Bill Gross always wanted to farm, but never got the opportunity. As a young man, he saw great needs in the world through global mission trips through his church.
Years later he decided to use his passion for farming, not only to help U.S. citizens, but to literally save small farming communities, one farm family at a time.
Farm Rescue is an organization Gross founded in 2005, at age 39. It's an organization that comes to the rescue of farm families who have been struck by tragedy-catastrophic illness, farm accidents or natural disasters. The organization uses donated tractors and equipment and volunteer labor to plant or harvest a farm family's crop in the face of a crisis.
Farm Rescue began in Gross' home state of North Dakota, and within seven years it has grown to South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Iowa become the fifth state, earlier this year, to be associated with Farm Rescue.
A full-time pilot for United Parcel Service, Gross, 46, flies a Boeing 747 around the world in the name of package delivery. It was in the cockpit of a UPS airplane that the idea for Farm Rescue was born. Gross and the co-pilot were visiting about what they wanted to do when they each retired.
Gross said that since he never got to farm for a living, that he wanted to get a big John Deere tractor and be a 'random Good Samaritan' and find a way to help farmers in need. It was the co-pilot who chuckled, said it was a crazy idea, and then asked Gross why he would wait with something like that until after retirement.
Gross considered that question, visited with others, and decided that the need was for now, not later.
He found a name for his organization, got a nonprofit status, promoted his mission with a rental car and a $99 vinyl banner by visiting a lot of farm shows, and began searching for corporate sponsors to help with the costs of running this mission - along with a company to donate equipment, and people to do the volunteer planting and harvesting for farm families in crisis.
"At that time there was no 'we' in it - there was just 'me,'" Gross said. "People told me I didn't know what I was getting into, but I didn't think it was that big of a deal. But (after we helped our first farm family) I found that those people were correct. It grew much quicker than I thought and became larger than I had envisioned."
Today, Farm Rescue has 250 corporate sponsors helping to get the job done.
Farm Rescue helped its first family in 2005. The following year they helped 10 farm families. So far, it has helped 200 farm families in their time of need, and has covered around 100,000 acres of ground in the process of planting or harvesting for those families.
"We're not giving a handout. The farmer has to pay for the seed, fuel and fertilizer expenses," said Gross. "We provide the donated equipment and volunteer manpower to get the job done free of charge.
"We use corporate sponsorship money to help with other expenses like transportation costs, vehicles and trucks, insurance, paying a handful of employees, and things like that."
Gross reiterated that farming is a dangerous occupation, and that throughout the states that Farm Rescue has been working, it has helped families who have suffered in many ways. Some of those issues include families going through chemotherapy, family members with broken or severed limbs, people hurt in a combine fire, high voltage electrical accidents, people with hands or limbs cut off in drive belts and power take-off accidents, people getting caught in augers and combine heads, people who have had heart attacks or strokes, car accident victims, people getting run over by farm equipment.
"These are the people who have lived to tell about it, and that's why Farm Rescue is here," Gross said, "to help those families in their time of crisis.
"And we do it free of charge."
There is a lot of need out there, and Gross said that's part of the reason he does it, but not the whole reason.
"It's a good and very rewarding feeling," he began. "I came from a farm family and I know what it takes to get help from someone.
"But really when I think of the rewards, I feel like it's an avenue I've created for businesses and people to help farm families. You have to lead by example in this life, and help wherever you can."
But that's only part of his mission. Gross said he can and does help the next generation of family farmers remain on the farm so they can take the reins when its their generation's turn. He added that what his organization does is to help in the healing of the body and of the human spirit.
"There are fewer farm families today," Gross said, "and they have fewer children than they used to have.
"It's harder for neighbors to come and help in a time of crisis because they have their own crop to get in or out - and even when they do, sometimes it's after they get their own crop taken care of. Getting rid of that stress and worry can help in the healing process and it helps retain the livelihood of the farm."
He claimed that what he and his volunteers do can literally save a small town from dying. Gross said he knows from experience the importance of young people remaining in small towns in order to keep them thriving.
He himself couldn't remain on the farm because of financial problems his parents had. As the youngest of five children, Gross - like many others - knew he had no choice but to leave Cleveland, N.D. and pursue other interests, even though his true desire was to farm.
"Cleveland used to be like all other small towns," he said. There used to be "a gas station, restaurant, bar, cafe, grocery store and other stores.
"The only thing there today is a post office and a grain elevator. The public school closed down and when that happens, towns dry up," he said. "Farm families often have a lot of debt for land, equipment, crop inputs and other things, and when they can't help their young kids get started farming, the children have no choice but to leave.
"Pretty soon there aren't enough people around to sustain a Main Street. I know. It happened in my hometown."
Iowa was ideal for Farm rescue, Gross said. Iowa has the largest number of small- to medium-sized family farms, ranging from 600 or 700 acres up to 1,500 acres.
Farm Rescue utilizes more than 1,000 volunteers across the U.S., but often uses fewer than 100 of those volunteers in a year's time.
Gross said he receives emails everyday from people wanting to volunteer their time. Most of his volunteers, he said, are retired farmers.
Gross runs the organization even with a full time job, but doesn't see a dime out of his efforts. He checks in daily, and said he couldn't carry out this mission if it weren't for his sponsors, equipment donors and volunteers.
"It's grown so much that I don't get to meet everyone anymore, but I do still get out and run equipment now and then just to keep my hand in it. I get to farm without all of the worry and debt," he quipped. "It's fun for me to get back to my childhood and help out."
There are eight people on the director board for Farm Rescue. Gross and that board oversee applications and decide who has the greatest needs.
They look at the nature of the emergency (it can involve anyone in the family); the farm family's location (if they can get volunteers there in a timely and practical manner); family finances, medical reports if it's an illness or accident, and the amount of land the family farms.
Applications are being taken for this fall, and can be downloaded by going to "farm rescue.org," or they can be received by calling Farm Rescue at (701) 252-2017.
"No one should feel ashamed or think it's charity," Gross said. "All of us at some point could use a helping hand. Farm families can apply themselves, or they can be nominated by someone else. All information is confidential."
Gross encourages farm families to apply if there is a need.
"Farm families are often very independent, prideful people," he said. "They've always worked and done everything on their own no matter what the injury or illness.
"Farm Rescue will plant or harvest crops for farm families who need it. That's what we're here for. We're like a supplemental kind of help when neighbors can't help out as much as they would like to because they have their own crops to get in or out as well."