Farm Rescue helps farmers facing illness, injury, or natural disasters
Seasons in life and on the farm come when they are due, whether we are ready for them or not. When it’s time to plant, the seed must go in the ground. When it’s time to harvest, the crop must come in.
But what happens when the farmer simply can’t meet the season?
For as long as there have been neighbors, they have stepped up to help when needed.
We’ve all read heartwarming stories of communities rallying to lend a hand when a farmer is ill or injured, or has died. While support for neighbors still runs strong, sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day or enough hands to carry the load.
That’s where Farm Rescue comes in. This nonprofit organization provides planting, harvesting, haying, and livestock feeding services at no cost to farm and ranch families who have been affected by a major illness, injury, or natural disaster.
A Growing Need
Bill Gross was raised on a farm in North Dakota before becoming a pilot.
On a long flight over the Pacific Ocean, he and another pilot were discussing retirement plans. Gross said his goal was to buy a tractor and go around helping farm families dealing with a crisis. The other pilot challenged him not to wait until retirement, and Farm Rescue was born in 2005.
The organization started with Gross and a handful of volunteers. They spent the first year planting in North Dakota, seeking sponsors for equipment and other needs, visiting trade shows, and working to get the word out about Farm Rescue.
Since then, the interest and need have both grown, and the program has expanded to include South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas.
Dan Erdmann, program manager for Farm Rescue, says, “A very large majority of the farms we are helping are generation farms. They want to keep it going. It’s a lot of pressure to keep on the family legacy.”
The organization’s goal is to help keep farms in business through crises. After three years, 97% of families served by Farm Rescue are still farming.
“We want to provide peace of mind and let farmers focus on the true battle at the time,” Erdmann says. “The work will still be there when they’re recovered.”
Fueled by Volunteers
Erdmann says people from all walks of life and from all over the country volunteer with Farm Rescue. They are trained to safely and correctly use the needed equipment, and beginners are paired with mentors to learn the ropes.
One of those volunteers is Vane Clayton. He grew up on an Indiana dairy and crop farm and went on to become CEO of four different tech companies before joining Farm Rescue.
Before he was born, Clayton’s father couldn’t work for six months after having back surgery, and neighbors stepped in to keep the farm going.
“Hearing those stories made me want to give back to the farming community,” he says. “The first instinct of farmers is, ‘I can handle this; I’m just a little sick or my leg is broken,’ ” Clayton says. “We’re here to help with professional equipment and experience and we’re timely. We treat family and land as if it were our own and handle it with care. We get in and get out and let them focus on getting healthy or recovering.”
Clayton often receives follow-up calls and even Christmas cards from families he has served. “I went into this thinking I was going to be giving my time and effort,” he says, “but I’m getting so much more out of it, keeping those families moving forward and the farm going for the next generation.”
Last fall, Farm Rescue helped its 800th farm family.
Gene and Katie Birklid farm 1,500 acres together near Fort Ransom, North Dakota, with children Jocelyn, 14, and Charlie, 10. Gene started farming his father’s land when his dad retired. His grandfather and great-uncles farmed the same land before that.
As a child, Gene was diagnosed with leukemia, which went into remission thanks to an experimental treatment.
In 1998, he developed a large, noncancerous tumor on his forehead, which he learned was caused by that childhood cancer treatment. That tumor was successfully removed, but another developed five years ago, which meant another surgery. Then, last year, cysts also caused by the treatment were causing pressure in his brain, so he had surgery again.
A few months later, in August, his doctor broke the news that there were more cysts and he needed another surgery.
“I asked if we could put it off until after harvest, and he said, ‘Not really,’ ” Gene says. “Two in one year is a lot.”
Katie says a few friends told her about Farm Rescue and encouraged her to reach out.
“I was scared to ask at first,” she says. “I love to help people, but I can’t ask for help.”
She filled out an application, and the night before Gene’s surgery, she got the call that Farm Rescue was coming.
“It’s just the two of us so I was really worried about how we were going to handle harvest,” Katie says. “Knowing they were coming to do all our beans was a huge relief and I was so thankful.”
A few weeks before harvest, a Farm Rescue volunteer came to the Birklids’ farm and worked with them on a plan. By this time, Gene was home recovering.
“He looked at our farm and equipment and we showed him what bins we wanted the beans in,” Katie says. “He asked Gene a ton of questions and was very good about making sure he was doing what Gene wanted him to do.”
Katie and a neighbor got all the food-grade beans harvested before Farm Rescue arrived, and within three days, the rest of the beans were finished. Her father and brothers helped with the beans as well, and Katie ran the Birklids’ combine alongside the volunteers.
“They all did a great job,” she says.
“The planning made it go as smooth as it could,” Gene says. “We had a lot of offers from neighbors and friends to come and help, and this takes the weight off of others.”
Gene’s recovery went well enough that he was able to drive the truck during the corn harvest, and he’ll be back in the saddle for planting this spring.
“It should be an interesting year and hopefully better than last year,” he says.
The Birklid children help on the farm as much as they can and are grateful this service was available for their parents. “I’m thankful that they were here to help us with this stuff,” Charlie says, holding a picture he drew of a combine featuring the Farm Rescue logo.
“There are so many different things that could be the reasons people need Farm Rescue, and just having them is really helpful,” Jocelyn says. “Harvest is a stressful time, and when you need the help, it’s good to have people like Farm Rescue.”
The Birklids encourage other farmers in need to reach out to Farm Rescue.
“Make the phone call. Check out the website. It’s very easy and everyone is super helpful,” Katie says. “If you need help, ask.”
Contact Farm Rescue at 701.252.2017 or FarmRescue.org.