North Dakota native Bill Gross grew up on a farm. But he didn’t quite follow in his parents’ muddy steps. Instead, he launched a nonprofit to help farms—and farmers—in crisis.
The 1980s U.S. farm crisis moved Gross to action. At that time, stockpiled grain and plummeting land prices sent farmers like the elder Grosses into heavy debt. Gross watched as his parents had to sell their land and most of their cattle.
Gross went off to college. Then he flew Boeing 747s for United Parcel Service for 27 years. But he says, “My heart never left the farming community.”
What happened next seems straight out of the Bible’s command “Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18)
In 2005, Gross took up farming—not for himself but for others. He started a nonprofit group called Farm Rescue. He traveled to farm shows, set up a card table, and asked for donations. With help from a John Deere dealership, he bought a tractor. His very first year, he provided farming assistance to 10 families.
Over the years, both individuals and businesses such as Deere & Company and Chevrolet have helped. With 1,000 volunteers nationwide, Farm Rescue has assisted about 700 farm families in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. The group usually helps farmers beset by injuries, illness, or natural disasters.
This year, Farm Rescue also turned out to assist those hurt by COVID-19. The pandemic has rippled through the farm economy, leading to more bankruptcies. “It’s affected farmers drastically,” Gross says. “They were already at what I feel was the breaking point.”
In the spring, the rainy North Dakota weather offered farmer Paul Ivesdal only a tiny window for planting. Then he fell ill with the coronavirus. His neighbors couldn’t help due to the bad weather. The 63-year-old feared he would lose his farm.
“We didn’t get some crop in,” Ivesdal says. “It just got too late and started raining again.”
Farm Rescue stepped in. Volunteers from the nonprofit planted his crops, making sure his farm would endure. Without Farm Rescue’s help, “I don’t know if I would have kept on farming,” Ivesdal says. “We might have just decided to quit.”
Farmers can apply for support from Farm Rescue. But many resist the assistance.
“They’re prideful, hard-working people and typically don’t want to ask for help,” Gross says. “Sometimes it takes convincing only because, God bless them, they always feel that there is someone else that needs the help more than them.”