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Farm Rescue expands into Iowa, its 5th state

BISMARCK (AP) -- A unique farm aid organization started in North Dakota six years ago by an airplane pilot has grown steadily from its humble beginnings with less than a handful of volunteers and very little money and is now expanding into its fifth state.

Farm Rescue this fall will begin harvesting crops for injured, ill or disaster-stricken farmers in Iowa. The organization supported by volunteers, donations and business sponsors for the next several weeks will bring a decorated combine that spokeswoman Elizabeth Reiss compares to "a traveling billboard" to more than half a dozen cities to raise awareness.

Bill Gross, a North Dakota farm boy who now flies for UPS out of Anchorage, Alaska, started Farm Rescue in 2006 in his home state with three volunteers.

"We started helping farmers six years ago because I noticed changing demographics in rural America," he said. "Forty or 50 years ago, it used to be that neighbors could do all of the work if something happened (to a farmer). Now we're seeing fewer family farms, less children on each farm, and it has simply become harder for neighbors to help one another. Just one injury or illness could be the end of a family farm."

Farm Rescue has since expanded into South Dakota, Montana and Minnesota; has been incorporated into a nonprofit with a board of directors, five paid staff members and an annual operating budget of $350,000; is approaching 250 business sponsors, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Fargo-based RDO Equipment Co., which supplies the tractors and combines; and has a national network of volunteer laborers.

"We have a database of nearly 1,000 volunteers," Gross said. "Right now we have people from Atlanta and Kentucky in North Dakota. For the harvest this fall (in the region), we have people coming from Pennsylvania, Arizona, Washington, Oregon."

Donations also come from around the U.S. National exposure has helped. Farm Rescue has been featured on cable and network television shows and in national publications, and Gross was invited to address the Republic National Convention in 2008.