Farm Rescue gets largest grant in group's history

BISMARCK, N.D. — A group which aids Midwest farmers struck by illness, a major injury or natural disaster is using the largest grant in its history to add staff and plan for the future.

The Jamestown, N.D.,-based Farm Rescue nonprofit helps farmers in need in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa and eastern Montana plant crops and harvest crops and hay. The nonprofit is getting $445,564 from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, started by the late hotel and real estate baroness Leona Helmsley.

Farm Rescue founder Bill Gross, a North Dakota farm boy who now flies a cargo plane around the world for UPS, said the three-year grant will be used to fund a development officer position and to hire a consultant to help develop a strategic plan for the future.

"We want to make sure we're doing things efficiently, timely and in the best way possible," he said. "We're not looking to expand at this point. This is more to just shore up what we have."

Gross started Farm Rescue in North Dakota in 2006 with just a handful of volunteers to help farmers in need with spring planting. In the years since, it has incorporated into a nonprofit and grown its service territory while expanding services to include crop harvesting and haying. It has now helped more than 250 farm families in the five states.


Farm Rescue doesn't dole out cash — it recruits volunteers to do the physical labor for farmers who have been struck by an illness, major injury or natural disaster. It has a database of about 1,000 volunteers, as well as numerous business sponsors.

With the addition of a development officer, Farm Rescue will have a paid staff of five people, four of them full-time. Gross himself remains a volunteer, dedicating about 1,000 hours a year to his cause.

"I just wanted to be a random good Samaritan," he said. "I thought I'd help a few farm families in my home state. I didn't even envision it as a nonprofit, but then it became clear to me when other people suggested you need to get more people involved, and you really need to have a formal structure. You can't do it all yourself."

The Helmsley Charitable Trust has become Farm Rescue's biggest donor, contributing nearly $1 million since 2008 — including the nonprofit's previous largest donation of $348,000, announced last year.

"A central aspect of ensuring the health of rural Americans is protecting their livelihoods when illness or injuries strike. And while there is a strong and wonderful tradition of support among farmers when a neighbor is in need, sometimes the burden is too large for the surrounding community to bear," trustee Walter Panzirer said in a statement to The Associated Press. "That's why Farm Rescue — which truly is the only organization of its kind in the United States — is such a vitally important service for farmers and their families across the upper Midwest."

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