Helping Family Farmers in Crisis

Iowa Farm Scene

Indeed, there are rewards far beyond any financial rewards that a person could receive, when you go out and help people.

Published on: September 18, 2012

When someone walks up to you out of a crowd, a person you don't know and you are in a different state far from home, and the person tells you "Thanks for a job well done"—it makes your day. That's how Jim Whitman felt, after he received sincere thanks from a stranger at the 2012 Farm Progress Show.

At the show, held recently at Boone in central Iowa, my Wallaces Farmer colleague Tyler Harris and I had just finished interviewing Whitman, when the "thank you from a stranger" occurred. Whitman is a representative of Farm Rescue, a non-profit organization that helps farm families in times of special need. Farm Rescue provides free planting and harvesting assistance to farmers who have experienced a major injury, illness or natural disaster.





Whitman had a big combine with a "Farm Rescue" sign on it parked along Highway 30, at the edge of the parking lot near the entrance to the Farm Progress Show site. Everyone could see it as they drove by. Whitman was telling us how, earlier that morning, he had driven to meet and talk to a farmer east of Nevada, Iowa, who had requested the services of Farm Rescue.

Young farmer thanks Farm Rescue for harvesting his uncle's crops
When Tyler and I were finished shooting photos and interviewing Jim standing next to the combine, Tyler had to leave to go cover another event at the show. Jim Whitman then took me in his pickup truck, delivering me back to the entrance to the exhibit field. The pickup truck, like the combine, was painted with signs and other information identifying it as a "Farm Rescue" vehicle.

THANK YOU: A stranger walked up to Jim Whitman at the 2012 Farm Progress Show in Iowa and thanked Jim and his Farm Rescue colleagues for helping harvest an uncles crops. The uncle was a farmer who had suffered a heart attack prior to harvest and was disabled.
THANK YOU: A stranger walked up to Jim Whitman at the 2012 Farm Progress Show in Iowa and thanked Jim and his Farm Rescue colleagues for helping harvest an uncle's crops. The uncle was a farmer who had suffered a heart attack prior to harvest and was disabled.

As Jim parked the truck, two young farmers walked up to us and one asked, "Are you guys with Farm Rescue?" Jim Whitman replied, "I am. Why do you ask?" The farmer responded, "I'm a farmer from North Dakota and your organization, Farm Rescue, helped my uncle and his family last fall harvest his crops." Jim asked for the uncle's name and the town where the uncle was located. The young farmer told us, and Jim replied, "Yes, I remember that farmer and his family very well. I was there and helped with that harvest."

Whitman is from Jamestown N.D. and is regional operations manager for Farm Rescue. He works full-time for the organization. The motto "Helping Family Farmers in Crisis" was one of the messages on the side of Jim's pickup truck, which attracted the stranger's attention.

Organization has truly had an unusual, grassroots beginning
Farm Rescue is a one-of-a-kind nonprofit organization that was founded in 2005. The organization uses volunteers from across the nation. RDO Equipment Company, a large John Deere dealership based in Fargo, N.D., supplies the farm equipment to provide the free planting and harvesting to the farm families during a time of unexpected crisis.

"Our operations are funded solely by donations, business sponsorships and grants," says Whitman. "Experienced volunteers comprise our organization's workforce. The planting and harvesting equipment is transported by semi-trailer trucks from farm to farm. We do not distribute funds to farmers, we just come and do the work to help these families out."

The organization has planted and harvested crops free of charge for nearly 200 farm families in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana since it began in 2005. Iowa is now the fifth state where Farm Rescue operates. The first family to receive Farm Rescue assistance in Iowa was approved for free harvesting this fall due to a major injury to the farmer. That harvesting operation took place September 13, 2012 near the town of Rhodes in central Iowa. Farm Rescue also has several other farm operations lined up that are being helped in Iowa this fall.

Many sponsors help pay the costs to provide this free service
Farm Rescue's operations within Iowa are possible thanks largely to commercial sponsors. They include RDO Equipment Co., Walmart, Pizza Ranch, Stine Seed Co., Wilson Trailer Co., Key Cooperative, Clear Channel Outdoor, First Citizens National Bank, Sudenga, Lamar, Vanderhaag's Inc., and American State Bank.

"We are a nonprofit organization that can help more farmers," says Whitman. However, this free assistance is only available to farm families if referrals or applications are received in a timely manner. The general public may also anonymously nominate a farm family in need of assistance. Farm Rescue has a limit; they won't go over 1,000 acres. "That's our limit for the amount of acres we will do for each individual family farm, either planting or harvesting," says Whitman.

Visit www.farmrescue.org or call 701-252-2017 to nominate a farm family for assistance or to obtain additional information on this unique nonprofit organization. If you are seeking help, there is a simple application you can fill out online. Or call the Farm Rescue office at this phone number in Jamestown, N.D. if you prefer to apply that way. The staff will answer questions.

How did this organization get started? It's a unique story
The founder and CEO of Farm Rescue is Bill Gross. He's from a farm in North Dakota, near Jamestown. His dad was a farmer and rancher. Bill is a captain who flies 747 airliners for United Parcel Service. From the air he could always see the many farms and ranches across our nation. Gross remarked to another pilot, "Someday I'm going to do something to help farmers, when I retire." The guy sitting next to him responded, "You don't have to wait until you retire. Do something now."

And that's how Farm Rescue was born. "Bill started it in 2005, by himself," says Whitman. "Bill rented a tractor and he'd use his vacation days from UPS to help farmers." Other pilots who worked with Bill at UPS got involved. "Bill met other pilots and told them about Farm Rescue and they liked the idea and they enjoy helping," says Whitman. "The pilots like to work with technology, and this new farm machinery is pretty technically-oriented. So it's a natural fit for airplane pilots to volunteer and help with the planting and harvesting."

How does Farm Rescue find people to volunteer to do the work?
In addition to pilots, other people from all walks of life, including retired farmers, also volunteer. Donations of money from individuals, along with funding provided by commercial sponsors, helps pay for fuel and other costs. The majority of the labor is volunteer. Farm Rescue has a small staff of people who are paid. For example, Whitman is a full-time employee.

Farm Rescue now has evolved into having three different crews to go out and do the harvesting and planting. The organization also has a couple of semi-trucks for hauling grain. "We have three different sets of machinery in spring and it's the same setup in the fall," explains Whitman. "Of course, we couldn't do this at all without the help of our commercial sponsors, the various ag-related companies listed on our signs and on our website. We have very generous sponsors. And we have very generous volunteers who give us their time and talent and do this at their own expense."