A Manitoba farmer had a surplus of potatoes. So he gave millions of them away

The Current19:07The great potato giveaway

What would you do with millions of potatoes?

Manitoba farmer Isaiah Hofer faced exactly that conundrum recently.

“Last year was an exceptional year for potatoes … people that have been in this industry for the last 40 years, they’ve never seen something like this,” said Hofer, who grows about 560 hectares of potatoes at Acadia Colony Farms, northeast of Carberry, Man.

“We had at least almost 100,000 bags of surplus potatoes,” he told The Current’s Matt Galloway. “In potato language, a bag is 100 pounds [45 kilograms].”

Hofer explained that last year’s weather made for a bumper crop of spuds, not just at his farm but all across Canada. Usually a surplus can be sold off to fill shortfalls at other farms, but not when so many farmers are facing a surplus. 

He considered using the potatoes for animal feed, or returning them to the earth where they would rot and become fertilizer. 

But then he saw an email from the industry group Keystone Potato Producers Association, highlighting the work of a U.S.-based non-profit called the Farmlink Project.

Requesting donations

The Farmlink Project was founded in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. It works to rescue food that is at risk of going to waste, and get into the mouths and bellies of people who need it. 

“We were seeing on the news these really dramatic lines at food banks. At the same time we saw … food having to be thrown away due to supply chains being shut down,” said Kate Nelson, chief marketing officer and a co-founder of Farmlink.

“We thought, ‘Huh, this feels like one problem can solve the other.'” 

A woman in a green hoodie and baseball cap stands in a field, smiling for the camera.
Collaboration is key to getting surplus food where it can be used, said Kate Nelson, chief marketing officer at the Farmlink Project. (Submitted by The Farmlink Project)

Nelson and her colleagues started small, renting a U-Haul van and calling up farms to see if they would donate any produce that was going to waste. 

One farm offered a donation of eggs, which Farmlink delivered to a local community food bank. Nelson said they repeated that process again and again, scaling up over time, and they’ve since moved 90 million kilograms of food to people who need it across the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Hofer wasn’t the only Manitoba farmer to step up. Together with a donation from Blumengart Colony Farms in Plum Coulee, Man., the Farmlink Project received 5.4 million kilograms (12 million pounds) of potatoes to divide up into smaller batches.

They were delighted to receive the donation, but Nelson admitted that “it kind of gets complicated, because not every food bank wants 40,000 pounds of potatoes.”

How do you move that many potatoes?

In Ottawa, Wendy Leung said she couldn’t believe her eyes when an email arrived offering 100 batches of potatoes — each comprising about 18,000 kilograms, or 40,000 pounds.

Leung is the volunteer executive director of Foodsharing Ottawa, a group that rescues and redistributes surplus food.

A forklift moves to lift potatoes from a truck.
Receiving the donation required Foodsharing Ottawa to procure a forklift and a space to store them at the right temperature. (Amanda Putz/CBC)

She told The Current that if she could take just one batch, she knew it would potentially feed tens of thousands of people. 

Data released by Statistics Canada last month shows that nearly nine million Canadians lived in food insecure households in 2022 — an increase of almost 1.8 million people from the previous year.

But receiving the donation would involve finding a forklift, a temperature-controlled space to store the potatoes, and extra volunteers to receive and redistribute the food.

Leung said the logistics were complicated for a small organization like Foodsharing Ottawa, but she knew how much it could help the people and groups that needed it. 

“That really pushes me to keep looking, to find the right partners to make this happen,” she said.

Back on the farm, Hofer and Nelson were also figuring out the logistics of getting the potatoes out of the ground and onto trucks. Hofer agreed to provide the labour, while he and Nelson secured donations from a local charity and the McCain food company. Simplot Canada provided the packaging, which Hofer said helped with the estimated cost of $30,000.

Several boxes of potatoes in front of a truck
The potatoes arrived in Ottawa earlier this month. (Amanda Putz/CBC)

Hofer said 115 trucks delivered the food earlier this month to places like Toronto, B.C., San Diego and New Mexico.

Nelson said the donation is one of the biggest her organization has ever handled, but shows what can be achieved when people come together to support one another with what they have.

“I think the story is about just being brave and trusting the process … it really is collaboration at the end of the day,” she said.

All gone in a week

In Ottawa, Leung said the “stars aligned” and Foodsharing was able to take the donation in partnership with local organizations Care Centre Ottawa, Lion Hearts and Deep Roots Food Hub.

“Together, I think we actually gave back to over 50 local organizations across the city with countless numbers of individuals and households,” she said. 

“And all these potatoes were claimed actually within eight to nine days.”

Leung said that speed shows how versatile and well liked potatoes are as a food, but also how much food insecurity there is in Canada today. 

Four people stand beside several very large boxes of potatoes
Wendy Leung, far right, and fellow volunteers with some of the potatoes donated to Foodsharing Ottawa. (Amanda Putz/CBC)

Leung and Hofer spoke for the first time while being interviewed on The Current

“You have no idea what this means to … the community,” Leung said to Hofer. “We call it the Ottawa Great Potato Rescue.”

Hofer said he was just glad he could help.

“When you’re blessed with so much, it’s just good to give back … and I’m just glad we could do that,” he said.