I have to admit, it started with the bus. It’s not everyday you see a gorgeously painted, 1987 school bus stocked with vegetables and local Virginia products, so when you do, you stop to get the full story. You just do.
A fully-stocked farmer’s market is the last thing you’d expect to see along the relatively barren stretch of road where The Farm Bus and it’s adjacent market sit, which is entirely the point. An oasis of Virginia-grown goodness, Mark Lilly started The Farm Bus in 2009 as a way to connect with farmers, delivering fresh-from-the-farm produce to communities who didn’t have direct access to it. Inspired by films such as Food Inc., Lilly’s initial venture quickly expanded to include the market, an urban farm, educational programs, and a hugely successful CSA. Recently however, Lilly has been getting back to basics, focusing on what’s working in an effort to maximize his impact on the food community. Right now that means an emphasis on CSA as he travels between Richmond and Washington, DC.
While Lilly’s farm to city mission hasn’t been without its struggles, it’s clear from speaking with him just how passionate he is about sustainable agriculture and food security. On my recent trip to Richmond, Lilly was kind enough to speak with me from the comfort of the converted bus, where he shared the purpose of this farmer’s market on wheels, the outstanding success of the CSA, and what he thinks we all need to start doing more of. Because this school bus is more than just a pretty, painted face, it has the power to potentially change everything.
Let’s start with the bus, can you tell me about your decision to purchase it and actually take it on the road as a mobile farmer’s market?
At the time, I was working at the University of Richmond; one of the benefits of working there was that you could go to school for free. I already had my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, and I had been working at the University of Richmond for about a year when I saw this new program called disaster science and emergency management. I signed up for a course and through that started researching our food systems. It really opened my eyes and made me want to change what was going on, which eventually lead me to purchasing the bus and driving it to farms, filling it up, and bringing it into the city. It was the perfect system to get food to where people don’t have as much access to it. But the ultimate goal was to support small local farms and that’s what I do.
Between the bus, the market, and the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), your business has evolved greatly over the years. What are some of the major developments The Bus Farm and Farm to Family have undergone?
I started a CSA the second year in business and it has helped to support everything. It’s really been incredible, allowing us to be completely self-sufficient — we’ve never once borrowed a cent. I started the CSA here in Richmond, and now we’re doing a farmer’s market and offering CSA shares in DC as well. It runs all year round. I take one week off, maybe two a year. There’s no better business model, I relate it to joining a gym, you pay your membership fee and you get something in return. People love it, it’s like Christmas.
Something else we’ve been able to do with this business is help launch the products of other local businesses and entrepreneurs. A friend of ours was making specialty salts and spice blends and we were her first account, we’ve been a launching pad for lots of local people. They come to us first. We have very loyal customers but as we’ve grown, other’s have taken notice and there’s definitely more competition now, which is good and bad.
What inspires you to keep evolving and pushing forward?
This is my living and I’m passionate about it. I mean, I was naive when I worked for other people, thinking that anyone that owned their own business had a lot of money or that they only worked 40 hours a week.. I work 80 to 90 hours a week, easy. This is not a get rich quick business for anybody, I’ve never worked this hard in my life for anything. But at this point, it’s just routine, it feels like work but at the same time, it doesn’t, you know? I’m just being driven by some kind of natural energy that exists out there in the universe. Once you’re connected to the rhythms of nature and the universe, you’re moving at a pace that is more natural and I feel as though I’m on the right path. It’s self-perpetuating, really.
Knowing that your background is in art, it’s interesting to hear you talk about the work you do. It’s similar to how a studio artist speaks of being driven to create. Do you see similarities between the two?
This really is a piece of art, and I’ve been working on the same piece of art for five years. I’d like to change it up, try a different medium. That’s what artists do, after all. I’m not reinventing the wheel here, I just packaged it differently.
You’re passionate about creating change within the system, what is one thing you wish you could convey to everyone who shops at the market and on the bus?
That it’s organic, it’s a living breathing thing. We all have it in us to do something like this, you just have to tap into it and fine the courage, you can’t worry about failure. It’s just not an option. In terms of success, a lot of it is luck, and a lot of it is skill, but we can all make an impact. I didn’t want to be part of the problem, I wanted to be part of the solution. So I put rubber to the road, so to speak, and just did it. And others can do it too.
This isn’t about me, it’s about the community, it’s not about money, it’s about happiness, it’s about the environment, it’s about the universe, it’s about being in balance with things. You need to be in balance with things. You’ve gotta give back to the community. You’ve gotta find that balance, otherwise things get crazy.
For those who want to get involved and make a difference, what would you suggest?
Honestly, just go on the internet. You want to learn how to do anything — cook a casserole, build a house, grow your own food — go on the internet. There are all kinds of groups, workshops… every city has classes available. Join groups of like-minded people. You gotta start somewhere. This just started with an idea. it’s so easy, it’s just fingertips.
The simplest things in life always have the biggest impact. Don’t over think things, don’t over do it. Life isn’t complex, life is very simple. You focus on making everything in your life as simple as you can and it’s going to make the biggest difference. A handwritten letter is going to have more impact than an email. It’s that simple.
After my conversation with Mark, it was time to explore what the market had to offer, I filled my basket with peppers, onions, locally made cheese, and even a kombucha starter made right there in Richmond. If you’re in the Richmond, VA or Washington, DC areas, be sure to look up The Farm Bus and the Farm to Family market to stock up on some of the incredible Virginia-grown produce brought in straight from local farms.
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