Jana and Robert Nairn, like many people in California’s agriculturally rich Central Valley, were raised in farming families. Despite Merced County’s place as one of the top agricultural counties in the country, the Nairns noticed that many of their neighbors couldn’t afford to feed their families the fresh produce that was abundantly growing all around them. Instead, 90% of the food grown in the county is sold for export into the global food market. Meanwhile Merced County residents who work to fuel California’s $45 billion agricultural industry, face a 37% poverty rate and an unemployment rate of 24%, making healthy food all the more out of reach. The Nairns believed that there had to be a better way, a way to keep some of the fresh produce local to feed families while improving business for small farmers.
As Jana Nairn put it, “There’s no reason our community shouldn’t have access to the fresh produce grown here everyday.” It was this vision and commitment that propelled Ag Link into existence.
Based in the small town of Ballico, Ag Link started in 2012 as an online platform to connect local farmers and producers to school systems in the Central Valley. The goal was to grow the market for smaller farmers struggling to compete and to increase children’s access to healthy meals made from fresh, local produce. Schools in the Central Valley serve a large number of low-income families who rely on free and reduced lunches and snacks at school to nourish their children. By providing local, seasonal, delicious fruits and vegetables to schools, many children in farming communities were getting some of their first access to fresh produce grown where they live.
By 2015, Ag Link demonstrated strong demand for local food growing to over $2 million in sales and connecting 100 schools to 80 farmers in just the first 3 years of operation. The Nairns realized in order to keep growing they needed a physical space to aggregate and distribute the produce, especially to better serve smaller growers and school districts. To purchase land and build a warehouse they needed capital, and traditional banks were becoming increasingly more selective in issuing loans. FreshWorks’ program administrator the Northern California Community Loan Fund was drawn to Ag Link’s mission and the Nairn’s deep roots in the agricultural community provided a $450,000 loan to construct a new distribution facility with cold storage and expand the delivery truck fleet. With the warehouse up and running, Ag Link quickly ran into a cash flow problem: farmers are legally required to be paid for their produce in 15 days, but many school systems take 30 days to pay their bills. In response, NCCLF issued a $200,000 line of credit to help Ag Link manage cash flow and keep their business running. Jana Nairns reflected, “Traditional banks were not providing us the loans we needed. There’s no doubt that we wouldn’t be here today without FreshWorks.”
Today, Ag Link has grown to become the leading supplier of local produce to school districts across the Central Valley and they are expanding into the San Francisco Bay Area. Ross Culverwell, Chief Lending Officer at NCCLF, praises the Nairn’s accomplishments, stating, “Ag Link is creating a virtuous circle of food that is produced in the Central Valley and goes to schools in the Valley, which serves a high-proportion of low-income students.” In addition to getting healthy food to children who need it most, the Nairns want to change the way the next generation connects to their food. Jana Nairn explains, “It’s not just apples and bananas for school lunch anymore, now you see grapes, plums, and persimmons in the Fall. We want children to know about the food grown here locally and to have a lifetime of enjoying seasonal produce.”