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Connecting Farmers and Food (Even If They Have to Drive the Trucks Themselves)

After reading about how supply chains were disrupted by the pandemic, and how American farmers were suddenly left with food they couldn’t sell, Will Collier ‘20 (Architecture and Economics concentrator) and Aidan Reilly ‘21 (Political Science and Government concentrator) had an idea: maybe they could raise money to buy the food, and deliver it themselves to people that needed it.

So in the midst of the pandemic they founded Farmlink, which to date has delivered over 10 million pounds of unsold produce to food banks across Southern California. And while their idea was born out of this current crisis, it has grown into something far bigger than emergency relief.

This episode is the third in our series on how Brown students are navigating the pandemic. Will and Aidan discuss how they came up with the idea for Farmlink, the underlying issues in our food system that have made Farmlink so impactful, and what it’s like learning to drive a semi-trailer.

You can learn more about Farmlink here.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.

Photo credit: Owen Dubeck

Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin.

Will Collier and Aiden Riley were as shocked as anyone when they were sent home in March to finish their semesters remotely. But the shock quickly turned into action. They were struck by two seemingly unrelated crises they saw on the news. Massive lines at food banks and shattered supply chains that left farmers with food they couldn't sell.

Will and Aiden had an idea. Maybe they could deliver food from farmers directly to the people who need it most. Will, Aiden, and a few friends started renting trucks and driving food from farms all over the country-- street to food banks, in Southern California.

AIDEN RILEY: We looked up the laws online. I was 21 years old at that time. Can I drive a semi truck? And I can. And so we picked up 10,800 eggs and we drove it to Westside Food Bank in Los Angeles.

SARAH BALDWIN: They called their organization Farmlink. And to date, they've delivered 10 million pounds of unsold food to people in need. This week we're continuing our series on how Brown students are navigating the pandemic. I talked with Will and Aiden about their plans for growing Farmlink and about the underlying issues in our food system that Farmlink is addressing. But first, we talked about how they came up with the idea. Here's Aiden.

AIDEN RILEY: I had read a New York Times article about farmers due to supply chain breakdowns essentially-- the farms that supply Brown their food and universities all around the country and chain restaurants. These major commercial farms are having to bury huge amounts of produce stuff-- a perishable produce that they had promised, then the order was canceled.

It was cheaper for them to bury that food. At the same time I had some connections with food banks in Los Angeles that I'd volunteered at high school. And I basically heard that they are burning through their supply. I mean, some had-- from the usual 300 people that would come to their food bank a week, now they had 1,000 people who're coming looking for meals. And that was due to a litany of reasons. I mean, largely unemployment rates skyrocketing at the beginning of this pandemic.

So we just decided-- I had the thought with my friend, James Kanoff, that we could try to connect one of these farms that have surplus food, to food banks in LA. We thought let's see. We don't know anything about trucking. We don't know anything about farms. And we don't even know that much about food banks.

But let's just see if this is something we could do to help. And we spitballed that idea around a little bit, and figured out how we could do it. And I ended up talking to Will one day. Will and I were thinking about doing a project together-- how do we keep ourselves busy? And I mentioned this. And he was like, "oh my god! Me and my brother, Ben, I've been thinking about this same exact thing, and how we could fix this problem."

So I said, "all right." We're looking right now at a farm in Idaho from this New York Times article that is burying millions of pounds of onions. You want to figure out how we can try to get this to this food bank in Los Angeles. And thus, we did that delivery. And the rest is, kind of, history.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, I need you to break that down for me. Do you call a farmer on his phone?

AIDEN RILEY: Yes. We read--

SARAH BALDWIN: How do you get his phone number?

AIDEN RILEY: Early on, we looked in the-- so we had the names from New York Times article, and all the other articles that were publishing the similar issue.

WILL COLLIER: And Google is a wonderful resource.

AIDEN RILEY: Google is a wonderful resource for those first couple weeks, honestly, with just us sitting, and having very awkward phone calls with farmers saying, we hear about this potential issue. Can you describe it? And we want to help out food banks. If you guys have surplus, what's the best way for us to be able to get that done? And what do you need?

So an example, our first delivery was with that farmer, Shay Myers, in Oregon. He said, "yes, I'm burying them. It's breaking my heart to bury all this produce. What I would need though is I still need to be able to pay my truckers, and the person who's picking-- and the people who are picking and packing this reduce." So we said, "what is that price?" And he said, "it's about $1,000. "

So we raised $1,000 by, basically, reaching out to friends and family, and then he sent his truck down from Oregon. And we had cold called-- did similar thing, cold called food banks around Southern California. Found the ones that needed a truckload of onions that could use it, that distributed that amount of food. And then we coordinated with them. They said, "yeah, we can take it on this day." And we said, "OK, we'll get it to you on that day."

And we basically figured throughout that first process that, it really wasn't that complicated, maybe, to make these connections. It was something that just took us cold calling, and learning as much as we could, and then working together as a middleman between food banks and these farmers. So we figured this is repeatable.

SARAH BALDWIN: Today, I read somewhere that you also rented a truck yourselves and drove eggs.

WILL COLLIER: Yeah, that was Aiden and a couple other guys in Los Angeles. The day after our first onion transport, actually.

AIDEN RILEY: Yeah, we found a farm that had surplus eggs. It had specifically eggs. We made it clear pretty early on that we were going to provide economic relief for some of these farmers. We were going to pay at cost or market so that-- sometimes it's cheaper for them to just bury their produce. We found the egg farm and we said, we can buy these eggs and we can get it to this food bank.

But they didn't have a truck, like the onion farmer. So we were like, what do we do? What do we do? We looked up the laws online. And we're like, can we transport it ourselves? I was 21 years old at that time. Can I drive a semi truck? And I can. And so we picked up-- we rented a truck from Penske, drove to the farm, picked up-- I think the first one was 10,800 eggs. And we drove it to Westside Food Bank in Los Angeles.

And we've done that several times now. We have [INAUDIBLE].

WILL COLLIER: Yesterday.

AIDEN RILEY: Just yesterday, we had a farming team member, Owen Dubeck, go pick up eggs. He rented a truck from Penske, and picked up--

WILL COLLIER: 64,800.

AIDEN RILEY: Yeah, 64,800 eggs, and he brought it to Watts Empowerment Center in Watts, California. And that was an amazing thing to see. So we're still doing that process, largely.

SARAH BALDWIN: Can you describe the phone calls with the food banks when they learn-- are they-- do they believe you? And the farmers, are they emotional? Are they mightily relieved? Are they sad?

AIDEN RILEY: It's been a spectrum of reactions, because when we first started, we were five or 10 college students. We barely had a name. We hadn't done anything before. And so when these farmers started to ask, who've you worked with before? How can I trust this? It's hard to give any sort of credentials that would be legitimate. And so the whole thing is building blocks, basically, starting with a couple transports, using those to leverage a couple more transports, using those to build up your base-- build up your base through media coverage as well as working with large handful of farms across the country.

We've finally gotten to a point where people know our name a little bit. People see the impact that we've had so far. And so we've actually had farm start to reach out to us. We've had groups reach out. Borden Dairy was one of them. They're one of the largest dairy manufacturers in the country. And they actually got one of the USDA grants to send a bunch of their dairy around the country.

And so they saw us on the news, and reached out and said, "hey, can you help us transport all this? Can you help us find these food banks, make these connections, and get this dairy out?" So that was one big thing that came from having this more recognizable name.

But one thing that we have seen is across the board farmers, like anyone that puts work into something, produces anything, they're devastated to see that they have to plough their crops back. And they're devastated to see that this effort, this time, this commitment that they've made to produce food-- that it feeds all of us, it feeds everyone in America-- that food to then have to go back into the ground is something that breaks their hearts. s so this process has been great, because we're not just helping them with money, but also this actual relief of getting the food off of the farm and to people that need it is something that they've been incredibly responsive to.

In the food banks as well, they're always grateful to have this extra produce coming in. It's not just food, but it's nutritious, healthy, nutrient dense food that is great for the community as well.

WILL COLLIER: Yeah. I would say, at the beginning our success rate in regards to calling farms and food banks was around 1%. We got hung up on so many times. People think-- you're just trying to emphasize like-- "no, we're students. We're not making any money off this. I promise you. We just want to make the connection. We just want to help out." And then just beep hang up, because we've got accused of being scammers, and all sorts of doing it for profit.

Now it's much easier because we can at least point someone to our website where we have media links that give us legitimacy and show proof of what we've done so far. But the beginning was little hard. A lot of calls, and getting hung up on a lot.

AIDEN RILEY: I think even for the first onion shipment that we did, I think I, Aiden, James, a few others called maybe 100 different farms before we even got that one first delivery. So it was something where to get it off the ground, it definitely took a lot of resilience, and sort of just realizing eventually we will get a hit. You know eventually, there will be a bite.

SARAH BALDWIN: Yeah. Well, I'm glad someone took a chance. And so you went from-- were you a handful of students, kind of, dispersed across the country?

WILL COLLIER: Yeah, it was myself and James Kanoff and then Will and his brother, Ben, at the beginning, and Max Goldman, who also goes to Brown. And so it was really the five of us for, maybe, the first couple of weeks. And as we started to have progress, we posted things on our socials asking people to donate, for example, or help us out in some way.

At the beginning it was friends saying, that's really cool you're doing. Can I help? And then it was 30 people. And then those people started posting about our progress that we're making with Farmlink. Fast forward to now, we have, in the Slack-- which is what we work on, we have 180 people. Not just students anymore. We have engineers, and--

AIDEN RILEY: Laser scientist.

WILL COLLIER: We have a laser scientist.

AIDEN RILEY: GIS mappers.

WILL COLLIER: Yeah, we have--

AIDEN RILEY: Researchers.

WILL COLLIER: Like experts in their fields from all across the country, who have extra time right now, and want to help.

SARAH BALDWIN: Oh, so they're volunteering their expertise in ways that you need.

WILL COLLIER: Yes. Yeah. And so one of the biggest things in-- or the biggest growth moments was, like Aiden said, if we were growing organically, we would bring friends on. We would bring on people that reached out to us. But eventually we got to this point where we were getting thousands of people commenting, direct messaging, emailing, saying-- how can I help? How can we help? We have trucks here. We have people that want to go to deliveries here-- all over the country.

And so it got to a point where we were probably about 50, 60, 70 people in the slack, and we realized we had so many people that wanted to join. And it was a little disorganized. If you're just bringing people on at will, there's very little barrier to entry. There's very little oversight as to who's coming on where. And it's just pieces getting plugged in all over the place. So we actually ended up-- at the beginning of this summer, we stopped that organic growth. And we said, we need to start doing this in a more systematic approach.

And so we actually, realizing that internships were being canceled, people had free time over the summer, we put out an application on LinkedIn. We put out an application on a couple of Brown websites, Stanford websites, different schools that we had had kids come on and start from. And so 2 and 1/2 weeks ago, we brought on 80 new members at once. This new volunteer class for the summer that they didn't have internships, and we had a major application process for.

And so we've been working at a very high capacity for the last few weeks in bringing on new members, training new people in what we do. It's been incredible because from the beginning-- I've studied architecture. I studied economics at Brown. So I did those. Aiden does political science. My brother just applied math. You know, none of us came in with this background in supply chain logistics, in agriculture, in anything that is directly the core of what we do.

But it's been the most incredible learning process throughout this entire thing. And so now we are the ones bringing people in and teaching the ways of what we've been doing. And that growth in only 12, 13 weeks of being around has been one of the most valuable learning experiences and lessons, I think, for me, and I'm sure for these other guys too, that we've ever been part of.

SARAH BALDWIN: Just tell me what you're looking for in volunteers? What kind of people do you want to sign on to Farmlink's mission.

AIDEN RILEY: Given that we're students, and we came with no experience, we don't have an extraordinarily high bar set. And in sense what we're looking for are people that are excited and passionate about helping and willing to offer whatever they've learned in school or in their job and are just willing to apply themselves. Those are the best types of people that we've taken on.

It's a fluid learning process. You learn as you go, just as we did. And so we're really just looking for passion and enthusiasm.

SARAH BALDWIN: I'm wondering, especially for Aiden-- what are your plans for next year? And are you-- do the two of you plan to continue with Farmlink?

AIDEN RILEY: Yeah, well, all of us made a pact at the beginning of the summer saying, OK, this is now bigger than we thought it was going to be. And with the amount of people we have working on this, and the amount of resources we've collected, we now have a responsibility to not just help people during the pandemic-specific situation, but we can help food waste and food insecurity in the future, something that's not unique to the pandemic.

So we're staying on it for as long as it takes to get this thing to become something that continues to help people for, not just the rest of the year, but for 10 years or 20 years later. That's our goal. And as long as that takes, we're going to be here.

SARAH BALDWIN: That's awesome. I was going to ask you, is there a future for Farmlink after this crisis moment? And it sounds like you believe there is.

AIDEN RILEY: In a normal year, across the globe, we produce enough food to feed everyone on this planet. But each year, 30% to 40% of all food goes to waste. And that is-- there are so many different points along the supply chain. You start with farms, processing plants, retail and grocery, finally you get it to consumers. It goes bad in consumer hands. Across the entire line, there's food waste. But if we can step in, and through what we've developed during this crisis relief time, through this opportunistic start, create a more systematic approach to getting in touch with this food waste, and redirecting it or creating another system. We think that ultimately we could have a massive impact for years to come.

SARAH BALDWIN: Were the two of you interested in hunger or food insecurity before this pandemic?

WILL COLLIER: Interested, I would say, and aware of the issues, but not even remote-- we have learned so much since we started. It is such a bigger issue than we knew. And it is being exacerbated every day during these remarkable circumstances. This has changed, I think, the course of each of our lives in regards to what it is we prioritize and what it is our awareness of the issues going on around the country, specifically in food insecurity.

SARAH BALDWIN: What are some of the most surprising things that you learned?

AIDEN RILEY: I think, as Will said, that we grow enough food around the world to feed everybody, plus an additional 2 billion people, and the fact that in the United States alone, 40% of produce goes to waste. At the same time, according to Feeding America projection, in the next two years, one in every two children is going to be food insecured.

WILL COLLIER: In America.

AIDEN RILEY: In America.

WILL COLLIER: In the United States.

AIDEN RILEY: Which basically means they won't know when their next meal is going to come-- when it's going to be. And those statistics are hard to wrap your head around, but it's just, I think, anybody can hear those and just see that there's just a blatant disconnect. And I think the pandemic has really highlighted structural inefficiencies and kind of kinks in the system in a plethora of areas. And this is very, very poignant one.

So that's how we feel, I think, we're devoting 10, 11, 12 hours a day, about six days a week working on this. And there's tons of us doing this. And that is what drives us. There's few things that we can think of in our own personal lives that can take precedence over working on an issue like this. So that's been rewarding in a sense, but also it's a lot of responsibility. And it's overwhelming. But we take it one step at a time, because that's the only way we can do it.

SARAH BALDWIN: Yeah, it sounds like one of those issue is that once you have the epiphany, you can't walk away from.

WILL COLLIER: It is exactly that. It's been something where we started. And we jumped in immediately. These long days-- this focus on this issue started mid-April. And each week, it's like-- OK, last week was crazy busy. Last week we got so much done. We worked hours and hours. Maybe this next week, it'll let up a little bit. And I think we-- I say that over the weekend like-- maybe this week, it'll be a little less hectic.

But the nature of us learning so much, and jumping into the space, and disrupting in a way that we never really imagined. I think the passion and the drive that everyone on the project shares, and that's why of the 180 people, everyone is a volunteer. No one is paid anything. 100 percent of all donations to formally go towards the relief for the farmers, helping the truck drivers, getting this food to give to the food banks. The nature of it being this passion project, and this focused effort on everyone's part, has made it so fast paced, and so incredible.

And that is almost the beauty of it to how immersed I have felt, and how immersed all of us have felt in the project, where you don't even realize that you're spending all day on it. It's something where you look up, and hours have passed. And you've just been thinking, or in a meeting, or doing something that is towards this project. And it's like during the school year during the pandemic, this was something where-- yes, the remote classes are-- you have to learn.

You have to finish out the semester. You have to do OK on finals. But this was really an outlet, I think, for myself and for a lot of us, where it was something we actually were motivated to get up in the morning and do. And we wanted to be doing. And so it's been a privilege to be able to work on the project as well, for sure

SARAH BALDWIN: I'm going to ask you to simplify, because I know it's a really complex answer. But when you think about real change at a policy level, at a behavioral level, what is preventing this world from feeding itself?

AIDEN RILEY: To be honest, I think that there are a lot of underlying economic factors of the food realm that we have learned about, and still probably don't understand fully. But as we've worked with farms, I think certain things we've realized are-- if we save a certain amount of surplus lettuce, right, and we inject a million extra pounds of surplus lettuce into this market where people can be going to food banks, going to different locations, and just getting this lettuce for free instead of going to the store and getting their lettuce, right.

How does that change the price of lettuce, the value of lettuce? How does that change for these farmers where now instead of them selling their normal lettuce a million pounds for $2 a pound or whatever it is-- and that's just an arbitrary number, I came up with that, but does that lower their price and ultimately make this discrepancy sort of fall on the farmers now?

And so one thing that we've had to think about-- and this is in consideration right now, as we're in this early stage. But if we were to move forward and be trying to allow the world to fully use and take advantage of all of the produce that we create, is there a way to setup secondary markets or different ways to still be allowing these farmers and producers to be extracting the value from these products, instead of-- if we're just injecting free food or free commodities into any system, it's going to change the unit price and the unit economics of the entire system.

So ultimately, I think when you think about change, there's a lot of qualitative factors in the way you interact with people. How you get it to a point where it needs to change. But behind the scenes, I think this massive economic model is something that is a big reason why there has been little change in recent years, decades, et cetera.

WILL COLLIER: There has not been enough incentive for secondary markets to come in. For example, us to come in and buy that surplus and then redirect it to who needs it. So what's happening is these gigantic distributors that are producing huge amounts of produce-- their best option is to pay a landfill to take it, and pay the regulation fees in California, for example.

And that's expensive for them. So there really is a major gap between what's available to them, and the secondary market options that may be cheaper and redirect that surplus to better areas. That's one specific place in which we could see a structural change that would allow for less waste in the United States.

SARAH BALDWIN: I'm just thinking you've lived through spring, and you're living through summer. How will Farmlink's work change in the colder months.

AIDEN RILEY: Yeah, so well for one there's the question of harvest, and on the farm level what type of produce will be available, and the amounts that will be available. And that's something that we're going to be-- we have structure organizations, where we're fluid and flexible for taking types of produce in amounts all over the US, and then finding who needs that exact amount.

In regards to internally, we're very lucky, right now, to have the amount of people that are volunteering full time and working together on this project. That being said, people will go back to school, and people will go back to their jobs. So it's our responsibility to make sure that we set up a system that is benefiting from the amount of the volunteer force we have right now, but also is not dependent on that.

So essentially if we lose, let's say, half of the people working full time on this right now-- as people go back to school or their jobs or whatever it may be-- that's OK. We've set up a structure where this thing can operate with fewer. And that's our goal. That's we're working on every day, for the last several weeks, is setting up that structure.

SARAH BALDWIN: When you prepare food now or get takeout, when you eat now, do you think about food differently.

AIDEN RILEY: Yes. And I think a pretty poignant example of that is it's actually not just Will and myself quarantining here in Idaho, it's the other seven people who are pretty much team leads in Farmlink. So the ones who are 100% all and have committed their summers and beyond to making this thing happen. So we're all making dinner together and eating together every night.

And at the end of the night, I mean, it was like last night, we made some meal of Pad Thai or whatever, and when there was extra. And God forbid we go and throw that extra into the trash. I mean, there is a very increased hyper awareness to waste-- how the nation produces it, and then how we produce on individual level. Because that's the best way to see.

WILL COLLIER: And I think something that we've realized throughout this entire initiative is-- and we started at the beginning, we are a grassroots movement. We want to affect and work with as many people as possible. This is something that is not just us, but we want to inspire change across the country, across the world.

And so one thing that has been really important to us is not just helping these farmers, acquiring this food, and getting into food banks, but being a platform for awareness and spreading ideas about food waste. And talking about food waste through social media, through impact articles we write, through-- even news talking about Farmlink, it's trying to keep this massive-- these two massive crises-- food waste and food insecurity in the forefront of media to allow for there to be more of a nationwide and global attack on the issues, to get everyone involved. Not just be a quiet force doing it in the background.

We want this to be something that is in the forefront of people's minds, that is ultimately going to change because people will it to do so.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, Aiden and Will, it's been fascinating talking to you and also very inspiring. And I wish you tons of good luck. And you should probably get back to work now.

AIDEN RILEY: Thank you. Appreciate it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Jackson Cantrell. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin. You can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple podcasts. It really helps others find us.

For more information about this and other shows, go to watson.brown.edu. Thanks for listening. And tune in two weeks for another episode of Trending Globally.

About the Podcast

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Trending Globally: Politics and Policy
The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

About your hosts

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Sarah Baldwin '87

Host, Trending Globally
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Dan Richards

Producer and Co-Host, Trending Globally.