School Bus Farm Market
An unusual small business brings farm-fresh to the city
MY HOPERAKING JOURNEY BEGAN, like so many voyages of discovery do, on an old yellow school bus. This bus was not full of children, though, but food—tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, apple cider, milk, ribs, chicken, barbeque sauce—all of it from farms within 150 miles of the Richmond street corner where I filled up my shopping basket in this unlikely vehicle.
Up by the steering wheel, Mark Lilly presided over the bus with a proprietary air, greeting people as they came aboard to browse in the apple barrels, wooden shelves, and freezers he had installed, showing kids the baby chicks he was keeping in a cage out on the sidewalk. The products I picked out to purchase—a tub of frozen pit-cooked barbeque made by a Mennonite family, a whole chicken from the famous Polyface Farm, a glass bottle of yogurt topped with blackberry jam—were things that I had spent ten hours driving all over the Virginia countryside with Mark to pick up a few days before. I couldn’t wait to see how they tasted.
A visit with a local-food entrepreneur like Mark was, I felt, the logical place to start my journey; the commitment to eating locally is the sacred cow of the sustainable food movement. There seems to be a general—though sometimes only vaguely justified—consensus that sourcing as much of our food as possible from within a short driving distance of our houses is one of the most important things we can do to right the sinking ship of the U.S. food system.
I wondered if this was true. Is relocalizing our food economy the answer to our woes? It seemed improbable to me that small farmers selling at urban markets—the image almost universally associated with the idea of “eating local”—could be the much sought-after solution to all the complicated problems of our industrially dominated food system. Aren’t these local farms just too small and too few and too apt to be growing things like garlic scapes and ramps, which—let’s be honest—sound more like pieces of equipment found in a skateboard park than food?
The most familiar argument for locavorism arises from an objection to the massive distances that the vast majority of food eaten in the United States travels before it reaches dinner plates. The figure fifteen hundred miles is thrown around a lot, and while that number—calculated by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture—is only kind of true and then only if you live in Chicago, the exact number doesn’t really matter; the sticking point is that we eat many things that have flown on airplanes from other hemispheres or been trucked across continents (or back and forth between states in a pointless bureaucratic shuffle) to get to us.
The ghastly carbon footprint of all that global food shipping is the more commonly reiterated reason to eat more locally. The environmental impact of getting an apple from five miles away, the logic goes, must surely be less than that of shipping your fruit in from New Zealand. Unfortunately for the locavores, the ecological argument for eating locally doesn’t always stand up well to scrutiny. An apple in a load of millions shipped cross-country in an efficient eighteen-wheeler might well account for fewer carbon emissions than an apple in a single bushel driven thirty miles to a farmers’ market in an old diesel farm truck. And that comparison doesn’t account for the carbon dioxide expended by the shoppers getting to and from the place of purchase—a figure that might be lower for those who shop at grocery stores where only one trip is necessary than for those who take separate trips to farmers’ markets, specialty shops, and other stores to put the week’s menu together.
Making local and regional food distribution systems more robust and efficient would change the environmental calculus considerably. But as things stand now, other reasons for eating locally turn out to be far more compelling. What people want by and large, it seems to me, is to live in communities that are thriving, where they can find the means to be happy and healthy. What better way to make sure our communities thrive than by locating a chunk of the most important businesses of our lives—the work of feeding ourselves—close to our cities and in our own neighborhoods? Bolstering local food economies means creating and keeping local jobs, maintaining food producers’ interest in and responsiveness to the needs and wants of the community (including the need for safe and healthy food), ensuring greater freshness, and providing local consumers with more instead of fewer options regarding where, when, and how to buy their food.
I still had my doubts about whether all those little guys farming their hearts out on their one-, five-, and twenty-acre parcels and dragging their wares to the farmers’ market every week could feed our country effectively, but logic had it that they were doing vital work to keep our country from inexorably being taken over part and parcel by corporate food concerns. Local-food entrepreneurs were on the front lines, bringing us all hope. And hope is what I was after. In trying to find some small answer to the question, “What would a better food system look like?” I clearly needed to see “local food” in action. If what I found didn’t appear to be the final, glorious solution to our food dilemmas, perhaps I could gain some hints about what such a solution might be.
So one April evening I headed south from my home in Washington, DC, to Richmond, the capital of Virginia, where Mark is making a go of it with his school bus-cum-roving farmers’ market, an unusual business venture he calls Farm to Family. His bus route follows a schedule, but he uses his BlackBerry to remind his thousands of Facebook and Twitter fans of his location and to update them about any change of plans, which happen occasionally due to parking problems, absence of shoppers, or previously unscheduled visits.
When I inquired whether I might see his operation, Mark had kindly invited me to stay at his house for the night so I could come on his purchasing rounds at local farms early the following day. That’s how I found myself sitting at a dining room table in a cozy house somewhere in Richmond eating a bowl of yogurt criss-crossed with a drizzle of maple syrup, products Mark buys from local farmers and sells on his bus.
“This is the best stuff you’ve ever tasted,” Mark said, pointing at my bowl. Something about his friendly, low-key demeanor, shaved head, and sun-reddened cheeks reminded me obscurely of a firefighter. His wife Suzi, a warm woman in a teal “eat local” T-shirt and reddish hair twisted up in a clip, chatted with me about her job in the alternative healing and body care section of Ellwood Thompson’s, a unique Richmond grocery store focused on local food. Not long after my visit, she would begin working full-time with mark on Farm to Family.
“The Fs should be green, darker green. Don’t you think?” Mark interrupted, leaning over and showing Suzi a picture on his BlackBerry—the drafts of a Farm to Family logo sent by his designer.
“It’s a little busy,” she said. “You have to picture it on everything.”
He brooded on this for a few moments then stalked away from the table, leaving Suzi to install me in a sweet-smelling, crimson guest room with an antique bedstead, a shelf of Buddhist relics, and a tinkling wind chime made of slices of pink stone.
The next morning as we sped down the highway toward the Shenandoah Valley in his truck, dragging a trailer equipped with six giant plastic coolers, Mark told me how he got the idea for the bus venture after experiencing a political awakening about issues of industrial food during a master’s program in disaster science and emergency management. A research project about California’s San Joaquin Valley for a class called Hazards and Threats to the Future led him into a sobering investigation of soil salination, monocultures, water shortages, labor issues, and petroleum’s role in an area that grows almost 13 percent of the country’s produce.
“It is really bad, what is going on out there,” he said, propping his arm on the steering wheel. “If that system fails, that’s going to have a major, major impact on the country.” The idea for the bus venture started simmering in the back of his mind, but he would never have gone ahead if he hadn’t lost his job working in food service at a university. By then he had already bought the old bus from Craigslist on a hunch.
All around us, spring had burst upon the countryside, the pink cotton candy fluff of redbud trees lacing the edges of the roadway. It was an unusually hot day for April; the temperature reading in the corner of the rearview mirror was climbing past eighty. The truck’s AC was on the fritz.
“It all boils down to money,” he went on. “What corporations do is they want to make as much money as they can and exploit anything in their path to get that done. These lobbyists and players in Washington—the government makes laws to benefit them, not to benefit the people.” For a guy engaged in such a creative and optimistic business endeavor, he exuded a surprisingly intense sense of outrage.
We trundled off the highway onto a country road slicing through green hills and pulled into the parking lot of a McDonald’s, of all places, where a white-bearded Mennonite farmer in a straw hat and his blue-skirted wife in a pale kerchief were waiting incongruously for us next to their truck and trailer.
This was Mike and Diana Puffenbarger, a thirty-years-married couple who run a farm, a barbeque business, and a hunting and fishing guide service. Mike’s family has been producing maple syrup for five generations, and he himself has been at it for at least three decades. Their 4 × 4 sported a window sticker saying “TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE, JOHN 8:32” alongside another emblazoned with a picture of a howling coyote in crosshairs surrounded by the motto “HUNT HARD, SHOOT STRAIGHT, KILL CLEAN, APOLOGIZE TO NO ONE.”
As they helped load tubs of their pit-cooked barbeque and bottles of their syrup into Mark’s truck, I asked Mike about their biggest challenge as small farmers.
“The government,” he responded without a pause. “They’re letting in all this junk from China. But we try to do something, they hammer us. We’ve been butchering meat for years from our farm and we’ve never had a recall. What’s that tell you?” The Puffenbargers take their animals destined for sale as meat to a slaughterhouse as required by the USDA, the closest one being in Harrisonburg, eighty miles from their farm in Bolar, Virginia. They prefer to butcher at home the meat they eat themselves.
Mike’s comment highlighted one of the many reasons local-food advocates cite for buying closer to home. The country’s industrial food chain has been busy building itself an abysmal record on food safety. The USDA website posts hundreds of recalls of food products every year, the majority of them for posing a “possible health risk.” The word salmonella makes a distressingly regular appearance on this list, as do E. coli and Listeria, a dangerous bacterium. One compelling reason to buy your food—especially your meat—from smaller-scale farmers who are involved in your community instead of from corporations whose operations are opaque, remote, and likely too massive to be handled safely is that smaller, closer-to-home producers are more likely to have both the ability and the motivation to make sure their products aren’t tainted.
Back on the road, the pungent odor of manure wafting in the window and the temperature in the truck climbing toward incendiary, Mark told me he had been totally unprepared for what he was getting into when he started the bus business. His original idea was to go into food deserts—urban areas where residents don’t have access to stores that carry fresh food—and sell his local meat and produce to these underserved communities. He got registered to accept food stamps and parked in poor neighborhoods, waiting for the rush of customers. But the people there looked at him like he was crazy and continued to spend their money in the corner store, where fresh vegetables are usually absent in favor of fried chicken, chips, and soda.
“I got blindsided. I was really naïve,” he said. “A for-profit business has no incentive to go into a food desert and set up shop. If you’re a for-profit business and you’re bringing in high-quality stuff, it costs. I would be out of business if I were to just go into low-income areas.” Mark was referencing one of the most prominent critiques of the locavore ethos: the cost of food from nearby small farms is almost always substantially higher than the products of industrial production you can buy in the average supermarket or at the corner store. Critics accuse the eat-local movement of promoting two separate food systems: one that’s supplied with healthy, “happy” food for all the people who can afford it, and another stocked with ecologically damaging, pesticide laden, processed junk for everyone else.
But when you’re trying to start a business like Mark Lilly, you don’t have the time or money to fix the world’s problems. You find the customers who can help you succeed. So, while still doing some work in low-income communities, including occasionally giving away free food (efforts for which he has received high-profile publicity, including a three-page spread in People magazine), he has focused mostly on parts of town where people have a little extra money to spend and are attuned to the politics of local food. He runs his own version of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, which he calls a USA for “urban-supported agriculture,” that has people pay ahead of time for a season’s worth of biweekly boxes of fresh food. He also delivers milk to people’s doors early in the morning, just like guys used to do back in my grandmother’s time.
“I’m giving people a way to opt out of the current system,” he proudly told me as we rattled up a long, dirt drive into the cluttered parking area of Mountain View Dairy Farm. Proprietor Christie Huger, dressed for the heat in a white T-shirt, athletic shorts, and sandals, greeted us as Mark backed the truck up to the loading area by a dilapidated trailer office. They consulted for a few moments by a set of glass-fronted refrigerators before starting to load jars of blackberry yogurt and glass bottles of milk into the coolers in Mark’s trailer.
Christie’s tousled hair and tired smile suggested that it had already been a long day despite it not yet being noon. She used to be an art teacher, she told me, but she quit teaching two years ago to attend full-time to the farm. I asked her if it’s been a hard transition, and she answered unhesitatingly: “If I went back to teaching it’d be easier. When you get up at four-thirty and then force yourself to come inside at eight at night to feed your kids dinner, it’s hard.” I wondered aloud if she planned to go back to teaching, and her answer was again immediate: no way.
I followed Christie’s daughter Isabelle, an energetic girl in a peach tank top and a bowl haircut, toward a pen by the house where a tiny lamb was bleating manically. She grabbed a baby bottle full of water and kneeled down beside the animal.
“Do you want to be a farmer when you grow up?” I asked, thinking about that statistic I had recently come across: the average age of farmers in the United States is fifty-five and rising. We badly need kids to take an interest in this kind of life.
“I already am,” she said matter-of-factly, squinting up at me in the sunshine. “I’m a sheep farmer. Because we have this little baby sheep.”
My heart melted, and I realized that this moment, as much as the fresh, delicious milk itself, was what the consumers on Mark’s bus are buying. From Mennonite farmers to milk in glass bottles to the old yellow school bus, Mark’s business plays on city dwellers’ sense of nostalgia for what they see as a safe, picturesque, and pastoral yesteryear. A common theme in the movement to reinvigorate local food systems is the idea of a David-and-Goliath battle between corporate overlords and the small family farmer, with the corporation representing the evils of mechanized, overcrowded, stifling, isolating modern life and the little guy laying claim to a virtuous existence of nature, space, freedom, and community. Not to mention little baby sheep.
I mentioned this observation to Mark as we got back on the road heading to our next stop. On the bus, he told me, visitors often revel in memories of other types of roving food vendors that populated their long-ago childhoods. Customers reminisce about the guys who used to come by their urban neighborhoods in trucks or with handcarts yelling “Fresh fish!” or “Watermelon!”
“Back in the day, there was the milkman and the meat delivery guy,” Mark said. “You knew them. They came to your house. It was interactive. You chatted with them. That’s what I try to do. I’m interactive. I chat with people.”
Mark tries, in short, to give his customers “an experience.” He brings baby animals for children to hold. He talks to customers about what they can do with what he sells—how to cook a spaghetti squash, for instance, or which kind of barbeque sauce will go best on pulled pork. At the time of our journey, his bus was plastered with hand-lettered signs proclaiming a variety of riling slogans, such as “EAT AT HOME, COOK, HAVE FUN!” and “DON’T RELY ON A FAILING, HIGHLY PROCESSED UNSUSTAINABLE TOXIC FOOD SYSTEM! GROW AND PRESERVE YOUR OWN FOOD NOW!”
When he invites customers onto his bus, he’s asking them not only to step inside the vehicle, but also to move into another way of looking at our world of food. The way he thinks of it, coming onto his bus is the next best thing to experiencing the bracing goodness of the farm itself. “I’m packaging a farm onto a school bus,” he said, “and bringing it to them.”
Supporters of local food and small farms will be the first to insist vociferously that they are not in the business of rehashing some long-ago bucolic utopia, but that they’re building new networks of small enterprises that draw on some of the best lessons we’ve collectively learned in the past. But even so, the idea that we are suffering from modern ills because we have somehow gotten away from a good life of fresh air and honest manual work nonetheless animates a sizable amount of interest in local food. And people are willing to pay extra to have a vision of a return to that idealized time served up with their kale and kohlrabi. It’s a powerful narrative. Regardless that I don’t in any way believe that poverty equals virtue and toil under the hot sun cleanses the soul, I felt for a moment, as I thought about that lamb suckling enthusiastically at the bottle offered by the little girl, the tragedy of my concrete-bound city life that does not include this type of countrified charm.
But life is, of course, more complicated than all of these visions and dichotomies can encompass. Even the man who spends his days driving from quaint farm to adorable homestead buying up yogurt in jars and field-raised poultry is as frenzied a denizen of the modern-day rat race as I’ve ever seen. Mark’s BlackBerry was never far from his hand, even while driving his truck and trailer, and he lamented that he had been up working until three the night before. He radiated a contained but manic energy, the kind that wouldn’t allow for any slowdown for a lunchtime picnic of the local foods we had collected. Instead, we got Subway sandwiches from a gas station and ate them in the car.
Usually, Mark insisted, he and Suzi eat almost exclusively the products they sell on the bus, which seems like it would be more challenging because of the time it takes to prepare fresh, whole foods than because of any lack of availability or variety, even in the winter. He listed off the things he might be carrying on a typical day in February: “Hydroponic lettuce, tomatoes, eggs, bacon, sausage, barbeque, potatoes, apples, butternut squash, chestnuts, collard greens, kale, onions, sweet potatoes, apples, milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, spaghetti squash. I have people who bake pies and breads and cookies for me. I’ve got maple syrup, apple butter, apple cider, peach cider…”
We pulled into a long straight drive labeled with a sign for the famous Polyface Farm, owned by Joel Salatin, whose innovative farming practices have captured the imagination of sustainable food advocates. Salatin insists that growing food should replenish natural resources instead of depleting them, improving the health of the animals, the people, and the soil instead of degrading it. He’s become an outspoken advocate for the development of laws that would enable the success of our country’s small farmers and has been catapulted to niche stardom by his appearances in both Michael Pollan’s seminal work The Omnivore’s Dilemma and in the Academy Award–nominated documentary Food, Inc.
As Mark disappeared into a walk-in freezer to pick up his order of meat, a family from Wisconsin come to witness “that famous farm” for themselves was piling out of a minivan and ogling the chicken houses. The scene might not have lived up to their pastoral imaginings: the part of Polyface a casual visitor sees is chaotic and down-at-the-heels like any farm. Used-up equipment is stacked here and there, vehicles are parked every which way, and a worn, white farmhouse squats unpretentiously in the yard. The famous farmer was nowhere to be seen, but his son Daniel and some farmhands were lingering over by the barn, swatting at bees with shovels and laughing at one another’s antics. “They bore into the wood,” said Daniel, chuckling, his teeth blindingly white in the sunshine. “It’s not good.” With his handsome, tanned face and his straw cowboy hat, he could have been a Western movie star.
“We put our first batch of roasters out on the field today,” he told Mark. The Salatins have popularized the use of the chicken tractor, a wheeled coop with a mesh bottom moved from place to place, which allows the birds to fertilize the fields and get their nourishment from the grass, worms, and bugs. Raising poultry this way is more ecologically friendly and conducive to maintaining a thriving, diverse farm than the usual method of providing poultry feed and letting the birds’ nitrogen-rich waste go to … well, waste.
If only all people could have access to and afford the wonderful food produced by places like Polyface. But even this most prominent of small farms provides an instructive example of the difficulty of reaching that noble goal. While Polyface does supply pork to two Chipotle Mexican Grill fast-food restaurants, the project took almost a year and a half of negotiations and logistical arrangements to succeed, and it required Salatin to double or even triple his production, a feat few small farms can manage. With more than 950 Chipotle locations across the country, Salatin’s contribution is a drop in the bucket, and the majority of products from small producers remain the province of affluent individual buyers and high-end restaurants.
By two p.m., the temperature in the truck was up to eighty-six degrees, and we’d been on the road for seven hours. We still had several stops to go.
“These days are long and hard,” Mark groaned as we pulled into Riverside Plant, a Mennonite-owned plant business positioned in several spacious greenhouses across a gravel drive from a neat white house. Plain garments ordered by size flapped on a clothesline in the side yard. “I’m burning out right now,” Mark continued. “I have nothing outside this business. I don’t socialize. I don’t sleep. It’s brutal.”
His laments, however, were mitigated by the pride of success. After just nine months, his business—launched with four thousand dollars of his savings—had started making a profit, and interest in his bus was growing. The business could easily expand if only he had the financing and infrastructure to make that happen. “I could have a fleet of these just in Richmond,” he said. “I could create hundreds of jobs.”
The idea of bolstering a local economy, of course, is another excellent argument advanced by boosters of local eating. Local-food production can be a key pillar of a community’s economy: producing, distributing, and selling food in a local area requires a local workforce, and the fact that everyone needs food no matter the state of the nation’s economy means that such jobs aren’t likely to dry up with every downturn.
Farm to Family isn’t creating any jobs yet, however. Mark’s just one guy with a gas-guzzling truck and a trailer roaming the Virginia countryside, transporting the goods in and out of his central warehouse, an old flower shop on a run-down commercial strip outside Richmond, which, shortly after my visit, he turned into a nonroving local-foods shop.
And while the concept of a mobile supermarket is innovative and the nostalgia-inducing school bus is a good marketing hook, the idea of any city’s main alternative to the Safeway being a fleet of old school buses kitted out with burlap and smelling of onions left me slightly deflated. Although a good example of a hopeful enterprise, Mark’s venture seemed a somewhat cumbersome way to inject local food into the cityscape. I was interested in what a more sustainable food system might look like, and the project of driving all day in a hot truck to pick up a box of potatoes here, a cooler of yogurt there didn’t strike me as all that sustainable, especially considering the guy behind the wheel was so tired he seemed fit to collapse at any moment.
A company like Mark’s—especially once expanded and able to run efficiently at a larger scale—can play an important role as part of a network of businesses and nonprofits offering a variety of alternatives, the presence of which alone makes for a more sustainable local community. But I could see that if I was going to showcase all that is hopeful in local food and discover its potential, I would need to find a more expansive example. What I needed to find next was a place where a proper network of locally oriented endeavors was starting to form a veritable alternative economy of local food.
Copyright © 2012 by Katherine Gustafson
KATHERINE GUSTAFSON is an award-winning writer, journalist and editor whose articles and essays have been published in numerous print and online media. She has written about sustainable food, among other topics, for Yes! Magazine, The Huffington Post, Civil Eats, Change.org, and Tonic. She lives with her husband in the Washington, DC, area.