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Farm Rescue Helps 500th Farmer After Baler Accident

Farming is a dangerous occupation. One accident, one injury, can bring an entire farming operation to its knees.

Thankfully, farmers help each other. When a crisis occurs, friends and neighbors, sometimes even total strangers answer the call. Stories of combines spreading out across fields are common at harvesttime. They warm the heart, offering a potent reminder that the world of agriculture is a family.

But relying on neighbors for help isn’t as easy as it was in the day when the nearest neighbor was just down the road. Farms are bigger now. Farmers fewer.

That’s why Bill Gross started Farm Rescue. Since its inception in 2005, Farm Rescue has stepped in to help more than 500 families. Through the efforts of more than 1,000 volunteers and a stable of financial sponsors, Farm Rescue has harvested grain, planted fields, made and delivered hay, and saved countless family farms.

Number 500

When Doug Bichler of Linton, North Dakota, lost an arm in a baler accident this summer in the midst of a drought, he thought it could be the end of his purebred beef dreams.

“Obviously, cattle need feed,” says Bichler. “When I didn’t hit the benchmark on harvested hay, I thought I would have to get rid of cows or sell calves earlier.”

Purebred herds take time to build and are not easy to liquidate. The thought of having to do so just as his Simmental – Red Angus line was hitting its stride was sickening.

Bichler had heard of Farm Rescue and had seen their efforts help others. He himself had come to the aid of farmers in need through other programs – helping those who lost cattle to fires, blizzards, or drought.

But he never imagined he would be the one to need help. “When you look up and see that load of hay pulling in the yard, that’s something else,” says Bichler.

Farm Rescue provided three loads of much needed hay to the Bichlers – an unexpected act of generosity when it was needed most.

That’s what Farm Rescue does.

Farm Rescue

Saving the farm

Bill Gross was a commercial airline pilot with a soft heart for the North Dakota farming community that raised him. “I thought when I retired I would just get a big planter and tractor and travel the state helping where I could, like some sort of random Good Samaritan,” says Gross. “I would just pull in the yard; tell them to fill me up with fuel, seed, and fertilizer; help them plant; then move on to the next place.”

A friend steered him toward creating a nonprofit organization so others could help as well – and told him not to wait until he retired.

Five volunteers helped 10 families in the first year, and the organization has grown steadily since. What began in North Dakota has spread throughout the upper Midwest, and Gross says he now gets calls from corporate sponsors offering to donate if they will come to their area.

During this summer’s drought, donations of hay came from Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and eastern North and South Dakota. “Even farmers who could afford to buy the hay were strapped to get it to the site,” says Gross. Haul rates of $4 to $5 per mile were often insurmountable. Farm Rescue was able to offer the first load free, asking only fuel cost reimbursement on subsequent loads. The charge was often less than $1 per mile.

Operation Hay Lift, as it was named after a famous 1949 blizzard effort, delivered hundreds of loads of hay like those that arrived at Bichler’s. “We didn’t use helicopters like the original Operation Hay Lift, we used a fleet of semis. Some volunteers drove their own. Some were sponsored, some funded by public donations,” explains Gross.

Gross comes from the generation displaced by the farm crisis of the 1980s. He is one of thousands of farm lads who, realizing the farm could no longer support him and his siblings, left to seek his fame and fortune elsewhere. But his heart never left the farm. “It’s what I know and love. I still have a connection to the land. And I want to help people live that way of life.”

He has been able to purchase a portion of the old family farm, where he and his brother still raise crops and cattle, but the area has changed. “It’s a demographic thing,” says Gross. “There is little left to the town. There is no longer a family farm every mile.”

The stakes in farming have changed as well. “It’s more competitive. Input and land costs are higher. A crisis can quickly turn to disaster,” says Gross.

There is need for organizations like Farm Rescue that can turn a volunteer workforce and financial resources of strangers into a substitute for the neighbor down the road.

“We want to do what we can to keep the maximum number of farms around,” says Gross. “If we can help a farm family through a crisis, they will stay on the farm and be better able to help the next generation do the same.”

Bichler sees a deeper meaning in Farm Rescue’s efforts. “With everything that’s going on in the world, Farm Rescue reminds us there are still good people willing to help others. There is good in this world. Let’s all try to focus on that.”

Bill Gross
Photo: Farm Rescue

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