If not for Farm Rescue, a volunteer group that helps farmers in need, little hay would have been harvested on Lila Braun’s Beulah, ND, operation. She had had to put her energies supporting her husband and daughter, who were fighting cancer.
Two North Dakota farmers, sidelined by injury and family illnesses, were some of the first to get haying help from a five-state group called Farm Rescue.
The organization usually sends volunteers and equipment to help plant and harvest row crops for farmers unable to complete these time-sensitive chores on their own.
But eight hay growers also received assistance this summer, according to Bill Gross, the non-profit’s founder. “We’ve received requests for haying help in the past, so we decided to add that in 2014,” he says, adding that this service will be done on a small scale.
Kenny Forster, a Hazen cattle rancher, was injured in March while fixing fence and rounding up cattle with his ATV. He had accidentally driven off a steep bank and broke 18 ribs and his collarbone. Both lungs collapsed.
“They put me in a coma for three weeks, and I was in the hospital 48 days,” he recalls. “They don’t know how I survived.”
Meanwhile, back at the farm, the work piled up. Forster’s children, all with full-time jobs, did what they could to care for his 250 head of cattle. But hay needed to be put up, and Farm Rescue lived up to its name.
“They were a huge help for us. They helped make sure we didn’t fall farther behind,” Forster says.
Volunteers were at Forster’s ranch for about a week and a half to put up 1,000 bales of hay, about a third of what he usually bales in a season.
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Lila Braun, a sheep farmer from Beulah, spent much of the first half of 2014 in Minneapolis helping her daughter through cancer treatments. She also lost her husband to cancer in April.
After falling behind in farm work, Braun learned about Farm Rescue and immediately applied. Two volunteers put up 300 acres of hay that Braun will use this winter to feed her 500 sheep and 20 head of cattle.
“I was totally impressed by those two guys,” she explains. “One guy actually baled on the Fourth of July. You really have to be a farmer to work on the Fourth of July.”
The volunteer effort helped to relieve some of her stress, Braun says.
“I’m grateful for what they were able to do. We probably never would have been able to get that hay up this year.”
Gross, a pilot with UPS Airlines, is tied to his North Dakota roots.
“I always wanted to farm myself,” he recalls. “My heart has never left the farming community.”
He initially thought, when he would retire, that he’d drive around the countryside looking for struggling farm families to help.
But a friend challenged Gross to act on his idea sooner than that. He secured the farmrescue.org domain name and spent much of his spare time, in 2005, traveling to farm shows promoting the organization to prospective sponsors and volunteers.
In 2006, Farm Rescue helped 10 North Dakota farm families in crisis. The organization received plenty of positive press and sponsors and volunteers were hooked.
Since then, Farm Rescue expanded its services into South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and eastern Montana. Gross expects it will have helped its 300th family this fall.
“The organization has grown much quicker and larger than I ever envisioned,” he admits. “We have a good structure, good sponsors, great volunteers and good equipment.”
Farm Rescue touts 700 active volunteers today with a staff of six to coordinate the operation. About 100 volunteers are actually assigned to emergency projects each year, Gross estimates.
“They come for a week or two from all over the country and from all walks of life,” he says. “They’re doctors, attorneys, ministers, retired farmers, executives.”
Farm families needing help can apply for assistance. Or a friend or family member can alert Farm Rescue officials to a need, Gross says. This year, 50-55 families will receive help in the five-state region.
He emphasizes that farmers who receive help must still pay for fuel and seed in order for Farm Rescue to schedule them.