America's farmers and ranchers are no strangers to adversity. Today's producers often contend with uncertain weather conditions, rising input costs and volatile markets. But for many producers, the greatest concern may be the threat of disability. Years ago, when America was more of an agrarian society, farmers relied on help from neighbors, but that isn't always the case nowadays. And a serious accident or a long-term illness can spell financial ruin for the family farm.
But as Market to Market discovered last year, a lack of volunteers led to the development of an organization that comes to the rescue when the chips are down. Nancy Crowfoot explains.
In what is a typical spring scene across most of the Midwest, it's planting time in central North Dakota. What isn't so typical is the person behind the wheel. He isn't the farm owner or renter and he isn't the hired help. He is one of many volunteers who travel farm to farm helping growers in need, get their crops in the ground.
Gene Spichke, Farm Rescue Volunteer: "I'm retired. Farmed all my life and I thought this would be just a great opportunity for me to help somebody else."
Retired farmer Gene Spichke works with a non-profit organization called Farm Rescue. The program is designed to offer one-time help to farmers who have been temporarily side-lined by natural disasters such as a tornado, or health issues such as a surgery or accident.
The idea for an all volunteer traveling planting crew came from Bill Gross, a full-time pilot for UPS who lives in Seattle. But his roots are in North Dakota agriculture – where he's seen farm sizes get bigger – and fewer neighbors around to help those in need.
Bill Gross, Founder and President, Farm Rescue: "I was raised on a family farm and over the years I've seen how there's fewer family farms across the countryside and of the family farms that remain, there's a smaller size, there's less children and its just harder when a crisis happens for a family or neighbors to come and help each other."
Scott Reishus, Mohall, ND, Farm Rescue Beneficiary 2007: "I'm sure eventually someone would've helped me but then my crop would've been late."
While neighbors may sincerely want to help, it has been a relief to those injured – that they now, don't have to ask.
Blair Olafson, Farm Rescue Beneficiary 2007:
"That farm rescue, that it's a great idea. Just glad they're doing it. And neighbors, I think the neighbors are relieved too and they don't have to do it. It's great for the whole community."
Blair Olafson and Scott Reishus were both injured this past winter in separate snow mobile accidents. They were just two of 14 farmers in North Dakota and surrounding states to receive help from Farm Rescue in 2007. In 2006, ten farmers were helped.
The farmers must pay for their seed and fertilizer. Farm Rescue covers the rest – including fuel. The cost to cover this "migratory" planting operation comes from private donations and 60 business sponsors. Business donations range from free Web design and maintenance ... to grant money from a financial institution's foundation ... to promotional signage on vehicles.
Dan Ternes, Sign D'ZYN, Minot, ND"My father-in-law is one of the persons last year that did receive help.
We wanted to help out Bill anyway we could and I guess with the signage we just decided he'd need help on getting his story out."
All donations help, but Bill Gross says for two years now, one of the most crucial and generous donations has come from RDO Equipment Company headquartered in Fargo. The company donated the use of a John Deere tractor and 43-foot, no-till planter.
Bill Gross, Founder and President, Farm Rescue: "The value of the equipment that RDO Equipment Company provides to Farm Rescue for 2007 is approximately $450,000. They also include maintenance and transportation of the equipment."
Running shifts both day and night, the large equipment allowed volunteers to plant an average of 500 acres per day.
All totaled, Gross says his 2007 budget was $100,000 -- double that of 2006. The major expenses are fuel, liability insurance, and marketing.
Gross emphasizes that all the money goes to operating expenses and includes no salaries.
Bill Gross, Founder and President, Farm Rescue "No one receives any money off of Farm Rescue. Nor do we distribute any money to farmers. I want to make that clear. That Farm Rescue is not a financial rescue. We're not out to help farmers who are on the verge of bankruptcy, to carry them another year."
To determine a qualified family farmer, a lengthy application process includes disclosure of financial statements and debts. Farm Rescue also limits its help to farmers with no more than 3,000 acres. And the applicant must have operated his or her own farm for at least 3 years.
Meeting all the criteria has meant a crop in the ground for 24 farmers over the last two years. To one of last years Farm Rescue recipients, Lowell Hartvikson who lost an arm in a 2005 bailer accident – the planting help meant not having to lease out his land. He had time to recover from his injury and by last fall was able to help with harvest.
Lowell Hartvikson, Willow City, ND, Farm Rescue Beneficiary 2006: "As far as operating the machines, I have no problem with that. I can push the level and run the ground speed and check for cleanness of the grain and so forth. I did do my harvest last year, for the most part."
Hartvikson and his wife also received help with harvest from neighbors. But starting last fall, Farm Rescue offered assistance with harvest. These are services the founder and President of Farm Rescue would also like to expand to other states.
Bill Gross, Founder and President, Farm Rescue: "And I would like to say that uh would to clarify one thing about Farm Rescue operating in other states. That we would not take any funding from one state to use in another state. Each state that Farm Rescue would expand to would need to support itself."
Expansion may seem a lofty goal for a program that is just two years old. But if enthusiasm from the farmers, volunteers and sponsors continues -- growth no doubt will occur.
Scott Reishus, Farm Rescue Beneficiary 2007: "When they come they mean business and they do their work and really nice, professional people, you know."
Gene Spichke, Farm Rescue volunteer: "When we signed up Bill said could we work for a couple weeks and uh, my neighbor and I said yeah we'd be good for two weeks. Well, I think we're gonna stick with it to the end. We're having a good time. We meet some great folks and new country. We got the time, we're gonna do it."
For Market to Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.