BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- North Dakota farmer Brett Kakela was only 27 in 2010 when he suffered a stroke that cost him the use of an arm and hampered his ability to walk. But the nonprofit Farm Rescue came to his aid just a few months later, providing free labor to help plant about 800 acres of wheat at his farm near Langdon.
Now, Kakela is one of the first people to receive assistance from the Farm Rescue Foundation — a separate nonprofit created by Farm Rescue's founder and CEO — that provides equipment to farmers who are incapacitated or hindered by major physical ailments or injuries.
Bill Gross hopes to quickly expand the Farm Rescue Foundation to the other places that Farm Rescue serves: South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and eastern Montana.
"Farm Rescue helps farmers in their immediate crisis, with planting and harvesting," said Gross, who grew up on a North Dakota farm and now makes his living flying a cargo plane out of Anchorage, Alaska. "After that, there's the Farm Rescue Foundation, helping during their recovery process."
Gross started Farm Rescue in 2006 with just a handful of volunteers and very little money, to provide physical labor for farmers stricken by injury, illness or a disaster. It has since evolved into a nonprofit corporation with a board of directors, a handful of paid staff and an annual operating budget approaching half a million dollars. It still relies on donations, business sponsors and volunteer laborers — it has a database of nearly 1,000 of them nationwide.
Gross said he had wanted to start the foundation for a while and was finally able to do so this year with a $50,000 anonymous donation.
"We don't give money out, just like Farm Rescue," he said. "We either buy some specialized equipment or get it sponsored, or a combination of the two."
Kakela, who is still recovering and easing his way back into farm work, received equipment that will enable him to unload grain without having to climb out of his truck. Two years ago, the planting aid he received through Farm Rescue helped keep his farming operation afloat.
"I would probably have lost a year of production," he said. "I'm just very appreciative of Farm Rescue. It's nice to have an organization in our state that's there to help the farmers."
The foundation also will help arrange for volunteers to come to a farm to help a recovering farmer with such tasks as tarping a grain truck, but it will not pay doctor or therapy bills, Gross said. The goal is to help up to 20 farmers in North Dakota this spring and expand to the other four states this fall as more funding comes in.
"They're different organizations, but we do want to stick to the same geographical area as Farm Rescue," Gross said. "We do use volunteers, and some of these are Farm Rescue volunteers."
Farmers do not have to be Farm Rescue aid recipients to be eligible for help from the foundation, he said.
Brett Kakela, his father, Mark, and brother, Bryan, together farm about 11,000 acres, growing spring wheat and canola.
"Brett's favorite job on the farm was driving the truck and he hasn't been able to do that, but with (the new equipment) he may be able to do it sooner," Mark Kakela said. "Farm Rescue has really been good for Brett, and for a lot of people in a similar situation."
Farm Rescue last year helped its 200th farmer, and that figure is likely to approach 250 by the end of this year, Gross said. The organization is currently taking applications for spring planting help.
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