What do you do when you have 40,000 pounds of potatoes on your farm and nowhere to sell them because a pandemic canceled your contract?

FarmLink, started by a partnership between two Darien residents and two of their friends from California, came up with an answer. They coordinated a truckload of those potatoes to be distributed to the Siskiyou County Food Bank in California.

The entire truck was nearly emptied within two hours by those in need of food during the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2017, Siskiyou County was called the “hungriest county in the region” — and the most food insecure in California, according to a public radio program — and that was before the pandemic hit.

The work of Farmlink.

Media: Owen Dubec

Twin brothers Will and Ben Collier, 22, who are part of the four-member team behind FarmLink, said there are many people in the county who rely on the food bank.

Two of the Siskiyou Food Bank employees met the truck. They described the county as one of many “food pantry” deserts that are in many areas of the country — where residents must travel long distances to find food help.

“The entire town had come out, as there were radio announcements, other promotions saying to come if you need food,” Will said.

Out of 26 pallets of potatoes, only two were left after 90 minutes.

According to the two Darien men, helping to solve this immediate problem caused by the pandemic is only the beginning.

The idea

As college students around the country were sent home early due to campus shutdowns in March, many felt in limbo and some were wondering what they could do to help.

That drive spurred Darien residents and the Collier brothers into action. With two college friends on the West Coast, they created FarmLink, which connects farmers with surpluses of food due to the coronavirus pandemic to food insecure shelters and communities.

Will and Ben, a senior and a junior, respectively, (Ben took a year off) at Brown University, attended Darien Schools until the ninth grade, and then they went to Hopkins School in New Haven.

After coming home to Darien when the campus closed to complete the year telecommuting on March 16, Will said his mother, Kristin, was sending them articles about what was going on in the country due to the pandemic.

One particular group of news stories moved the young men in particular — that of farmers wasting tons of food due to losing restaurant or other contracts with nationwide closures. At the same time, Ben and Will saw many food banks and individuals around the country in dire need of food.

“You see footage that food banks are seeing such a high demand — higher than the Great Depression — it’s unprecedented,” Will said.

Will, who will be starting a job as a consultant in November (pushed back due to the pandemic), said his mother reminded him his job will be problem-solving.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you figure this out?’” Will said.

Will, who plays water polo, contacted a teammate in California, Aidan Reilly, who said he had also been thinking of a similar idea, and the two brothers also connected with a friend, James Kanoff, a sophomore at Stanford University.

“The four of us took the lead and progressed and it’s been growing since then,” Will said.

The goal

Ben said at the core of the project, “the goal has been to find farms that are facing a surplus and get that to food banks in need.”

Ben works with a team of about 15 to 20 people who make cold calls to farms and the team connects with them to move any surplus.

Aiden works with the food banks team to try and find a place that the food can go the furthest. Currently, due to crop availability, most of their work has been on the West Coast so far. Now that growing season is arriving on the East Coast, the FarmLink team is starting to work with with farms and foodbanks in the tri-state area — the “hot bed” of the pandemic.

Partnerships and collaborations have been part of the project’s success. Because it would take too long to get their own 501 (c)(3) status, they partnered with Food Finders, a Calfornia-based food rescue organization that connects donated perishable food with nonprofit pantries and shelters throughout southern California.

They have also partnered with Uber Freight as part of its “Move What Matters” campaign. Coyote Logistics has also helped them with the logistics of coordinating transportation for the food.

The network also results in FarmLink learning about farms that have excess and towns that need food through word of mouth.

Currently, FarmLink has been doing work in the Pacific Northwest and California, but the impact is spreading. FarmLink has made a few deliveries on the East Coast. It has also been working with a very large dairy in Texas, resulting in getting milk to 25 states. This has resulted in dozens to hundreds of food banks getting milk.

The farms the nonprofit organization has been working with so far include those in Idaho, Washington State, California, Maine, Texas and one now in Hamilton, N.Y. The food banks have been in several states as well, including California, Virginia, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

Will and Ben said they are currently in conversations with a few Connecticut food banks, and as produce grows in the Northeast, there will be more opportunities to connect with farms in this area.

“We want to get food to the ‘hot spots’ [of the pandemic] as much as possible,” Will said.

Ben pointed out that FarmLink tries to connect the food taken from farms so that it is aimed to be distributed to food banks and those in need as close to the farm as possible.

“We don’t want to take food out of a place that could use it,” he said.

In numbers

Farmlink started a month ago — and the Colliers and their team say their goal is to move a million pounds of produce by the end of May. They’ve moved 300,000 pounds of food already and their goal is to move another 300,000 next week alone.

The team is made up of 30 to 40 members working all over the country to keep them moving forward — but Ben said that doesn’t include the thousands of offers to help along the way.

Ben also added that FarmLink sees this pandemic’s impact as only the beginning — thus they are calling themselves a “grass-roots movement.”

“Ultimately, our goal is to keep this going as long as we can. We are proud of what we have done so far and there’s much more to to do after this pandemic,” Ben said.

“Food isn’t reaching people from farms, it isn’t getting to restaurants and other commercial places. There’s so much food that is high enough quality to be eaten,” he said.

Ben added that inefficiencies lead to “a lot of waste.”

“There are so many stories of farmers who produce more than their contract asked for and they have nothing to do with it. The coronavirus caused almost all large commercial contracts to cancel. They have nowhere to sell it to the food consumer so it just gets dumped,” Ben said.

Online network

FarmLink is working on a number of different ways to get the word out. It has photographers working to document the projects and filmmakers making short films, all on FarmLink’s Instagram page.

The Instagram page is also used to tell individual farmers’ stories. See more here.

Longtime family friend Elizabeth (Lis) O’Brien, also from Darien, is working on writing FarmLink’s newsletter to update all on the work FarmLink is doing. Lis is a senior at Georgetown.

The team is meeting via Zoom weekly and Will said it’s remarkable to see 40 young people on a call Friday night, all in the brothers’ age bracket — discussing the work they are doing. Not all of them know everyone personally who has connected to join the team, but they were all brought on board by a current member.

Why they do it

The brothers are two of four siblings. Their parents, Kristin and Charlie, have two younger daughters who now also go to Hopkins School. Kate is a junior and Ellie is freshman

They credit their parents’ upbringing with why they were motivated to get to work on a project to help.

“They’ve always been telling us to be invested and excited about something,” Will said.

Faced with an uncertain and emptier time schedule upon return home from school, he said he is just happier and life is just better to “actually do something with my time.”

Ben added that this is his first venture into the nonprofit world, and it is during the “craziest and most unprecedented time in our 22 years we’ve lived through.”

He said this is the most exciting project he’d ever worked on.

“It’s been more than we’ve ever expected. I can say confidently that everyone else working on the project — people all across the county — feel the same way,” Ben said.

He added that his generation has never really lived with any sort of war or anything this life-changing.

“It just seems like there’s so much ‘want’ to be doing something and this has given people a way to get involved that is exciting and also relatively easy to do from wherever they are located,” Ben said.

How to help

As far as helping FarmLink, donations are welcome, as well as information on farms and food banks in need of help.

For more information, visit https://farmlinkproject.org/, Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thefarmlinkproject/, or Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/farmlinkproject/.