Farm Rescue comes in a time of need - Ben Smith

Market to Market | Podcast
Feb 27, 2024 | 30 min

Crisis doesn’t happen on schedule - usually a heart attack, farm accident or cancer diagnosis can come when a crop is ready for planting or harvest. That’s where Farm Rescue comes into the mix - offering assistance through a network of volunteers in several states often arriving when help is needed most. [Smith] is a field operations manager for Farm Rescue and speaks to the difference his organization makes in rural America.


Hi everybody, I'm Paul Yeager, this is the MtoM Show podcast, a production of Iowa PBS in the Market to Market TV show. We're back in the podcast studio this week, what we're talking about in the field when something happens, and there's a need, specifically a farmer going through cancer treatment, a farmer injured in an accident, unable to get the crop out. Maybe it's a family that's gone through another tragedy and could use some help. And that is what farm rescue is here to do. We're going to talk with [Smith] from Farm Rescue today to kind of give you a background about this operation. It is in a lot of Upper Midwest states. According to their annual report here, we kind of not necessarily go through the report, but we give you the nuts and bolts of what an operation happens where there is a case, and a need and how quickly some help can be on the way when you need it most. Maybe you've heard of the organization, maybe maybe you've used it. Or maybe you've just made a financial contribution. And they could use your help. We'll let Ben tell us about ways that we can assist in this operation. Maybe it is your time. Maybe it is your financial contribution, but just know what the organization is. That is our topic today. If you have any feedback for me on the show in general just want to drop me a line it's New episodes of this podcast come out each and every Tuesday. Like and Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And now let's talk Farm Rescue. I still get recognized for my time in the Quad Cities. And it always kind of throws me off. It's like that was almost 20 years ago already. But what is it with television? And channel six in the Quad Cities? What is it that still rings true with everybody?

[Ben Smith]  Right? Yeah, Paul, it's 20 years flown by, you've aged well, I must say. But I do remember being introduced to you when I lived in Muscatine and watch Channel Six on news every night and, and saw you on there as an anchor occasionally and doing stories and, and I was kind of surprised to see you coming to Market to Market eventually. So it's wonderful to see you every week there now.

[Yeager] I did another interview earlier today with the son in law of a farmer I'd interviewed in Rock Island County over the years. And so it is kind of funny how all roads lead back to the Quad Cities, at least in my world. So are you from that area. 

[Smith] I grew up in Columbus Junction, about 45 minutes south of the Quad Cities and about a half hour south of Muscatine and the family farm is still back there in Louisa County, but went to Iowa State and studied ag business and agronomy, back in my college days, and now currently reside in central Iowa in Gilbert, Iowa, just north of Ames.

[Yeager]  In those early days before he went to college, what was your dream? What were you thinking would be your path?

[Smith] Sure. Well, farming got into my blood at an early age like it does to a lot of farm boys. And so I couldn't see myself doing anything besides row crop farming, some fashion, of course, had the dream to maybe take over the family farm that didn't grow quite large enough to have room for both me and my dad and my uncle and grandfather and all the family members. So my uncle's oldest son still runs a family farm back home. And I went off to Iowa State to find my own path and agriculture somehow and I've learned enough over the years, through different jobs and different farms I've worked on to where now I can serve as a Field Operations Manager for Farm Rescue and share my farming knowledge to help families during a time of need. 

[Yeager]  And there is a need unfortunately, I guess I go back to my local TV days. The first time I think I did a story that involved something similar to Farm Rescue was when I was in Mason City and I did one in Davenport. If you think of first it's when a group comes together. You know, 12 farmers give this Tuesday everybody's going to come and take out Farmer Johnson's crop. Farm Rescue is way more than that. What is the genesis of the organization? 

[Smith] Sure. so that premise of neighbors helping other farm neighbors is definitely what we were founded on. We just wanted to have a full time professional organization dedicated to that. If the neighbors couldn't handle it all, maybe the weather's really bad that season. And it's just too short of a window for the neighbors to be able to do it themselves. So we wanted to have this available to be able to step in and provide machinery and labor to do some of the work if not all of it for the family to get them through that season of crisis. So yeah, it's very much founded on that. And sometimes we end up working with local neighbors to do some, and they do their part and at the end of the day, it takes the burden off the family and some stress off the neighbors and gets it done in a professional and agronomically sound fashion. 

[Yeager]  You never know if a crisis happens. It doesn't just happen in July. It could happen in March before the crop even goes in and That is I would imagine all part of the process that you help work through.

[Smith] Yeah. So logistics obviously are a huge thing that we deal with trying to do this across the eight states we currently operate in. And, unfortunately, never know when a crisis is going to strike. It's not a lot of times, it's right in the middle of the season. Maybe the farmer gets kicked by a cow while he's touring that morning. All of a sudden, he's got a broken leg in the middle of planting season, how's he going to plant his crop now. And so sometimes we're very much responding like firefighters, racing to the call. And then sometimes if somebody's getting ready to start cancer treatments, they know this few months in advance, they'll reach out to us in the offseason like this. And we can plan well in advance, and not be quite so rushed. But we're used to responding in either fashion. And we can make it work and make it happen either way. But the more advanced notice we have, sometimes the less stressful it is for everybody involved.

[Yeager]  This is a North Dakota based operation. Is that right? 

[Smith] Correct. So Farm Rescue was founded in North Dakota in 2005. by another farm boy that grew up in the 80s and 90s. On the family farm, he did not have the opportunity to keep the family farm going, either. So he went off and found his own way, and actually became a professional pilot. His name is Bill Gross. And he became a pilot and eventually ended. He still flies freight all around the world for UPS, flying 740 sevens doing that. But of course, he always had farming in his blood as well. And on one overseas flight, several years ago, he was talking to his co-pilot about what he wanted to do in retirement. And he mentioned that he wanted to go get a tractor and cedar and implant for farmers when they couldn't seed the crop themselves that spring, for whatever reason. And the copilot challenged him and said, you know, well, why wait till retirement, why not try to start something like that now. And so Bill was still single at that time, and he used his vacation time to get Farm Rescue started and go approach the first John Deere dealership and get some machinery. And then he found his first farmer to help that year. And I think planted for two different farmers that first year. And then the next year, he found his first volunteer to run the machine. So he could focus on finding other sponsors, other farmers to help him grow the organization in the mission. And that's how it all started.

[Yeager]  There are some of those organizations that start because of something very personal that happened to someone there he had an idea. Do you know if the idea from what Genesis was in oh five is very similar to what it is and 2024? 

[Smith] Right, I have not got to ask Bill if there was any personal connection to why he had a passion for wanting to help farmers. But a lot of us work for Farm Rescue. Do you have that in our background, specifically, my uncle was running our family farm. And when I was in high school and in college, and unfortunately, he suffered a farm accident and died in 2003 at the beginning of harvest, and I just graduated college and live not too far away. So I was able to go stay with my grandparents that fall and do all the farm work and manure application that fall to help get them through that time. And so Farm Rescue existed, then I'm sure we would have talked and been interested in looking at something like that. But I've kind of done my own little version in the past. And that's another thing that drew me to this organization in this job was because I know how it feels to be in that situation to be in that need suddenly, and to wonder, what are you going to do because you know, this is a family business. It's a legacy, there's a lot on the line, there's a lot of dollars in debt, sometimes you need paid back and you want this to be done right. But not just any person off the street and can necessarily do your farm work for you suddenly. So it's great that we've got an outlet like this that is so specialized, like Farm Rescue, so focused on this, this effort. And we can do this for families when they need it.

[Yeager]  I think of the way the farmer when you pull into the driveway, and you know, they'll help you, they might be out worried about their assistance. But usually most are pretty reserved about things and they might not outwardly offer their assistance to someone else in a big way. They might just show up someday. How do you get past that? No, I need some concrete help because we need to put together for this family that needs help at this exact time. How do you convince someone that it's important that we get you to commit and really follow through on this one to make sure it sees it to the end?

[Smith]  Yeah, so the volunteers that we have doing the work and running the machinery force. They know upfront exactly what Farm Rescue is about and what it requires. Luckily, a lot of them are either retired farmers or retired from careers at John Deere, or other ag related businesses. They've got this experience. A lot of them grew up on family farms themselves. That's why they're passionate about it. And This is a great way that now that they have some time that they can give back and use their skills to help a family in crisis. And they get to run some newer, late model machinery, which is fun as well, at the same time. So it's part of the logistical process as we're setting up these crews in the offseason, preseason before it starts. And so we know we've got a spreadsheet that we've got everyone's name on that said they're available. And we block out any dates, they say they're not available. And if we happen to get a case, during the time that they're available, we call them and let them know that there's a case are they still can. And if not, sometimes that happens, something comes up, we go down the list and call the next person. So it's very big part of my job is putting the crews together, make sure we have the right set of skills for the job at hand. And it's always nice if they don't have to travel very far to do it, too. And then, and then we keep that crew on that case the whole time generally, until it's done. Unless something interrupts the process and somebody has to go home.

[Yeager]  Whether it plays into farming, gosh, when did that start?

[Smith]  Yeah, that never affects anything. But that is a huge thing that we deal with. Some volunteers help organizations where they know two or three months in advance where and when they're going to be going. With Farm Rescue. Unfortunately, we don't quite have that luxury, all of our work is based around the weather conditions in the field. And we may not know, until two days before we need them there because things suddenly changed. And now it's going to be fit. And it's going to be ready to go. So we try to find volunteers that are used to that kind of farming schedule. And don't mind that so much and can get there on short notice and work with us that way. Because Mother Nature is definitely in charge. At the end of the day. 

[Yeager]  It sounds like a very large logistical challenge. I mean, spreadsheets help. But when you have somebody in, in we'll say, southeast North Dakota, but the volunteer is mean, we're how far away could a volunteer be from someone?

[Smith]  Yeah, so we actually have registered volunteers from 49 of the 50. United States, I think Delaware might be the only state we're missing. So if you have any viewers or listeners from Delaware that want to sign up for Farm Rescue, please go to our website. But yes, so the volunteers live further away, a lot of them do fly into the nearest airport, and we try to get them there a few days ahead of time. And, if it's not the fields not ready when they get there, we find some projects, maintenance projects or machinery moving around different things they can do until their case is ready. So they can plan a little bit ahead. But the other guys that drive in, again, they may just have a day or two notice. And they drive in and and. And once they get on site, we provided the crew with a Farm Rescue pickup, that's got the tools they need to support the machinery they're working with. And we provide, you know, a stipend for meals every day. And of course, their hotel costs and take care of them while they're here serving. But they are required to pay for their travel to the site.

[Yeager]  It's their contribution into the way I looked at you have ways that people can assist to donate to volunteer. I mean, you have different aspects. If not everybody is up to running machinery. There's other ways you can take advantage of their services. 

[Smith] Yes, of course. So if you're passionate about helping farm families during a time of need, there's definitely ways we can find ways to utilize that. Not everyone is cut out to run the latest large machinery, it gets very technical sometimes. It's obviously very expensive and can be kind of stressful for some, and that's fine. We don't want this to be a good experience for the volunteers, the families we're helping and everyone associated with the case. So yes, if your passion is talking to others and spreading a message, we always need people to help spread our message, either through social media or face to face farm shows or other opportunities. And that helps find new cases and families to help us find new volunteers. That of course, all leads into helping us find new sponsors and fundraising because as a nonprofit, this is all funded through donations from corporations, small businesses and individuals that want to see the service available. When local farmers need it. 

[Yeager]  It's almost like I hit a ding to say that this is the time to promote February 8. So this will come out after the giving hearts day that's a specific give day. And just because we missed that day doesn't mean that there isn't a way I can financially help.

[Smith]  Right so I'm glad you brought up giving hearts day that is a local fundraising day based in the Fargo North Dakota area. But it's spread into two other states now as well. But since Farm Rescues main offices in horse North Dakota, just south of Fargo, we've been a part of this giving hearts day fundraiser for several years now. And it's really wonderful because it just helps connect people who want to give to a charity during the season with several options to do so. But there's matching funds available for all these charities doing In this event, so any dollars that donate to Farm Rescue through the giving hearts day fundraising website will be matched up to $100,000 a donation. So that's a huge opportunity for us to really make these donations go farther, let them help more families and 2024. And so now they can start giving early so that the giving window started, you know, the second half of January, I believe, the actual giving hearts day is February 8. But even if they missed the deadline on the eighth, they can still give throughout the end of February, until everything gets wrapped up and their donation doubled.

[Yeager]  If you have volunteers in 49 states, and you have, I mean, what's the number of states then that you have opera or the ability to help? And actually do? I don't know, is mission the right word or job? I don't know what we call cases. Okay. So how many states do you have cases in?

[Smith]  So again, Farm Rescue started in North Dakota in 2005. But we've branched out and other states as we've gotten the resources to do so over the years. And, of course, I was one of those now. And so we're in eight total states right now, as we sit here this day in 2024. And we will continue to look for opportunities to add more states, as we have the resources to do so in our machinery. And our volunteer skills are a good match for the farming was done in those states. So I would think any state where corn and soybeans and row crop farming is a big part of what they do, we would have the opportunity to maybe expand into those states in the future. But we're in eight states right now. And I would like me to name them for you to go for it. So obviously North Dakota is where we started, we have South Dakota, Minnesota, and Montana will be our northern states. And then I'm the Field Operations Manager for what we call our Corn Belt states. And right now, those would be Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and Kansas.

[Yeager]  And those are you said, if it's soybean and corn base, you've got a lot of people with lots of skill sets that match up with what the need is in each case. Right?

[Smith]  So those are kind of the main crops that we help families with hearing the Corn Belt, that's what our row crop planners are more adapted to planting. But of course, up in the Great Plains, in northern states, we have a large air seeding equipment, they can plant anything from soybeans, to canola, to wheat, to sunflowers, lots of different crops up there that they grow. And we also have a corresponding ability to harvest all those same crops with our combines in the fall. And we also do some hay baling in the summer. And cattle feeding is the one livestock that we can help with since it's mostly outdoors and machinery based. And we do some commodity and hay hauling for those cattle producers, or even a grain grain producer. We had one that his semi was lost in a fire and he had a contract to fill that week, we were able to come in and actually haul his grain that week to help him in that case, because he lost his machinery due to a natural disaster. 

[Yeager]  So I'm guessing that's probably the quickest turn that you've done. That sounds like a pretty quick turn. 

[Smith]  Yeah, so, well, a lot of times the crisis may happen in the middle of the farming season, in which case they may contact us, I will try to get on site to do the farm visit as soon as I can within a day or two. And we may have machinery there in less than a week. And in a lot of cases we try to be receptive to the ideal agronomic farming windows when we can. And we've certainly all been ready to go at a moment's notice to get there as quick as we can.

[Yeager]  And like anybody here like you said, weather dependent, I mean, you're trying to beat a snowstorm or a rainstorm, sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn't. Now if there is a plant that happens on a crop, you mentioned planning wheat or something like that, that also allows you to to set up when it's time to harvest. So there are some times there are ways to plan a little further out. And it's not quite as quick a turn. 

[Smith]  Yeah, for each case? That's a good question. So with Farm Rescue, the farm family is eligible for one of our services once every three years, so if we did plant for the family, typically, that's all we will do for them that particular family until three years later, sometimes there's a special circumstance where they can talk to us. And we might build on a case by case to do a little more later in the season. But we do like to plan ahead when we can so if somebody is going to be starting cancer treatments, or some other medical thing that they know, a few months in advance, this is coming. Talk to us right away, we can get it on our calendar, we can get it on our schedule, we can certainly start reaching out to put the volunteer crews together because we know where the farm is going to be when they want the work done or the ideal window when they want it done. We can start planning ahead and takes a lot of stress off of our staff as well as the volunteers and the family themselves because they know now months in advance that this is going to be covered for them. And if they don't happen to be there, if they're in the hospital all the time, we can work through them through over the phone. We've got experienced people there, you know as field operations managers that are managing what's going on that we can communicate when they want what they consider time to go and when we need to stop. And our volunteers are the same way. So the more advance notice we have, the better. But we do understand that these things happen in the heat of the battle. And we're ready to respond either way, a crisis have can happen at any time, unfortunately, yes. Nobody plans for Crisis. Nobody plans.

[Yeager]  Do you find that in just this short amount of time that needs have changed farmer individuals? Have there been evolutions that Farm Rescue has taken where, oh, we used to do this. But now we found it's better if we do this, instead of there been cases like that?

[Smith]  Sure, obviously, we have to evolve and adapt. As changes in farming and technology happened through the years, there's been a lot of since 2005, even there's been a lot of changes in machinery technology and things we work with, you know, our latest, newest air cedar that we put into service last year, has section control on that now to shut off different swaths of the machine to prevent overseeding. And things, just like we've had on a row crop planters for a long time. You know, auto steer in the tractors and combine has been a big help. And yeah, you know, we try to respond and do the work just as good as the farmer would have done it himself. When we can plan for that, that is our goal. And sometimes that might even mean, we send a crew just to run the farmers equipment so he's got a specific row spacing or something specialized on his operation, that we don't have the machinery for have access to it. If his machinery is in safe working order, we can send a crew to run his machinery and get the job done a little faster, sometimes too, if ours isn't available or isn't the right fit. So we look at all options available to us to make this happen when we're needed.

[Yeager]  And then And then at the same timeframe, maybe not necessarily the process and the equipment, but what about the person and the need and the family's need have to have those changed over that time? 

[Smith]  Yeah, of course, a lot of farms have gotten bigger over the years and, and maybe they've gotten out of livestock production or become more more focused on one or two crops. And I think that is certainly changed what Farm Rescue is, has needed to provide over the years. You know, it started out as just planting only the first the first several years . It was an air cedar and a tractor, and whatever we could plant with that air cedar and North Dakota is what they focused on. And then as they found over the years, you know, farmers had crisis during harvest, and other times the or two that they may need help with, then we focused on trying to acquire, you know, obviously combines and harvesting equipment, hay baling equipment for those cattle farmers or, or ranchers that just need hay made in the summer, and, you know, a fleet of semis to help move those products around and move our equipment around when needed. And so that is all things that have changed with Farm Rescue since it started to meet the needs of the growers. And we continue to be focused and looking for different things that they may need going forward. And we will consider that as it comes about.

[Yeager]  And I know you haven't said this, and this is probably gonna stick out just a tiny little bit here. But you are a sense of I won't say mental health help, but you are a sense of relief to this person emotionally. When you're when your crew arrives. I mean, that has I know, that's not what you're trained to do. But that's, I would imagine a little bit of a byproduct of what happens.

[Smith]  Yeah, of course, you know, it can be a very emotional experience. You know, farmers are very independent people, they've always had to work and build their operation, usually themselves, without much help from anyone else. And so it can be difficult to reach out and accept the assistance sometimes at the beginning. But once they see us pull in the driveway, they see myself and other staff come in to meet with them to make the plan ahead of time. A lot of times there's a huge wave of relief that may come over them and when they see the machinery, the crew get to work and the machinery actually start moving in their fields. Many of them are brought to tears, because it's such an emotional thing to know that, yes, this work is going to get done. It's going to get done well. I don't have to worry about this. Now. I can see it with my own eyes that this is going to be okay and things are going to be better. And that's a big reason. A lot of our volunteers come and do this every year as well. They get to see the differences making for the family. Get the emotional involvement and tears and thank yous and hugs when we leave. And it's really a powerful experience for everybody involved at the end of the day.

[Yeager]  We talked about February 8 Giving hearts day that's not your day. That's what you're a part of. But if you want to be a part of giving hearts as a thing, financially if you want to help as we close what are the biggest needs you have and 24 What is okay so say I'm not financially able to give or I'm there equipment or time? What's another way I can help? You always need volunteers. But where do you need these volunteers and maybe to be the operators?

[Smith]  Yeah, so the best thing they can do is just go to our website, FarmRescue.ORG. That's got all the information there. We do regular updates on cases we're doing throughout the year, we got great videos, we've made a families we've helped, how the process worked, how it affected them, and the volunteers that encouraged them to watch. And yeah, so obviously fundraising is always something that can be helped with, they can give right through our website, anytime during the day and night and during the year. Sign up to be a volunteer that registration process helps starts through our website, and spreading the word of an awareness about Farm Rescue. So most places I stopped, even in Iowa still today 95% of the equipment dealers or coops I walk into have never heard of Farm Rescue is at the farm show here in Des Moines today, a lot of people that walked by had never heard of Farm Rescue. So the first step, and the first easy thing to do is just tell, tell people at Farm Rescue, share shares on your social media, follow us and share us there to help spread the word that this organization exists when people need it. It's kind of like insurance, they hope they never need it. But when they do, it can make a big impact for them and their community. And they just have to know that we exist, how to start the process, and how to refer to a family in need.

[Yeager]  Been in your book, one of the booklets here that you had given there is a couple of volunteer awards. What were those volunteers that did, sir, in that ranking.  

[Smith]  So there's good samaritan awards are something that Farm Rescue started a while back, they wanted to recognize those, those special long term volunteers. And maybe some of them have been doing this since almost 15 years now. And so they've been doing it a long time . They spend their money to travel to the cases to get there. And some of them do it for two, four weeks plus during the year. And so they've given a lot of time and effort during the years to help Farm Rescue and help the families that are in need. And we want to recognize them for those efforts and tell their their individual stories. Everyone came to Farm Rescue in a different way, it seems like they all have different backgrounds and different stories to tell. And so we'd like to lift up a couple of those every year and recognize them for their years of service, tell their story about how they came to Farm Rescue and why they feel it's important for them to do this and support this mission and recognize them for their efforts. 

[Yeager]  It takes a lot of volunteers to make this happen. You want to give me a number of how many you might have. 

[Smith]  Yeah, so  believe in our system, we have over 500 currently in the system. Again, not all those are machinery operators. But it may be somebody who is signed up to help and another way. And you know, if we have 100 cases in the season, we may use two to four volunteers per case. So you know, that's a couple 100 people that we can use a year potentially. And not everyone's schedule works every year. But if you stay in contact with us and want to be part of the mission, we will do our best to find a case that works for your schedule and works for you and get you involved in some fashion. 

[Yeager]  I think you've helped 1,000 families so far since oh five.

[Smith]  So we celebrated our 1,000th family helped here this summer in June of 2023. And we'd like to continue to grow that exponentially as we move forward with more machinery and more volunteer and more resources. There's a growing need all the time as farmers age, of course, and so we want to be ready to try to meet that need the best we can. And the last thing we want is for a farm families business to suffer or extra stress we put on them because they suffered a crisis. And they didn't know the Farm Rescue existed to help during that time. We're fine if somebody says no, thank you. We don't want the assistance right now. But at least they knew about it. And nobody falls through the cracks because they didn't know about Farm Rescue. So that's the first big step is to make sure Farm Rescue is known throughout all these rural states that it is an option. It's free assistance is easy to apply for. And it's going to be professionally done. And we're going to help what the neighbors are coming out to help with already. We're going to be able to take a few of those acres off their shoulders so that the work gets done in the fastest, most stress free way possible. the website again is FarmRescue.ORG.

[Yeager]  And I appreciate the time and the insight and just spreading the word about Farm Rescue. Thank you.

[Smith]  Yes, thanks for this opportunity, Paul. And I love your show.

[Yeager]  Again, that website is My thanks to Ben my thanks to you for making it this long. And to see what's happening in the podcast. Remember if you want to send something to be right over here off my shoulder. That's kind of fun to see and would be a great addition to our podcast table. Send it to Iowa PBS/Mtom Show, PO Box 6450, Johnston, Iowa, 50131 We'll see you next time bye bye.