updated 3/10/2009 1:11:24 PM ET 2009-03-10T17:11:24

A windfall of national exposure has given a financial boost to a volunteer organization that helps needy Upper Midwest farmers sow and harvest their crops. But the group, Farm Rescue, is also facing the reality of the nation's economic woes.

President and founder Bill Gross says the group aims to help about the same number of farmers it did last year — a total of 36 in four states — but it also wants to ensure its future.

"Farm Rescue has traditionally operated with virtually no cash reserves," Gross said. "Our goal is to set aside 20 percent of our income per year for future expansion."

To make sure Farm Rescue can survive any prolonged economic downturn, "we are taking a conservative approach to our operating plans for 2009, much like many other organizations," he said.

Gross, a North Dakota farm boy who now lives in Seattle, started Farm Rescue in 2006, using his own money and vacation time from his job flying around the world for UPS. The operation has expanded into South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana, helping nearly 70 farmers since it began.

Farm Rescue sets up camp on the farms of injured, ill or disaster-stricken farmers, doing their field work rather than handing out money.

It began with a handful of volunteers and not much money. It has grown into an incorporated nonprofit with a board of directors, more than 100 corporate sponsors and dozens of volunteers.

Banking on good times
It also has gained recognition. In the past year, Farm Rescue has been featured on CNN and NBC's "Today" show, and in People magazine. Gross also addressed the Republican National Convention.

Donations have since come from such places as New York City; Victoria, Texas; Scottsville, Va.; and Livermore, Calif., said Pam Musland, Farm Rescue's operations director.

"It's all over the country," she said. "Donations range from $5 to $250."

Gross said people from around the nation are volunteering to help plant and harvest crops in the region, and the national attention has made Farm Rescue's mission much easier to promote.

Gross said the increase in business sponsorships and donations the past year amounts to about $100,000. Musland said the annual Farm Rescue operating budget is being increased from $200,000 to $250,000 to handle the higher costs of fuel, fertilizer and other expenses. The rest of the money will be banked.

"We can't always get the same amount of sponsors, or get sponsors to renew year after year," Musland said. "We're pacing ourselves so we are going to be here five, 10, 15 years from now."

Business sponsors of Farm Rescue range from such giant retailers as Wal-Mart to such small groups as the Bismarck-Mandan Symphony Orchestra.

To raise money, Farm Rescue has tried everything from a golf tournament to a new program this year in which the organization will get 3 cents of every dollar people charge on a new Farm Rescue Visa credit card.

"We have plans to increase the number of farm families to receive assistance in 2010 and beyond," Gross said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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