Deep-Rooted Innovation with The Farmlink Project

June 10, 2024
42 minutes
EPISODE SUMMERY

Ben Collier · CEO and Co-founder, The Farmlink Project | An aspiring—and inspiring—visionary who built The Farmlink Project, a nonprofit addressing food waste and food accessiblity, while weathering a pandemic and graduating from college.

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EPISODE NOTES

Nonprofiteers have long known that our strengths lie in our passion for enacting change. More often than not, though, we see an issue and reach for it, only to find that we’re blocked by a lack of time, money, and helping hands.

Today’s guest, Ben Collier, is an aspiring—and inspiring—visionary whose nonprofit, The Farmlink Project, is poised to simultaneously hit the root of food insecurity and help farmers with an ambitious $100M fund designed to cultivate sustainable change in the sphere of food insecurity.

Not only that, but Ben and The Farmlink Project have an even broader vision, and the big question isn’t whether they can pull it off, it’s just how deeply this shift will shake our core.

Listen in as Ben and Justin dig into deep-rooted issues, challenge our perspective on food accessibility, and witness a $100 million vision being planted.

Looking for a way to pursue progress in the food system? The Farmlink Project's Shared Plate Pledge provides the framework and community to support and grow together. Sign the Shared Plate Pledge today.

TRANSCRIPT

Ben Collier I didn't see a piece of produce that Farmlink helped rescue for a year and a half into Farmlink, and for a while I was like, is this some elaborate prank that hundreds of college students pulled on me. But I don't think there's a more grounding or energizing experience than actually seeing the impact of our work. We just implemented this volunteer time off policy at Farmlink, where every quarter, we want our team to take a day to go do something in their community. Because I think when you sit behind a computer in your bedroom all day, it takes away what makes our work so meaningful, and it's the impact that it really has on humans. And so for me, I think those valleys are often supported by recentering ourselves in who we are doing our work for and why we are doing it, and actually seeing and experiencing that impact directly.

 

 

Hello and welcome to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit!

Nonprofiteers have long known that our strengths lie in our passion for enacting change. More often than not, though, we see an issue and reach for it, only to find that we’re blocked by a lack of time, money, and helping hands.

Today’s guest, Ben Collier, is an aspiring—and inspiring—visionary whose nonprofit, The Farmlink Project, is poised to simultaneously hit the root of food insecurity and help farmers with an ambitious $100M fund designed to cultivate sustainable change in the sphere of food insecurity.

Not only that, but Ben and The Farmlink Project have an even broader vision, and the big question isn’t whether they can pull it off, it’s just how deeply this shift will shake our core.

Listen in as Ben and Justin dig into deep-rooted issues, challenge our perspective on food accessibility, and witness a $100 million vision being planted.

Let's Dive In!

 

 

Justin Wheeler Ben, welcome to the podcast. How are you doing, man?


 

Ben Collier I'm great. I'm happy to be here. Nice to see you again, Justin.


 

Justin Wheeler Yeah. It's always, always great to reconnect. I've been really excited, looking forward to this podcast, this conversation in general. You know, I don't know if I told you this when we had lunch recently, but you're definitely one of the more inspiring founders entrepreneurs in the social impact space that I've met. I'd say in the last decade, honestly. And so I'm really excited to talk a bit more about your story. Who you are and what you're up to. And so maybe just for our listeners to get acquainted with you. I would love if you could just share a little bit more about yourself. And what led you to start, Farmlink. Sure.


 

Ben Collier Well, first of all, that's huge praise. Thank you. I mean, you get to see the entire nonprofit world. So for from link to be, high up on your list is is a huge compliment. If you want to know my story, I'll share a little bit more about myself. And then we can get more into the farm like story. Which is why people should really be here and be sticking around. We started Farmlink in April of 2020, and that was right when the world was shutting down. The pandemic was it was here and here to stay. In the months leading up to that, I was a junior at Brown University. I was studying applied math and not really sure where that was going to take me. I was especially unsure, entering the pandemic of what the next few years are going to look like, because right before the pandemic, I actually had a pretty major reconstructive surgery on my right foot and leg. And so for the two months leading into the pandemic, I was already really unsure of where my community and trajectory was going to take me. I was on my back taking 12 percocets a day. Just getting through each day. And then the pandemic started, and suddenly every other college student, in a way, was right there with me, but firmly came out of early on in the pandemic. Story after story being written about food piling up on farms and food banks, facing the longest lines they'd ever seen. And my personal part of that was my mom kept cutting out these articles and leaving them outside of my bedroom door like some humanitarian serial killer. And me and my brother, my twin brother. We started thinking, right, is there something we can do about this at the same time? He spoke with one of his good friends who also went to Brown with us, Aiden and Aiden and James. We're talking about how they could support their local food bank in Santa Monica. And so from across the country, Connecticut to California, and quickly a bunch of other states in between, we just had a bunch of college kids getting on the phone, getting on zoom together and asking the question of, is there something we can be doing? And so we just started calling farmers. We called hundreds of farmers to see, do you have surplus? Can we help get it to a food bank? And probably tried 200 times before finally getting through to this onion farmer who had just been written about in the New York Times for having a pile of 2 million pounds of onions with nowhere to go. And he says, if you get a truck here, you can take whatever you can. We brought 40,000 pounds of onions back to a local food bank the next day, James and Aiden actually picked up 11,000 eggs in a U-Haul that they rented and bumped down the 405 to drop those off in Santa Monica. And that was the start of farming and, took off from there.


 

Justin Wheeler So what what was it, about your mom that was so inspired with this issue in particular?


 

Ben Collier Yeah, I just gave the whole family story. We can hang on my mom for 20, 30 minutes. I mean, she I she's the most caring person in my world. And at the beginning of the pandemic, was just glued to the news every night. And it was so hard. Stretch. Five months for the news. Felt like the last 60s was the only reprieve we could get. That feel good moment. And so she was taking all of our old t shirts and sewing masks out of them, because there was that first PPE shortage, and I feel like the whole motivation was just to do something. And, you know, when she kept pushing those articles, sharing those with us, I think that's where it really felt like we could we could begin.


 

Justin Wheeler So for for those listening who maybe don't have the context of how big of a problem this is and therefore an opportunity, if, if we can solve it. Hope the listeners understand. Sort of. What is that? What is the the problem at the highest level? How big is it. Yeah. And how is farming solving it?


 

Ben Collier It's a great, great question. The pandemic exacerbated problems that have existed for decades, but the the bottom line is 30 to 40% of all of the food that we grow goes to waste. And at the same time, 44 million Americans are food insecure. 44 million Americans do not have enough food to provide themselves adequate nutrition day in and day out. And that's one third of college students right there. And so the scale of the opportunity is we have ten times more food, fresh produce going to waste on farms and in transit to grocery stores, then we have need to address hunger in this country. And despite that, we still have a huge amount of food insecurity. And so the two problems they really face each other. And the pandemic, again, there were supply chains that were cut. You had restaurants closed, airports closed, all these different places. But this food waste has been a problem for decades. And so the pandemic for farming, for us, it brought something into a spotlight. And it stressed a system enough that it felt like there was an opportunity for us to say, okay, we can throw our names into this hat and try and do something about it.


 

Justin Wheeler Got it. So back to the early days of starting Farmlink. You'd mentioned it was essentially a bunch of college students at one point. Did it go from a bunch of college college students to beginning to professionalize the organization? How long did it take? How many years were you operating, you know, full time college student, full time farmer link and when did that transition sort of happen?


 

Ben Collier The first year was all college student, so we started in April of 2020. I was a junior. A month later, summer started and thousands of college students had lost their internships when the pandemic began. And so you have thousands and thousands of students that are simultaneously without something to do, and maybe more than ever in their lives, feeling a desire to do something constructive and productive and to find a sense of community and farming, was able to provide all of that. I didn't, at the beginning of farm, like, know how much that sense of community was going to drive our identity and our success, but within a couple of months, I was realizing, oh my gosh, I'm looking at hundreds of college students that are helping call farmers and fundraise and build relationships with food banks, and at the same time, they are my strongest source of community right now. We have these all hands meetings with people coming on and performing at the end of them and and people coming on and sharing very personal stories. And it was this incredibly energizing group of people to be around. And so for that first year, we were, I would say, 300 plus college students, that flowed through building this program. And about a year.


 

Justin Wheeler And then other within the 300, was there any sort of like hierarchy or was it just all flat? Was it just like everyone was bringing like ideas to the table, or how did how did it function?


 

Ben Collier I think it was about as flat as a group of at least 150 fully remote college students could be. So, you know, I was really focused on like, helping lead the farms team and the the team that was building relationships with food banks. We called it our core pillar. But the reality was everybody was doing everything. And so it was about as flat as you could get after that first year that we needed to start building a little bit of a sense of structure, especially as we began bringing on full time employees that came from places where you had established org charts. You had, you know, rules and and responsibilities. And that trade-off was necessary because it also allowed us to increase accountability and a sense of confidence that things weren't going to fall through the cracks. I think for that first year, you had 150 students that you could throw at, you know, blunt force problems where really maybe one focused professional could solve, what 15 people were spending ten hours a week doing. And so that trade-off was something that we balance, that we played with a lot in the next couple of years. But the student involvement is so, so core to our sense of community and our identity and and ensuring that new ideas and new perspectives are still coming into farming. So over the last three years, we've grown to a full time team of about 20 employees. Hundreds more students have been a part of, fellowships and other work that we've done to ensure that young people do still have a role in helping build farming. And as our full time team has grown, we've needed to become more and more intentional about preserving the space that students have to contribute to farming. And that's where programs like our Field Fellowship have emerged that we're really proud of and excited about. And so that's been a constant evolution, and there have been some really tough moments. I think that second year, when we were really evolving from all students to a full time team that was largely in charge, especially as students went back to in-person classes, was culturally one of the most difficult stretches of time for farming. But we are here now, four years later, with over 700 students having helped build Farmlink team of 20 full time employees, and collectively, that group of people has helped recover over 230 million pounds of fresh and healthy produce and gotten that to communities throughout North America.


 

Justin Wheeler And wow, that's something that's I mean, that's you 230 million pounds of food that didn't go wasted. You guys were able to deliver, put it in food banks, and in into people's, for lack of a better word, stomachs, that otherwise would have gone wasted. You know what I love? About, like your startup story. There's a lot of like when I think about when I first got started as a college student, it was with Invisible Children. And you and I have talked about this in the past, but one of the I think one of the the greatest advantages we have in starting something from the ground up and being young is just not having any of the limitations that you start to learn to pay more attention to the older you get, the more mature your organization becomes, because there's just there's obviously a lot more to to risk and or there's a lot more at risk. The larger you get, the more operationalized you get a lot more things you have to take into consideration. But in the early days, you just have this true sense of entrepreneurship, like supercharged. And what I mean by that is you can look at one of the biggest problems facing humanity, and you can say, we can solve this, we can do something to actually make an impact. And, you know, when you think about it in the context of Farmlink here, you had hundreds of students not getting paid to do this, just responding to a solution or responding to a big problem that they saw. And we're like, we're going to address this and we're going to we're going to find a way. And so you had mentioned that at the top of the call, I'm blanking on the first number. But the amount of wasted food a year was what was it Iowa.


 

Ben Collier It's 30 to 40% of all the food we grow. Yeah.


 

Justin Wheeler Oh 30 to 40% of all the food we grow is wasted. And so it would it be accurate to to describe this as a logistics problem, like getting it from is it that simple or is it something more that I'm not understanding.


 

Ben Collier In the United States. And I'd venture so far as to say North America as a whole, it is a matter of getting the food to the right place at the right time. It is logistics. And from where we stand, it's specifically the transportation the trucks needed to get that food from where it is currently going to go to waste, to where it can really help and make a difference in people's lives. And I captured the scale in terms of numbers earlier, but the volumes that farming typically works with are amounts of food that are beyond what a local food bank is really well positioned to take on their food banks throughout the country. And all of the food that farmland recovers is largely ending up at food banks. But you get these moments of surplus where we'll get a call from Peruvian avocado importer that will say we have 30 truckloads of avocados outside of Philadelphia. With nowhere to go, a local food bank could take 1 or 2 truckloads, but 30 truckloads. That's going to require reaching 20 different food banks in ten different states. And that's Farmlink's bread and butter. You know, that happened last year, and we did deliver 30 truckloads of avocados to 20 different food banks in ten different states, and that is going to be turned around in 48 hours. And I think that that example, it helps capture where we fit in the system, because food banks and the food pantries and and church groups and agencies they serve, they're so well equipped to get that food out into communities. But when you get these larger logistical shortfalls in the food supply chain, where millions of servings of a single type of produce stand to go to waste, that's what we've built. Farmlink to solve for.


 

Justin Wheeler Got it.

 

 

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Justin Wheeler Amazing. So fast forwarding to today, which is still impressive. Only four I think you mentioned four years in to Farmlink. You're you took a step back. I don't know if it was earlier this year or if it was last year. You took a step back to think about the magnitude of this problem. And, you know, at the  current rate of sort of the size in terms of revenue, Farmlink was at like it's going to take us a long time to really make a dent if we don't think of new and creative ways, to fund the mission of, of what you guys are up to. And so maybe spend a little bit of time walking us through sort of the process that you went through, thinking through just the magnitude of the problem, the cost it was going to, the funding it needed to actually be solved, and how you landed on the the vision where you're at today and what we're currently executing on. Sure.


 

Ben Collier We've built Farmlink in a very reactive way in that we didn't know where this surplus food would be, when it would be there. And so we wanted to build a logistics network that was as flexible as possible. And that's what Farmlink is today. And last year we've recovered 110 million pounds of food. And that food popped up all throughout North America, largely in the U.S. and our ability to react and solve for that, it allowed us to get all of that food so effectively to communities around the country. Now, from where we stand, the question we're asking ourselves is, how can we ensure that we can continue unlocking enough food, more and more food, to really start moving the needle on hunger? And the area that we've really landed on is in what we would call pre-harvest surplus or surplus that is taking place at farms or so early on in the supply chain that it doesn't even reach. Grocery stores, at restaurants. It doesn't get to distribution centers. As an example, last year in West Virginia, we reached out to by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, who said they have a dozen apple growers who've been growing their apples all year. And about a month or two before harvest, they lost their contracts, which happens way more than you'd expect, way more than you think it should happen. And so these apple growers had 40 million apples with nowhere to go. This is three times larger than the largest moment of collective food recovery we've ever even heard about. But we said we have to try this. We have to make this happen. We have to prove that this level of food recovery is possible. And so I actually went to our board and we I said, we have to spend half a million more than we budgeted for this year. And they've been very trusting and supportive of our ambition, I would say. And over the next two months, we delivered over 350 truckloads of apples to over 100 different food banks, partnered in 20-plus states around the country. And it was a huge proof of concept that these levels of surplus can be responded to, and those have historically gone to waste. Those apple farmers told us, many of them maybe not, have had the budget the next year to plant that harvest, or if they'd not had a solution like what was there, they would have had to pick those apples and burn them, which I didn't even know was an option there. As we look forward into the future. We've asked ourselves how can farmland position itself best to react to those moments of surplus? And where we've started to land is in understanding, In produce specifically, there's such volatility that individual farmers are not responsible for, but due to huge market conditions and the fact that you might just have a great growing season, there are moments of surplus throughout almost every type of crop, throughout the year, and you get moments of surplus that are beyond even what those markets can handle. Right now, there are 200 million pounds of surplus potatoes in the United States. If all of those potatoes got released into the open market, it would tank potato prices. So the USDA has a pool of funding, which is specifically reserved to say during those moments, we'll buy those potatoes from those farmers, and they'll either process them into potato flour, they'll try and donate them. Sometimes some of them may go to waste. But the important element of stabilizing this very volatile produce industry is it is the goal, and it's what's happening. We are now working to advocate for farmland to be a solution, and for the USDA to start viewing transportation as one of the missing links that is preventing so much of this food from reaching all of the corners of the country that it really could. And so I'm this is not an executed plan, Justin. I'm coming to you, like, kind of calling our shot. We've not hit the home run yet. But over the next six months, our goal is to position Farmlink to be able to recover these volumes of food. For instance, apples are what we currently have our our sights set on. We expect there will be over 150 million surplus apples this fall. And so right now, we're starting conversations with the USDA to say if farmland can position ourselves to support these farmers in bringing the beans to farms, delivering those apples to food banks around the country, can you help farmland cover those transportation costs? Because if we can do that, then farming is suddenly just a sustainable existing solution. And so all of that comes together to yield what we're calling the Farmlink Fund, which, again, is still a very nascent vision. So anyone who's listening to this and has thoughts, I would love to hear your feedback on it, because right now we're just putting it up and trying to wind down from every angle we can. But our goal is to position Farmlink with a $100 million impact fund that every year can deploy 30, 40, $50 million a year to deliver billions of servings of fresh produce from these on farm surpluses to communities around the country. All of that funding is going towards the transportation. And if we can position ourselves and prove to the USDA that this is the highest leverage investment they could be making in supporting farmers and feeding families, that then can get replenished. But it is a reimbursement model. So we need that capital up front to do that. And so I don't have a more succinct way of describing all of this. This is one of my first times trying to do it publicly on something like a podcast. But that's that's really where our, our thinking is moving us towards, is really thinking at systems level and trying to answer the question of how could we do this sustainably?


 

Justin Wheeler Yeah. So what do you think are the core elements of this plan that have to work for the USDA to be like, yeah, hell yeah, we're going to farm. Link is going to be one of our, partners that that we fund annually to ensure that, you know, farmers are supported and families have enough food. What are the key, I guess, ingredients to success. To make this partnership work.


 

Ben Collier We need to line up so many pieces to come together at exactly the same time. First Farm Lincoln needs the upfront funding to prove that this whole model works, and then we need the USDA to support that first. Major proof of concept. So for the 150 million apples this fall, we need $4 million of capital to go and move all of those Apple securities around the country. And we need to position link as an implementation partner where we can get reimbursed for those funds. And our progress to that point is Tony Robbins has come in and said, you got 2 million from me. Go and match that 2 million with other investors who want to be a part of proving this enormous proof of concept. And that's where we are there and where we are with the advocating on the USDA side is we are trying to highlight problems and opportunities that I don't think have been highlighted in this way before. And so we've made a lot of progress there, exploring whether or not this is an apple surplus that is worthy of that kind of investment from the USDA. And we're sure it is, because it's more than there was last year. And last year there was that kind of investment. And so we'll know in the next month if all of these pieces have come together. I'd love for future listeners to know that that happened successfully, but if it doesn't, that's actually okay, because I said to Tony, I don't know that the apples will come through, but it's not a matter of if, but when, because there's going to be potatoes after that. They're going to be tomatoes after that. And we have made progress with the USDA where we know it is going to happen. And so I think that listeners can at least know whether or not it was successful with this Apple proof of concept. We're going to be pushing in that direction no matter what.


 

Justin Wheeler How are you doing on the second half of this match. So you've you need 4 million. You've got two committed from, you know, just, a name that I think everyone in America has heard and, and so how are you guys doing on the second, the second 2 million.


 

Ben Collier We're making some progress. I think what's so exciting is we are trying to bring together, a coalition of investors who can say we are setting up hunger and food loss and waste for sustainable impact in a way that has not been achieved before. I look at museums and hospitals and schools, and they have recurring impact from endowments and other funds that are consistently positioning them to achieve their missions. And you look at hunger and food loss and waste. And so often organizations like ours are fundraising today to spend that money 3 to 6 months from now. And so if we can position this industry to be benefited consistently with this pipeline of fresh produce, that is that that's there's a new prospect to that from a climate standpoint and a sustainability of an impact standpoint. And so we've had some donors who have come in and, a couple of our donors had given a couple thousand dollars to farming, and we talked about this with them and said, all right, well, if this all comes together, I'd love to talk about a, a six figure gift. And that's a multiplier that I think, you know, Justin is not the the norm, but is something that we're really excited to keep exploring with people and to keep gauging their interest in being a part of this.


 

Justin Wheeler Yeah. So when putting together sort of the the bones of this proof of concept, right. Like you're, you're thinking of you're thinking about it in like two, two ways, like the risk and the reward. Right. The, the reward is if we can have a successful pilot, we can create a more sustainable fund to solve this really big problem. And it helps. It has two beneficiaries. It's the farmers who otherwise would be out, not just their harvest, but the funds that would have purchased, their harvest and therefore, you know, subsequent years of farming and so forth. So you got the farmers as as a beneficiary. And then you also have the individuals who, you know, challenge with food insecurity. So you the reward is like very obvious, right? When you take a step back and you look at, well, what are the things that could go wrong? And if if they were to go wrong, it would, it would impact this proof of concept and maybe delay the scale that we're trying to achieve over the next couple of years. What would you say are some of the biggest risks you see in the coming months?


 

Ben Collier I love that question because we've been thinking about that a lot lately. You identified some of the core stakeholders of our work. It's it's the farmers who are going to receive support in areas where they otherwise may not. It's individuals facing hunger who are going to receive nutritious, fresh food that is delivered literally straight from the farm to how they're accessing fresh food. There's a stakeholder in between that is all other food banks and food pantries and hunger-fighting organizations at a community level that we see struggle so much to access consistent, fresh produce. And that is an area. Coming back to your question, I think Farmlink needs to be so intentional about in the next few years, because since day one, we've really wanted to build farming to be as additive as possible to all the other efforts taking place in the tradable food system. If we came in and rescued 500,000 pounds of food that another food bank was already going to get, we didn't really make that much progress. We can slap our name on it. But for farming to really be additive, that's where real impact comes from. And so I think that. Showing and proving through doing to the thousands of food banks and food pantries and other community-level organizations that we're seeking to uplift through our work that we are building from, with every intent of being supportive to them and of hearing them, and of uplifting their needs and their desires for this space in how we build family as we grow. That is as important as anything else we do is partnership. It's collaboration because we ourselves, we're not a food bank. We own no warehouses. If we gained access to all of this food and had nowhere to send it, we would be in a really bad place. And so that collaboration piece is key.


 

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Another question, kind of piggybacking off of that, I like to ask this to entrepreneurs founders, because it's in line with sort of this risk and reward type of conversation that, you know, that that we're having. But as, as a founder and as someone who has started, you know, an impressive organization with a big goals and a big vision and likely something that you're going to, you know, arguably spend your life's work on, developing and continuing to innovate. How do you personally stay motivated specifically through, like, the valleys, right. Because like, the highs are high and that gives you the momentum and energy that you need to kind of get to the next phase of growth or scale or whatever it might. The goal might be, right. That momentum carries you. But when you lose momentum and you have some setbacks, sometimes recovering from that can be challenging for entrepreneurs and founders. And so I'm curious, how do you stay motivated specifically in in the valleys or in the moments when things didn't go the way you thought it was going to go?


 

Ben Collier We are a fully remote team, and I didn't see a piece of produce that Farmlink helped rescue for a year and a half into Farmlink, and for a while I was like, is this some elaborate prank that hundreds of college students pulled on me, effectively over the pandemic? But I don't think there's a more grounding or energizing experience than actually seeing the impact of our work. And I don't even need to go to a delivery where I know Farmlink food is being delivered to do that, but it just means going and seeing food access. Seeing a delivery at a food pantry, seeing helping out at a distribution that we do with a bunch of farmworker communities about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles. We just implemented this volunteer time off policy at Farmlink, where every quarter, we want our team to take a day to go do something in their community. Because I think when you sit behind a computer in your bedroom all day, it takes away what makes our work so meaningful, and it's the impact that it really has on humans. And so for me, I think those valleys are often supported by recentering ourselves in who we are doing our work for and why we are doing it, and actually seeing and experiencing that impact directly.


 

Justin Wheeler That's good. That's very well said. And I often have to. Just being a fundraiser is, I guess you could say, my third startup, the first two were in the nonprofit space. And this one is, you know, we work with nonprofits or not a nonprofit. But one of the things I constantly go back to, and this is like when, when, when we're specifically building liberty in North Korea and building fundraise is there's this moment I had in the field where Lincoln had started. We had basically started doing rescues, where we were helping North Korean refugees make this escape across the border of North Korea and China, 3000 miles to Southeast Asia. And at the time, there was like a 70% failure rate. And these were explicit networks that were essentially trafficking people. Right? So a lot of women and children were being taken advantage of. And we wanted to to come in and establish a network that would treat each individual as a human and increase the odds of getting to safety. And and so we got where, you know, we've gotten up to like 99.9% in terms of success rate on the very first rescue mission, which I had the opportunity to be a part of. We had made it this journey, this 2000 mile journey, and there was a good number of North Korean refugees that were on that mission. And I was talking to this older gentleman. He was 75 years old, born and raised obviously in North Korea. And when I asked him was like, me, because it's a hard journey. You're going through all sorts of different modes of transportation. You're hiking through the jungles. It's not, you know, it's not an easy mission like an easy escape. And he looked at me and he and he said, like, I promised my wife that we would live the last couple of years in freedom. And I was thinking, man, if link ended on that day, if, like, link didn't exist anymore, like we were able to be a part of this elderly man's dream for him and his wife, and, you know, they made it to safety and got to live in freedom. And I think those are the moments as founders and entrepreneurs that we have to hold on to, is there will be days when we see tremendous impacts. We make tremendous progress towards the thing that we're trying to accomplish, but there's going to be days where we feel like we've. Had a setback or we're going to second guess ourselves. We're going to think that what we're building is not or the vision that we have is impossible. So I think it's so important to root ourselves in the accomplishments and to celebrate every win as they come, because that is what, you know, obviously stacks up to be the ultimate vision of what you're trying to accomplish.


 

Ben Collier I love that I can I comment on two things about liberating North Korea specifically.


 

Justin Wheeler Yeah, yeah, go for it.


 

Ben Collier I think first, the concreteness of the impact that you had on that gentleman's life, I think is so meaningful where you you got him there and and he was there, he was able to live out those years, like you said was his dream. And I think that's really important. And something that I second guess from on a lot where, okay, we can move 100 million pounds of food a year to communities facing hunger, but once that person eats the food that we got them, are they any less dependent on the system that we're supporting tomorrow than they were today? And I think the answer in a vacuum is no. But the other part about liberty in North Korea that I really love is what you and I spoke about when we first met, which is the role you feel you have in creating a narrative shift around how people view the work that is being done there and the importance of it, and what liberty for North Koreans in the work in that role really means. And applying to firm link. I think that, you know, we spoken today a lot about how do we create a pipeline that gets billions of service approaches to communities around the country every single year, but that is incomplete. Without reflecting on the fact that 50% of people in the United States who are food insecure and know where their local food pantry is, will still not go because of the stigma associated with that choice. So what that tells us is even if we got all of the perfect food to food banks, we wouldn't even come real close to ending food insecurity. And one of the outcomes you could strive towards is, well, there's a world of economic mobility that nobody needs to go to food pantries. Everyone can buy the food they want from grocery stores. And I think that is a world everyone should work towards. And whatever form can do to improve economic mobility and our advocacy and our storytelling, we should advocate for. But the other thing is just challenging how and why people see food the way that they do to begin with. Whether or not I buy a bottle of water or a drink for free from a tap phone from a water fountain, neither experience is more dignified than the other, but the same is nowhere near the case with food. And I think, just as important as our work in getting food to communities. I think Farming's role as a national platform is to amplify how and why we see food the way we do, and really challenge why there is such a divide between food access and food assistance. And I think if over time, pharmac's work can be to increase the amount of food such that it's not an issue for people to access fresh and healthy food while normalizing community touchpoints to food and creating a world where we do think about food differently, so that the line between food access and food assistance fades away over time. I think that's just as important a part of our role. And just talking about liberty in North Korea, I think, really always reminds me of why that's so important in what we do.


 

Justin Wheeler That's definitely a really great point. And it reminds me of a conversation I had with a different, a younger North Korean. He was around my age at the time. And when I was asking, you know, why did you decide to leave North Korea? Like, what was it that forced you to to leave and now to be an advocate for your family on the outside and supporting them by being on the outside and then still living inside North Korea? And he said, you know, as soon as I was able to take care of myself, as soon as I was able to, like, have enough food, on a daily basis and make money on my own in North Korea, that's when I realized I actually had even more potential, that I could do even more things. And so it takes me back to like, you know, putting food in people's stomachs is is like the first step for anyone to be able to do anything. Right. It's, it's if if you don't have access to food, if you can't eat, you're going to be hungry, you're going to be in survival mode, and you can't even think about achieving your full potential as as a human being. If you're just worried about what's the next meal I'm going to eat. So I think that's that's incredibly important. He also said that you guys are working on changing the narrative around around this concept. Anything that you're actively working on that is worth mentioning as we come to an unfortunate end to this great conversation?


 

Ben Collier Well, I think just in our storytelling work, we want to be a platform that can highlight beautiful examples of resilience and what dignified, true human food access can look like throughout our country and beyond. The other thing that I'll share is just around collaboration. And in showing that there's so many people that need to be a part of this and need to be on the same page for us to make the progress that we really think is possible. We've also been working on something that we're calling the Shared Plate Pledge, and this is just a set of principles and values that is really written. By the charitable food system for the charitable food system to say, okay, so many people individually believe in these values. Yet often we find ourselves within food banks and beyond, resorting to territorial ism and competition. And these these values are being abandoned. And so I invite anyone to go and read. It's just shared plate pledge.org, brings you back to the, this landing page where you can share these are the values the family really wants to live by, that so many other people have said they stand for. And over the next few months, we're going to be doing a lot of work at Farmlink to, try and align the charitable food system as a whole around principles of innovation, collaboration and democratization of resources where they can be. And I think that if that can be done effectively, it sets the table for a ton of collaborative progress and storytelling and just growth in general from there.


 

Justin Wheeler That's awesome. Well, make sure to link that in the, in the podcast section of this recording as well, so the listeners can easily access that and learn more about it. Last question here. Anything else that would be helpful from individuals listening in as they're inspired to do something, as they're listening to your story and about the work of a Farmlink anything that proactively they can do to to get involved and support this amazing mission.


 

Ben Collier If every single person listening to this podcast picked 1 to 3 people that they think could relate to farmland, either as that transformational donor, as the farmer with surplus clementines, as the person who can amplify our story or just be interested in it and in sharing it with their community. I ask that you please do that. It's as simple as either reaching out to me on LinkedIn or forwarding our website or a link to our documentary, but the one action to bring one other person or three other people into this community is how we've met the majority of the people that have transformed Farmlink, where one degree of separation away from everything we need to create systemic change. And so please, if you have gotten to this point in the podcast, it is a fractional increase on your time to to go that final step and it would make a world of difference. So thank you.


 

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Then thank you so much for joining us today. I know you're busy, but we appreciate the time and good luck on, proving this concept. We're rooting for you and look forward to checking back in in a few months to see how progress is going.


 

Ben Collier Awesome! Love what you guys are doing. Thank you so much for having me, Justin. We'll see you soon.


 

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Thanks, Ben.

 

 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit! 

This podcast is brought to you by your friends at Funraise. Nonprofit fundraising software, built by nonprofit people. If you’d like to continue the conversation, find me on LinkedIn or text me at 562.242.8160. And don't forget to get your next episode the second it hits the internets. Go to nonstopnonprofitpodcast.com and sign up for email notifications today. 

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Deep-Rooted Innovation with The Farmlink Project

Deep-Rooted Innovation with The Farmlink Project

May 16, 2024
42 minutes
EPISODE SUMMERY

Ben Collier · CEO and Co-founder, The Farmlink Project | An aspiring—and inspiring—visionary who built The Farmlink Project, a nonprofit addressing food waste and food accessiblity, while weathering a pandemic and graduating from college.

LISTEN
EPISODE NOTES

Nonprofiteers have long known that our strengths lie in our passion for enacting change. More often than not, though, we see an issue and reach for it, only to find that we’re blocked by a lack of time, money, and helping hands.

Today’s guest, Ben Collier, is an aspiring—and inspiring—visionary whose nonprofit, The Farmlink Project, is poised to simultaneously hit the root of food insecurity and help farmers with an ambitious $100M fund designed to cultivate sustainable change in the sphere of food insecurity.

Not only that, but Ben and The Farmlink Project have an even broader vision, and the big question isn’t whether they can pull it off, it’s just how deeply this shift will shake our core.

Listen in as Ben and Justin dig into deep-rooted issues, challenge our perspective on food accessibility, and witness a $100 million vision being planted.

Looking for a way to pursue progress in the food system? The Farmlink Project's Shared Plate Pledge provides the framework and community to support and grow together. Sign the Shared Plate Pledge today.

TRANSCRIPT

Ben Collier I didn't see a piece of produce that Farmlink helped rescue for a year and a half into Farmlink, and for a while I was like, is this some elaborate prank that hundreds of college students pulled on me. But I don't think there's a more grounding or energizing experience than actually seeing the impact of our work. We just implemented this volunteer time off policy at Farmlink, where every quarter, we want our team to take a day to go do something in their community. Because I think when you sit behind a computer in your bedroom all day, it takes away what makes our work so meaningful, and it's the impact that it really has on humans. And so for me, I think those valleys are often supported by recentering ourselves in who we are doing our work for and why we are doing it, and actually seeing and experiencing that impact directly.

 

 

Hello and welcome to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit!

Nonprofiteers have long known that our strengths lie in our passion for enacting change. More often than not, though, we see an issue and reach for it, only to find that we’re blocked by a lack of time, money, and helping hands.

Today’s guest, Ben Collier, is an aspiring—and inspiring—visionary whose nonprofit, The Farmlink Project, is poised to simultaneously hit the root of food insecurity and help farmers with an ambitious $100M fund designed to cultivate sustainable change in the sphere of food insecurity.

Not only that, but Ben and The Farmlink Project have an even broader vision, and the big question isn’t whether they can pull it off, it’s just how deeply this shift will shake our core.

Listen in as Ben and Justin dig into deep-rooted issues, challenge our perspective on food accessibility, and witness a $100 million vision being planted.

Let's Dive In!

 

 

Justin Wheeler Ben, welcome to the podcast. How are you doing, man?


 

Ben Collier I'm great. I'm happy to be here. Nice to see you again, Justin.


 

Justin Wheeler Yeah. It's always, always great to reconnect. I've been really excited, looking forward to this podcast, this conversation in general. You know, I don't know if I told you this when we had lunch recently, but you're definitely one of the more inspiring founders entrepreneurs in the social impact space that I've met. I'd say in the last decade, honestly. And so I'm really excited to talk a bit more about your story. Who you are and what you're up to. And so maybe just for our listeners to get acquainted with you. I would love if you could just share a little bit more about yourself. And what led you to start, Farmlink. Sure.


 

Ben Collier Well, first of all, that's huge praise. Thank you. I mean, you get to see the entire nonprofit world. So for from link to be, high up on your list is is a huge compliment. If you want to know my story, I'll share a little bit more about myself. And then we can get more into the farm like story. Which is why people should really be here and be sticking around. We started Farmlink in April of 2020, and that was right when the world was shutting down. The pandemic was it was here and here to stay. In the months leading up to that, I was a junior at Brown University. I was studying applied math and not really sure where that was going to take me. I was especially unsure, entering the pandemic of what the next few years are going to look like, because right before the pandemic, I actually had a pretty major reconstructive surgery on my right foot and leg. And so for the two months leading into the pandemic, I was already really unsure of where my community and trajectory was going to take me. I was on my back taking 12 percocets a day. Just getting through each day. And then the pandemic started, and suddenly every other college student, in a way, was right there with me, but firmly came out of early on in the pandemic. Story after story being written about food piling up on farms and food banks, facing the longest lines they'd ever seen. And my personal part of that was my mom kept cutting out these articles and leaving them outside of my bedroom door like some humanitarian serial killer. And me and my brother, my twin brother. We started thinking, right, is there something we can do about this at the same time? He spoke with one of his good friends who also went to Brown with us, Aiden and Aiden and James. We're talking about how they could support their local food bank in Santa Monica. And so from across the country, Connecticut to California, and quickly a bunch of other states in between, we just had a bunch of college kids getting on the phone, getting on zoom together and asking the question of, is there something we can be doing? And so we just started calling farmers. We called hundreds of farmers to see, do you have surplus? Can we help get it to a food bank? And probably tried 200 times before finally getting through to this onion farmer who had just been written about in the New York Times for having a pile of 2 million pounds of onions with nowhere to go. And he says, if you get a truck here, you can take whatever you can. We brought 40,000 pounds of onions back to a local food bank the next day, James and Aiden actually picked up 11,000 eggs in a U-Haul that they rented and bumped down the 405 to drop those off in Santa Monica. And that was the start of farming and, took off from there.


 

Justin Wheeler So what what was it, about your mom that was so inspired with this issue in particular?


 

Ben Collier Yeah, I just gave the whole family story. We can hang on my mom for 20, 30 minutes. I mean, she I she's the most caring person in my world. And at the beginning of the pandemic, was just glued to the news every night. And it was so hard. Stretch. Five months for the news. Felt like the last 60s was the only reprieve we could get. That feel good moment. And so she was taking all of our old t shirts and sewing masks out of them, because there was that first PPE shortage, and I feel like the whole motivation was just to do something. And, you know, when she kept pushing those articles, sharing those with us, I think that's where it really felt like we could we could begin.


 

Justin Wheeler So for for those listening who maybe don't have the context of how big of a problem this is and therefore an opportunity, if, if we can solve it. Hope the listeners understand. Sort of. What is that? What is the the problem at the highest level? How big is it. Yeah. And how is farming solving it?


 

Ben Collier It's a great, great question. The pandemic exacerbated problems that have existed for decades, but the the bottom line is 30 to 40% of all of the food that we grow goes to waste. And at the same time, 44 million Americans are food insecure. 44 million Americans do not have enough food to provide themselves adequate nutrition day in and day out. And that's one third of college students right there. And so the scale of the opportunity is we have ten times more food, fresh produce going to waste on farms and in transit to grocery stores, then we have need to address hunger in this country. And despite that, we still have a huge amount of food insecurity. And so the two problems they really face each other. And the pandemic, again, there were supply chains that were cut. You had restaurants closed, airports closed, all these different places. But this food waste has been a problem for decades. And so the pandemic for farming, for us, it brought something into a spotlight. And it stressed a system enough that it felt like there was an opportunity for us to say, okay, we can throw our names into this hat and try and do something about it.


 

Justin Wheeler Got it. So back to the early days of starting Farmlink. You'd mentioned it was essentially a bunch of college students at one point. Did it go from a bunch of college college students to beginning to professionalize the organization? How long did it take? How many years were you operating, you know, full time college student, full time farmer link and when did that transition sort of happen?


 

Ben Collier The first year was all college student, so we started in April of 2020. I was a junior. A month later, summer started and thousands of college students had lost their internships when the pandemic began. And so you have thousands and thousands of students that are simultaneously without something to do, and maybe more than ever in their lives, feeling a desire to do something constructive and productive and to find a sense of community and farming, was able to provide all of that. I didn't, at the beginning of farm, like, know how much that sense of community was going to drive our identity and our success, but within a couple of months, I was realizing, oh my gosh, I'm looking at hundreds of college students that are helping call farmers and fundraise and build relationships with food banks, and at the same time, they are my strongest source of community right now. We have these all hands meetings with people coming on and performing at the end of them and and people coming on and sharing very personal stories. And it was this incredibly energizing group of people to be around. And so for that first year, we were, I would say, 300 plus college students, that flowed through building this program. And about a year.


 

Justin Wheeler And then other within the 300, was there any sort of like hierarchy or was it just all flat? Was it just like everyone was bringing like ideas to the table, or how did how did it function?


 

Ben Collier I think it was about as flat as a group of at least 150 fully remote college students could be. So, you know, I was really focused on like, helping lead the farms team and the the team that was building relationships with food banks. We called it our core pillar. But the reality was everybody was doing everything. And so it was about as flat as you could get after that first year that we needed to start building a little bit of a sense of structure, especially as we began bringing on full time employees that came from places where you had established org charts. You had, you know, rules and and responsibilities. And that trade-off was necessary because it also allowed us to increase accountability and a sense of confidence that things weren't going to fall through the cracks. I think for that first year, you had 150 students that you could throw at, you know, blunt force problems where really maybe one focused professional could solve, what 15 people were spending ten hours a week doing. And so that trade-off was something that we balance, that we played with a lot in the next couple of years. But the student involvement is so, so core to our sense of community and our identity and and ensuring that new ideas and new perspectives are still coming into farming. So over the last three years, we've grown to a full time team of about 20 employees. Hundreds more students have been a part of, fellowships and other work that we've done to ensure that young people do still have a role in helping build farming. And as our full time team has grown, we've needed to become more and more intentional about preserving the space that students have to contribute to farming. And that's where programs like our Field Fellowship have emerged that we're really proud of and excited about. And so that's been a constant evolution, and there have been some really tough moments. I think that second year, when we were really evolving from all students to a full time team that was largely in charge, especially as students went back to in-person classes, was culturally one of the most difficult stretches of time for farming. But we are here now, four years later, with over 700 students having helped build Farmlink team of 20 full time employees, and collectively, that group of people has helped recover over 230 million pounds of fresh and healthy produce and gotten that to communities throughout North America.


 

Justin Wheeler And wow, that's something that's I mean, that's you 230 million pounds of food that didn't go wasted. You guys were able to deliver, put it in food banks, and in into people's, for lack of a better word, stomachs, that otherwise would have gone wasted. You know what I love? About, like your startup story. There's a lot of like when I think about when I first got started as a college student, it was with Invisible Children. And you and I have talked about this in the past, but one of the I think one of the the greatest advantages we have in starting something from the ground up and being young is just not having any of the limitations that you start to learn to pay more attention to the older you get, the more mature your organization becomes, because there's just there's obviously a lot more to to risk and or there's a lot more at risk. The larger you get, the more operationalized you get a lot more things you have to take into consideration. But in the early days, you just have this true sense of entrepreneurship, like supercharged. And what I mean by that is you can look at one of the biggest problems facing humanity, and you can say, we can solve this, we can do something to actually make an impact. And, you know, when you think about it in the context of Farmlink here, you had hundreds of students not getting paid to do this, just responding to a solution or responding to a big problem that they saw. And we're like, we're going to address this and we're going to we're going to find a way. And so you had mentioned that at the top of the call, I'm blanking on the first number. But the amount of wasted food a year was what was it Iowa.


 

Ben Collier It's 30 to 40% of all the food we grow. Yeah.


 

Justin Wheeler Oh 30 to 40% of all the food we grow is wasted. And so it would it be accurate to to describe this as a logistics problem, like getting it from is it that simple or is it something more that I'm not understanding.


 

Ben Collier In the United States. And I'd venture so far as to say North America as a whole, it is a matter of getting the food to the right place at the right time. It is logistics. And from where we stand, it's specifically the transportation the trucks needed to get that food from where it is currently going to go to waste, to where it can really help and make a difference in people's lives. And I captured the scale in terms of numbers earlier, but the volumes that farming typically works with are amounts of food that are beyond what a local food bank is really well positioned to take on their food banks throughout the country. And all of the food that farmland recovers is largely ending up at food banks. But you get these moments of surplus where we'll get a call from Peruvian avocado importer that will say we have 30 truckloads of avocados outside of Philadelphia. With nowhere to go, a local food bank could take 1 or 2 truckloads, but 30 truckloads. That's going to require reaching 20 different food banks in ten different states. And that's Farmlink's bread and butter. You know, that happened last year, and we did deliver 30 truckloads of avocados to 20 different food banks in ten different states, and that is going to be turned around in 48 hours. And I think that that example, it helps capture where we fit in the system, because food banks and the food pantries and and church groups and agencies they serve, they're so well equipped to get that food out into communities. But when you get these larger logistical shortfalls in the food supply chain, where millions of servings of a single type of produce stand to go to waste, that's what we've built. Farmlink to solve for.


 

Justin Wheeler Got it.

 

 

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Justin Wheeler Amazing. So fast forwarding to today, which is still impressive. Only four I think you mentioned four years in to Farmlink. You're you took a step back. I don't know if it was earlier this year or if it was last year. You took a step back to think about the magnitude of this problem. And, you know, at the  current rate of sort of the size in terms of revenue, Farmlink was at like it's going to take us a long time to really make a dent if we don't think of new and creative ways, to fund the mission of, of what you guys are up to. And so maybe spend a little bit of time walking us through sort of the process that you went through, thinking through just the magnitude of the problem, the cost it was going to, the funding it needed to actually be solved, and how you landed on the the vision where you're at today and what we're currently executing on. Sure.


 

Ben Collier We've built Farmlink in a very reactive way in that we didn't know where this surplus food would be, when it would be there. And so we wanted to build a logistics network that was as flexible as possible. And that's what Farmlink is today. And last year we've recovered 110 million pounds of food. And that food popped up all throughout North America, largely in the U.S. and our ability to react and solve for that, it allowed us to get all of that food so effectively to communities around the country. Now, from where we stand, the question we're asking ourselves is, how can we ensure that we can continue unlocking enough food, more and more food, to really start moving the needle on hunger? And the area that we've really landed on is in what we would call pre-harvest surplus or surplus that is taking place at farms or so early on in the supply chain that it doesn't even reach. Grocery stores, at restaurants. It doesn't get to distribution centers. As an example, last year in West Virginia, we reached out to by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, who said they have a dozen apple growers who've been growing their apples all year. And about a month or two before harvest, they lost their contracts, which happens way more than you'd expect, way more than you think it should happen. And so these apple growers had 40 million apples with nowhere to go. This is three times larger than the largest moment of collective food recovery we've ever even heard about. But we said we have to try this. We have to make this happen. We have to prove that this level of food recovery is possible. And so I actually went to our board and we I said, we have to spend half a million more than we budgeted for this year. And they've been very trusting and supportive of our ambition, I would say. And over the next two months, we delivered over 350 truckloads of apples to over 100 different food banks, partnered in 20-plus states around the country. And it was a huge proof of concept that these levels of surplus can be responded to, and those have historically gone to waste. Those apple farmers told us, many of them maybe not, have had the budget the next year to plant that harvest, or if they'd not had a solution like what was there, they would have had to pick those apples and burn them, which I didn't even know was an option there. As we look forward into the future. We've asked ourselves how can farmland position itself best to react to those moments of surplus? And where we've started to land is in understanding, In produce specifically, there's such volatility that individual farmers are not responsible for, but due to huge market conditions and the fact that you might just have a great growing season, there are moments of surplus throughout almost every type of crop, throughout the year, and you get moments of surplus that are beyond even what those markets can handle. Right now, there are 200 million pounds of surplus potatoes in the United States. If all of those potatoes got released into the open market, it would tank potato prices. So the USDA has a pool of funding, which is specifically reserved to say during those moments, we'll buy those potatoes from those farmers, and they'll either process them into potato flour, they'll try and donate them. Sometimes some of them may go to waste. But the important element of stabilizing this very volatile produce industry is it is the goal, and it's what's happening. We are now working to advocate for farmland to be a solution, and for the USDA to start viewing transportation as one of the missing links that is preventing so much of this food from reaching all of the corners of the country that it really could. And so I'm this is not an executed plan, Justin. I'm coming to you, like, kind of calling our shot. We've not hit the home run yet. But over the next six months, our goal is to position Farmlink to be able to recover these volumes of food. For instance, apples are what we currently have our our sights set on. We expect there will be over 150 million surplus apples this fall. And so right now, we're starting conversations with the USDA to say if farmland can position ourselves to support these farmers in bringing the beans to farms, delivering those apples to food banks around the country, can you help farmland cover those transportation costs? Because if we can do that, then farming is suddenly just a sustainable existing solution. And so all of that comes together to yield what we're calling the Farmlink Fund, which, again, is still a very nascent vision. So anyone who's listening to this and has thoughts, I would love to hear your feedback on it, because right now we're just putting it up and trying to wind down from every angle we can. But our goal is to position Farmlink with a $100 million impact fund that every year can deploy 30, 40, $50 million a year to deliver billions of servings of fresh produce from these on farm surpluses to communities around the country. All of that funding is going towards the transportation. And if we can position ourselves and prove to the USDA that this is the highest leverage investment they could be making in supporting farmers and feeding families, that then can get replenished. But it is a reimbursement model. So we need that capital up front to do that. And so I don't have a more succinct way of describing all of this. This is one of my first times trying to do it publicly on something like a podcast. But that's that's really where our, our thinking is moving us towards, is really thinking at systems level and trying to answer the question of how could we do this sustainably?


 

Justin Wheeler Yeah. So what do you think are the core elements of this plan that have to work for the USDA to be like, yeah, hell yeah, we're going to farm. Link is going to be one of our, partners that that we fund annually to ensure that, you know, farmers are supported and families have enough food. What are the key, I guess, ingredients to success. To make this partnership work.


 

Ben Collier We need to line up so many pieces to come together at exactly the same time. First Farm Lincoln needs the upfront funding to prove that this whole model works, and then we need the USDA to support that first. Major proof of concept. So for the 150 million apples this fall, we need $4 million of capital to go and move all of those Apple securities around the country. And we need to position link as an implementation partner where we can get reimbursed for those funds. And our progress to that point is Tony Robbins has come in and said, you got 2 million from me. Go and match that 2 million with other investors who want to be a part of proving this enormous proof of concept. And that's where we are there and where we are with the advocating on the USDA side is we are trying to highlight problems and opportunities that I don't think have been highlighted in this way before. And so we've made a lot of progress there, exploring whether or not this is an apple surplus that is worthy of that kind of investment from the USDA. And we're sure it is, because it's more than there was last year. And last year there was that kind of investment. And so we'll know in the next month if all of these pieces have come together. I'd love for future listeners to know that that happened successfully, but if it doesn't, that's actually okay, because I said to Tony, I don't know that the apples will come through, but it's not a matter of if, but when, because there's going to be potatoes after that. They're going to be tomatoes after that. And we have made progress with the USDA where we know it is going to happen. And so I think that listeners can at least know whether or not it was successful with this Apple proof of concept. We're going to be pushing in that direction no matter what.


 

Justin Wheeler How are you doing on the second half of this match. So you've you need 4 million. You've got two committed from, you know, just, a name that I think everyone in America has heard and, and so how are you guys doing on the second, the second 2 million.


 

Ben Collier We're making some progress. I think what's so exciting is we are trying to bring together, a coalition of investors who can say we are setting up hunger and food loss and waste for sustainable impact in a way that has not been achieved before. I look at museums and hospitals and schools, and they have recurring impact from endowments and other funds that are consistently positioning them to achieve their missions. And you look at hunger and food loss and waste. And so often organizations like ours are fundraising today to spend that money 3 to 6 months from now. And so if we can position this industry to be benefited consistently with this pipeline of fresh produce, that is that that's there's a new prospect to that from a climate standpoint and a sustainability of an impact standpoint. And so we've had some donors who have come in and, a couple of our donors had given a couple thousand dollars to farming, and we talked about this with them and said, all right, well, if this all comes together, I'd love to talk about a, a six figure gift. And that's a multiplier that I think, you know, Justin is not the the norm, but is something that we're really excited to keep exploring with people and to keep gauging their interest in being a part of this.


 

Justin Wheeler Yeah. So when putting together sort of the the bones of this proof of concept, right. Like you're, you're thinking of you're thinking about it in like two, two ways, like the risk and the reward. Right. The, the reward is if we can have a successful pilot, we can create a more sustainable fund to solve this really big problem. And it helps. It has two beneficiaries. It's the farmers who otherwise would be out, not just their harvest, but the funds that would have purchased, their harvest and therefore, you know, subsequent years of farming and so forth. So you got the farmers as as a beneficiary. And then you also have the individuals who, you know, challenge with food insecurity. So you the reward is like very obvious, right? When you take a step back and you look at, well, what are the things that could go wrong? And if if they were to go wrong, it would, it would impact this proof of concept and maybe delay the scale that we're trying to achieve over the next couple of years. What would you say are some of the biggest risks you see in the coming months?


 

Ben Collier I love that question because we've been thinking about that a lot lately. You identified some of the core stakeholders of our work. It's it's the farmers who are going to receive support in areas where they otherwise may not. It's individuals facing hunger who are going to receive nutritious, fresh food that is delivered literally straight from the farm to how they're accessing fresh food. There's a stakeholder in between that is all other food banks and food pantries and hunger-fighting organizations at a community level that we see struggle so much to access consistent, fresh produce. And that is an area. Coming back to your question, I think Farmlink needs to be so intentional about in the next few years, because since day one, we've really wanted to build farming to be as additive as possible to all the other efforts taking place in the tradable food system. If we came in and rescued 500,000 pounds of food that another food bank was already going to get, we didn't really make that much progress. We can slap our name on it. But for farming to really be additive, that's where real impact comes from. And so I think that. Showing and proving through doing to the thousands of food banks and food pantries and other community-level organizations that we're seeking to uplift through our work that we are building from, with every intent of being supportive to them and of hearing them, and of uplifting their needs and their desires for this space in how we build family as we grow. That is as important as anything else we do is partnership. It's collaboration because we ourselves, we're not a food bank. We own no warehouses. If we gained access to all of this food and had nowhere to send it, we would be in a really bad place. And so that collaboration piece is key.


 

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Another question, kind of piggybacking off of that, I like to ask this to entrepreneurs founders, because it's in line with sort of this risk and reward type of conversation that, you know, that that we're having. But as, as a founder and as someone who has started, you know, an impressive organization with a big goals and a big vision and likely something that you're going to, you know, arguably spend your life's work on, developing and continuing to innovate. How do you personally stay motivated specifically through, like, the valleys, right. Because like, the highs are high and that gives you the momentum and energy that you need to kind of get to the next phase of growth or scale or whatever it might. The goal might be, right. That momentum carries you. But when you lose momentum and you have some setbacks, sometimes recovering from that can be challenging for entrepreneurs and founders. And so I'm curious, how do you stay motivated specifically in in the valleys or in the moments when things didn't go the way you thought it was going to go?


 

Ben Collier We are a fully remote team, and I didn't see a piece of produce that Farmlink helped rescue for a year and a half into Farmlink, and for a while I was like, is this some elaborate prank that hundreds of college students pulled on me, effectively over the pandemic? But I don't think there's a more grounding or energizing experience than actually seeing the impact of our work. And I don't even need to go to a delivery where I know Farmlink food is being delivered to do that, but it just means going and seeing food access. Seeing a delivery at a food pantry, seeing helping out at a distribution that we do with a bunch of farmworker communities about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles. We just implemented this volunteer time off policy at Farmlink, where every quarter, we want our team to take a day to go do something in their community. Because I think when you sit behind a computer in your bedroom all day, it takes away what makes our work so meaningful, and it's the impact that it really has on humans. And so for me, I think those valleys are often supported by recentering ourselves in who we are doing our work for and why we are doing it, and actually seeing and experiencing that impact directly.


 

Justin Wheeler That's good. That's very well said. And I often have to. Just being a fundraiser is, I guess you could say, my third startup, the first two were in the nonprofit space. And this one is, you know, we work with nonprofits or not a nonprofit. But one of the things I constantly go back to, and this is like when, when, when we're specifically building liberty in North Korea and building fundraise is there's this moment I had in the field where Lincoln had started. We had basically started doing rescues, where we were helping North Korean refugees make this escape across the border of North Korea and China, 3000 miles to Southeast Asia. And at the time, there was like a 70% failure rate. And these were explicit networks that were essentially trafficking people. Right? So a lot of women and children were being taken advantage of. And we wanted to to come in and establish a network that would treat each individual as a human and increase the odds of getting to safety. And and so we got where, you know, we've gotten up to like 99.9% in terms of success rate on the very first rescue mission, which I had the opportunity to be a part of. We had made it this journey, this 2000 mile journey, and there was a good number of North Korean refugees that were on that mission. And I was talking to this older gentleman. He was 75 years old, born and raised obviously in North Korea. And when I asked him was like, me, because it's a hard journey. You're going through all sorts of different modes of transportation. You're hiking through the jungles. It's not, you know, it's not an easy mission like an easy escape. And he looked at me and he and he said, like, I promised my wife that we would live the last couple of years in freedom. And I was thinking, man, if link ended on that day, if, like, link didn't exist anymore, like we were able to be a part of this elderly man's dream for him and his wife, and, you know, they made it to safety and got to live in freedom. And I think those are the moments as founders and entrepreneurs that we have to hold on to, is there will be days when we see tremendous impacts. We make tremendous progress towards the thing that we're trying to accomplish, but there's going to be days where we feel like we've. Had a setback or we're going to second guess ourselves. We're going to think that what we're building is not or the vision that we have is impossible. So I think it's so important to root ourselves in the accomplishments and to celebrate every win as they come, because that is what, you know, obviously stacks up to be the ultimate vision of what you're trying to accomplish.


 

Ben Collier I love that I can I comment on two things about liberating North Korea specifically.


 

Justin Wheeler Yeah, yeah, go for it.


 

Ben Collier I think first, the concreteness of the impact that you had on that gentleman's life, I think is so meaningful where you you got him there and and he was there, he was able to live out those years, like you said was his dream. And I think that's really important. And something that I second guess from on a lot where, okay, we can move 100 million pounds of food a year to communities facing hunger, but once that person eats the food that we got them, are they any less dependent on the system that we're supporting tomorrow than they were today? And I think the answer in a vacuum is no. But the other part about liberty in North Korea that I really love is what you and I spoke about when we first met, which is the role you feel you have in creating a narrative shift around how people view the work that is being done there and the importance of it, and what liberty for North Koreans in the work in that role really means. And applying to firm link. I think that, you know, we spoken today a lot about how do we create a pipeline that gets billions of service approaches to communities around the country every single year, but that is incomplete. Without reflecting on the fact that 50% of people in the United States who are food insecure and know where their local food pantry is, will still not go because of the stigma associated with that choice. So what that tells us is even if we got all of the perfect food to food banks, we wouldn't even come real close to ending food insecurity. And one of the outcomes you could strive towards is, well, there's a world of economic mobility that nobody needs to go to food pantries. Everyone can buy the food they want from grocery stores. And I think that is a world everyone should work towards. And whatever form can do to improve economic mobility and our advocacy and our storytelling, we should advocate for. But the other thing is just challenging how and why people see food the way that they do to begin with. Whether or not I buy a bottle of water or a drink for free from a tap phone from a water fountain, neither experience is more dignified than the other, but the same is nowhere near the case with food. And I think, just as important as our work in getting food to communities. I think Farming's role as a national platform is to amplify how and why we see food the way we do, and really challenge why there is such a divide between food access and food assistance. And I think if over time, pharmac's work can be to increase the amount of food such that it's not an issue for people to access fresh and healthy food while normalizing community touchpoints to food and creating a world where we do think about food differently, so that the line between food access and food assistance fades away over time. I think that's just as important a part of our role. And just talking about liberty in North Korea, I think, really always reminds me of why that's so important in what we do.


 

Justin Wheeler That's definitely a really great point. And it reminds me of a conversation I had with a different, a younger North Korean. He was around my age at the time. And when I was asking, you know, why did you decide to leave North Korea? Like, what was it that forced you to to leave and now to be an advocate for your family on the outside and supporting them by being on the outside and then still living inside North Korea? And he said, you know, as soon as I was able to take care of myself, as soon as I was able to, like, have enough food, on a daily basis and make money on my own in North Korea, that's when I realized I actually had even more potential, that I could do even more things. And so it takes me back to like, you know, putting food in people's stomachs is is like the first step for anyone to be able to do anything. Right. It's, it's if if you don't have access to food, if you can't eat, you're going to be hungry, you're going to be in survival mode, and you can't even think about achieving your full potential as as a human being. If you're just worried about what's the next meal I'm going to eat. So I think that's that's incredibly important. He also said that you guys are working on changing the narrative around around this concept. Anything that you're actively working on that is worth mentioning as we come to an unfortunate end to this great conversation?


 

Ben Collier Well, I think just in our storytelling work, we want to be a platform that can highlight beautiful examples of resilience and what dignified, true human food access can look like throughout our country and beyond. The other thing that I'll share is just around collaboration. And in showing that there's so many people that need to be a part of this and need to be on the same page for us to make the progress that we really think is possible. We've also been working on something that we're calling the Shared Plate Pledge, and this is just a set of principles and values that is really written. By the charitable food system for the charitable food system to say, okay, so many people individually believe in these values. Yet often we find ourselves within food banks and beyond, resorting to territorial ism and competition. And these these values are being abandoned. And so I invite anyone to go and read. It's just shared plate pledge.org, brings you back to the, this landing page where you can share these are the values the family really wants to live by, that so many other people have said they stand for. And over the next few months, we're going to be doing a lot of work at Farmlink to, try and align the charitable food system as a whole around principles of innovation, collaboration and democratization of resources where they can be. And I think that if that can be done effectively, it sets the table for a ton of collaborative progress and storytelling and just growth in general from there.


 

Justin Wheeler That's awesome. Well, make sure to link that in the, in the podcast section of this recording as well, so the listeners can easily access that and learn more about it. Last question here. Anything else that would be helpful from individuals listening in as they're inspired to do something, as they're listening to your story and about the work of a Farmlink anything that proactively they can do to to get involved and support this amazing mission.


 

Ben Collier If every single person listening to this podcast picked 1 to 3 people that they think could relate to farmland, either as that transformational donor, as the farmer with surplus clementines, as the person who can amplify our story or just be interested in it and in sharing it with their community. I ask that you please do that. It's as simple as either reaching out to me on LinkedIn or forwarding our website or a link to our documentary, but the one action to bring one other person or three other people into this community is how we've met the majority of the people that have transformed Farmlink, where one degree of separation away from everything we need to create systemic change. And so please, if you have gotten to this point in the podcast, it is a fractional increase on your time to to go that final step and it would make a world of difference. So thank you.


 

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Then thank you so much for joining us today. I know you're busy, but we appreciate the time and good luck on, proving this concept. We're rooting for you and look forward to checking back in in a few months to see how progress is going.


 

Ben Collier Awesome! Love what you guys are doing. Thank you so much for having me, Justin. We'll see you soon.


 

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Thanks, Ben.

 

 

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