during its first year, the organization helped 10 North Dakota farm families. As word of the organization spread, more and more applications for assistance started coming in, many of them from out of state. This led to the growth and expansion of Farm Rescue, which today has helped families in four additional states: Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, and South Dakota.

On that same note, Farm Rescue also began with a mission to help during crucial times of planting and harvesting. Because of demand, the organization has expanded to including haying.

So the big question is, as Farm Rescue looks ahead to the next 10 years: Will Farm Rescue continue to grow its geographical footprint and variety of services offered?

“Absolutely,” Bill said. “Where there’s a need, we will be there to help.”

Learn more about Farm Rescue and how to get involved at www.farmrescue.org.

Those interested in more information, stories and, photos about National Farm Rescuer Day can search the hashtag #BeAFarmRescuer and watch Farm Rescue’s special National Farm Rescuer Day video.

*Farm Rescue’s 400th case is a customer of RDO Equipment Co. in Casselton. Read the full story of customer Tim McLean and his experience with Farm Rescue.