Businessman creates hope for struggling U.S. farmers

Bill Gross founded Farm Rescue, an organization that helps disaster-stricken farmers.

By , Associated Press

– The sight of volunteers from around the country planting soybeans amid the ruins of Damian and Martha Kappenman's farm brought tears to the eyes of the owners.

They are recipients of a one-of-a-kind program called Farm Rescue that is helping plant and harvest crops for injured, ill, or disaster-stricken farmers.

This spring, Farm Rescue helped 28 farm families, including the Kappenmans, whose farm was leveled by a quarter-mile-wide tornado in August 2006.

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With no insurance to reimburse their losses so they could start anew, the Kappenmans rented out their cropland the next year, lived in a trailer for a time, and debated abandoning the only lifestyle they had ever known.

Then Farm Rescue offered a hand. "Unbelievable organization," Damian Kappenman said. "I'm just grateful Farm Rescue came along."

Bill Gross started the organization in 2006, using his own money and vacation time from his job flying around the world for UPS.

The group's volunteers do the actual work on the farm, rather than giving farmers money. The organization has helped farmers who have suffered car accidents, burn injuries, loss of limbs in farm-machinery accidents, and natural disasters.

The organization has created optimism for nearly 60 other farmers in the upper Midwest.

"Farm Rescue started out just as an idea I had, and people encouraged me to grow the organization," said Mr. Gross, who lives in Seattle and owns a farm in North Dakota. "I was initially just going to do it myself as a good Samaritan, and people told me that I should think bigger."

Farm Rescue had a handful of sponsors and a couple of volunteers the first year, and helped 10 farm families. It has grown into an incorporated nonprofit operation with a board of directors, more than 100 corporate sponsors and 50 volunteers, and an operating budget of more than $200,000.

"The organization has come a long way since the beginning," said Gross, who hopes to get sponsors and volunteers in other farming states so Farm Rescue can expand beyond the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Montana.

Volunteer workers this year have come from as far as New Jersey. Some of them are UPS employees, retired farmers or, like Dick Weaver, family members of people who work with Gross.

"I'm anxious to come out here and help," said Mr. Weaver, who was raised on a farm in Pennsylvania. "I know the hardships some people have, and these folks here (the Kappenmans) have had such a disaster."

One of those who got help this year was Brent Strand, who farms near Nome in southeastern North Dakota. Mr. Strand suffered a stroke and Farm Rescue seeded about 700 acres of soybeans for him.

"It's a real good deal to get some help," he said. "It shows how nice people really can be."

The Kappenmans, whose farm still bears the scars of the tornado, say they would no longer be farming without the help of Farm Rescue.

"It's fantastic to get the help," said Damian Kappenman. His and Martha's gratitude showed in the tears that slid down their cheeks. "We're going to go from one year to the next and see where we end up.

"I really hope that Farm Rescue can keep everything together and keep going, and keep doing the work they're doing," he said. "Without Farm Rescue, a lot of these farms that go through these hardships, they're never going to survive. Never."

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