Leaning on a crutch, farmer Bruce Emery watches a giant John Deere tractor and seeder roll across his field in Luverne, N.D. (pop. 44). After a week of on-and-off rain, Emery is grateful for clear skies, and even more grateful for the kind strangers planting his crops.
“There’s good people left in this world,” says Emery, 54, about the Farm Rescue volunteers who planted wheat and soybeans on 640 acres of his land in May. “Some of the volunteers took time out of their vacations to help. It’s amazing.”
For 36 years, Emery handled spring planting on his own. Then, last November, tragedy struck. His wife, Tamara, 51, died after the all-terrain vehicle she was driving rolled over.
“She might have had a seizure and lost control,” says Emery, trying to make sense of the accident. Medical tests revealed a brain tumor.
Then in February, Emery slipped on ice, tore a tendon in his knee and ended up in a full-leg cast. His 17-year-old son, Jarret, carried on with farm chores before and after high school, but spring planting loomed ominously for the overwhelmed and grieving family.
That’s when one of Emery’s neighbors contacted Farm Rescue, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization based in Jamestown, N.D. (pop. 15,527), that plants and harvests up to a 1,000 acres for free for farmers whose livelihoods are threatened by an unexpected crisis, such as illness, injury or natural disaster.
“Our coming to help might be the difference between them being able to continue the legacy of the family farm or not,” says Farm Rescue founder Bill Gross, 43, a UPS pilot who grew up on a farm near Cleveland, N.D. (pop. 112).
The idea for Farm Rescue took root during conversations among Gross and fellow pilots during long international flights. He talked about how devastating an injury or illness can be to a farmer, who doesn’t have sick leave, and how he wished he could help.
“My original idea was that when I retired, I’d get a big John Deere tractor and just be a random Good Samaritan,” says Gross, who lives in Seattle and still owns his family farm.
Rather than wait for retirement, however, a friend suggested Gross enlist other volunteers and seek sponsors and donors so that more down-on-their-luck farmers could be helped.
In 2005, Gross founded Farm Rescue and began attending farm shows to spread its mission to help farmers devastated by medical emergencies, machinery accidents, floods and tornadoes. RDO Equipment Co., headquartered in Fargo, N.D. (pop. 90,599), agreed to provide tractors and harvesting equipment.
The first farm family assisted was Matt and Laura Biel, of Dickinson N.D. (pop. 16,010), after Matt’s right hand was mangled in a grain auger and had to be amputated in February 2006.
“Farm Rescue was our saving grace,” says Laura, 34. “They came in with their machinery and manpower and seeded half of our crop that year. They worked around the clock for about three days.
“Complete strangers willing to help you out,” she marvels. “It’s a really warm feeling to know that there are so many nice people.”
Since helping 10 North Dakota farmers during its first year of operation in 2006, Farm Rescue has expanded its charitable outreach to South Dakota, western Minnesota and eastern Montana and helped 130 farm families. More than 150 sponsors and hundreds of individuals have donated money to the cause, and more than 500 volunteers have lent a hand, operating equipment, raising money and promoting the organization.
Dave Sette, 45, who operates heavy equipment for the street department in Grafton, Wis. (pop. 10,312), drives tractors for Farm Rescue during his spring vacations.
Sette got involved after seeing a story about Farm Rescue on television. He decided that he could best honor his mother, who died of cancer, by helping farmers who are facing sickness and hardship. “Some people run marathons for cancer fundraisers or make quilts,” Sette says. “This is how I help.”
Often, a family member or friend contacts Farm Rescue on behalf of a farmer who’s been battered by misfortune and is too proud and independent to ask for help.
“It’s not a handout,” says Gross, adding that farmers provide their own seed, fertilizer and fuel.
Farmers must complete a short application, which is reviewed by Farm Rescue’s board of directors. Only about half of the applications are approved because of the organization’s limited funds.
Volunteers, including Gross, don’t receive pay, though their meals and lodging are covered while they’re in the field. During layovers around the world, Gross spends hours on the phone, contracting sponsors and volunteers, and coordinating planting and harvest schedules.
“He called me one day from Singapore and said, ‘Now this is what we need and hopefully we’ll come Monday and plant wheat,’” says Anona Lundstrom, 57, whose husband, Bruce, 60, was diagnosed with leukemia last year.
Even with help from their son, Brad, 34, the couple worried about getting their wheat planted on their farm near Finley, N.D. (pop. 515). Then, on a clear May day, Farm Rescue volunteers showed up and worked from noon until 3 a.m. planting 360 acres of wheat.
“It made all the difference in the world,” Anona says.
That same week, Farm Rescue volunteers planted 850 acres of wheat for Gene and Geri Andersen near Dagmar, Mont. A stroke in December took its toll on Geri’s health, then the couple’s son, Kerby, 32, died in May from a genetic liver disease. He and his father farmed together.
“On the day of the funeral, the volunteers stopped the tractors for an hour or so and came to the services,” says Gene, 61. “It’s quite an operation.”
Volunteer Jack Limke, 50, was planting that day and attended Kerby’s funeral. He and his wife, Genita, are so devoted to Farm Rescue’s mission that they drive from their home in Bardstown, Ky. (10,364), and spend Jack’s vacation days helping farmers in need. Genita began homeschooling their daughters—Megan, 12, and Anna, 10—so the family could devote up to five weeks each year lending a hand. They live in a camper while volunteering.
“I think it’s an incredible idea that Bill had, and I wanted to help him,” says Jack, who also is a UPS pilot. “Back in the 1930s and ’40s, there were farming bees when farmers had issues. Now farms are so large and there are fewer of them and it’s harder to take time off and help your neighbors. That’s where Farm Rescue fits in.”
As sponsorship and donations increase, Farm Rescue will expand into other states, so that farmers in crisis everywhere can be helped.
“Keeping our farm families going benefits all of us,” says Gross, who is living his dream of being a Good Samaritan on a John Deere tractor.