Dr. Dan Gillis Talks “Farm To Fork”

I enjoyed doing that last interview so much, I decided to do another! This time, I interviewed Dr. Dan Gillis, an Assistant Professor and Statistician at the University of Guelph who has had some  great success getting a project off the group using a number of digital marketing tools. I spoke with him the other day to learn more about his project – Farm To Fork – and the digital marketing tools he used to launch it.

The Project: Farm To Fork

Farm To Fork was a project that arose from an idea that Dan and his friend Danny Williamson had, which soon became a class project for one of the classes that Dan was teaching. From the Farm To Fork blog:

The Farm To Fork project began with a simple question: in a culture that wastes nearly 40% of all food produced, how do we connect the people who have fresh food to give to those who need it most?

The Farm To Fork website is part of the solution. Designed to facilitate communication between donors and emergency food service providers, the website aims to increase the quality and quantity of fresh food donated to local food banks and food pantries.

How is this accomplished? It’s as simple as an email delivered the day you typically go shopping – letting you know what is needed, and where it is needed most.

Be part of a better solution. Be part of Farm To Fork.

Basically, the idea is that the Farm To Fork site connects people who have food to donate to the food banks and food pantries (also known as “emergency food providers”), making it easier to let people know what specific types of foods they need. Because food banks and food pantries often have less healthy foods donated, but more healthy foods would be so much better.

As we’ve learned in the MBA program, this is a project is a classic example of the network effect: the more people in this network, the more valuable it will be. If there are more emergency food providers in the network, it will be more enticing for people who are interested in donating to join and vice versa – having more donors in the network will make it more valuable to the emergency food providers. So it’s important to be able to attract both type of “clients”: the emergency food providers and the donors (which can be individuals, farmers, community gardeners – anyone who wants to donate food!).  So how have they gone about attracting them?

Getting People On Board For The Project Using Digital Marketing Tools

social-media-puzzleFor emergency food providers, they started with good old fashioned word-of-mouth to build the initial base when they were developing the project, but once they launched and the Twitter account was created, emergency food providers from surrounding cities and towns soon started contacting them, as people were easily able to share information about this project (Twitter is “word-of-mouth on steroids”, after all). Pretty soon the Ontario Association of Food Banks and then Food Banks Canada got wind of the project and that means Farm To Fork will be spreading across the country much faster than if they had to go and visit emergency food provider organizations in each and every community. (They’ve also been contacted by organizations in Kentucky and Berlin, and a magazine in Australia who will be running a story on them soon). The local school breakfast programs have also recently connected – again through Twitter and email – and there’s interest right across the whole school district about getting their programs included.

The story for getting donors signed up is similar – people are learning about it through Facebook and Twitter. They are also connecting with schools, which often do food drives around the holiday season, so getting them on board to connect directly with the emergency food providers will mean they can target those foods that are most needed. And even beyond the schools, the holidays season, a time when people are often looking to give, is being used as an angle when approaching people to get signed up.

Online and Offline Marketing

In addition to digital marketing, the Farm To Fork marketing plan includes offline aspects. The print campaign includes pamphlets, postcards, stickers, and posters, and they are currently looking at bus ads, which are surprisingly cheap on the local transit system in Guelph 1$225 for an ad on the bus for a month, in case you are interested!.

They are also being written up in a number of magazines, both print and online, including Co.lab.o.rate, Snap, and the Renegade Collective (the magazine from Australia that I mentioned above).


50 Golden Blogging Tips For BusinessThere’s also a Farm To Fork blog and I’d like to highlight two things that Dan mentioned about it  2Dan was an avid blogger even before Farm To Fork, having both a personal blog and a professional blog.. The first is that you won’t get anywhere with blogging unless you actively promote it 3Something that I need to start doing with this blog!. Building a blog readership and active community on your blog takes time – unless you happen to luck out with a viral post – so you need to think of it as a long-term investment, not something that is going to get you lots of results really quickly. The other is that Farm To Fork actively seeks guest bloggers to provide content for the blog. As we learned from my interview with Tod Maffin last week, brands often find it difficult to come up with content, so guest bloggers are a great way to get new and interesting content and they have the added bonus of providing a great experience for the guest blogger with your brand. Plus, guest bloggers are likely to spread the word about the blog posting they wrote for you in their own networks, which drives new people to your blog who you then have the opportunity to engage with your brand.

Crowdfunding Science

Another interesting digital aspect of this project is that, to the best of our knowledge, Dan was the first professor in Canada to use crowdfunding for a scientific project. After the initial class developed the prototype, they still had a lot of development work to get to a product that they could launch. And so they launched a $15,000 fundraising campaign on Microryza (the Kickstarter for scientific research) to fund students to do the development work and a new server to allow them to do the beta-testing.

Dr. Dan’s Advice on Using Digital Marketing Tools

Twitter and Facebook don’t work unless you are having conversations. People don’t like ads – they want to have an experience with you. In Dan’s words, “These tools work well if you give them the respect they deserve.”

The things that I find especially fascinating about this project are:

  • It’s a project to create a digital tool – a network to connect people who want to donate with the people who need the donations – and they’ve used a number of existing social networks to spread the word and get people excited about the project and to raise money to bring the product to launch.
  • The speed with which this project spread across the region, the province, the country, and the globe – that couldn’t have happened (or at least would have taken many years to have happened) in the pre-social media days.
Image Credits:
  • “Blog” image posted on Flickr by Kris Olin with a Creative Commons license.
  • “Horn of Plenty” image posted on Deviant Art by DoloresMD with a Creative Commons license.
  • Farm To Fork and Microryza logos are from their respective websites.



1 $225 for an ad on the bus for a month, in case you are interested!
2 Dan was an avid blogger even before Farm To Fork, having both a personal blog and a professional blog.
3 Something that I need to start doing with this blog!
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