When Mark Lilly (pictured below) decided to start a mobile farmers market in Richmond, Va., his chosen vehicle—a farm bus—drew international attention. With a little elbow grease and a passion to support local farmers, Lilly swapped seats from a 1987 diesel school bus for containers of romaine and vine-ripened tomatoes. Lilly, who also holds an art degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, transformed the yellow school bus into a roving work of art with the help of friends. To his surprise, the farm bus caught the attention of media outlets like the BBC World News, People magazine, Rachael Ray and more. Today, Lilly talks with UF about his latest ventures and trials of being an urban-farm entrepreneur.
1. So, you were a pioneer with your concept. What was your inspiration for creating the FarmBus?
Mark Lilly: As far as I know, I was the trendsetter of the FarmBus when I started in 2009. I was in a graduate school program at the University of Richmond in Virginia called Disaster Science and Emergency Management, which looks at the effects of earthquakes, volcanos, tornados and other disasters—and looks at the science of how things get done, or don’t get done, and the politics involved. Students could pick a topic and do a 20-year forecast looking at any hazards and threats. My topic was famine and severe hunger in the U.S. and western developed countries in 2029.
While I was researching my topic, I began feeling somewhat upset and bitter about our food system. The system is unsustainable. How could our leaders know about this and not make changes? At the same time, I was in a job I hated and wanted to do something different. I was fired from my job, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I am a creative guy with a million different concepts in my head. I thought, “How can I create a more sustainable, healthier food system and support small local farmers?” So, I had this concept to drive directly to local farms, load fresh produce on the bus, drive it in the city and sell it.
2. How was the FarmBus idea received?
ML: I pitched my idea to everybody—my parents, friends, possible investors—and they all thought I was crazy. With my last dollar and a dream, I bought a school bus off of Craigslist. Eight months after I started the bus, the BBC World News ran a story, and other major news media outlets, like Rachel Ray and The 700 Club, started covering it. It was an inspiring story that resonated with people.
This is my passion. For the past six years, I have worked 60 to 80 work weeks bringing local foods to my local community. Driving the FarmBus around is amazing: Everyone waves and smiles as I drive past. Now the FarmBus mostly does school visits and special events, mainly due to lack of finding funding/working capital to expand the mobile retail concept.
3. What are your future urban farm ventures?
ML: We want to turn our urban farm into an education center for inner-city kids and adults. Our urban farm is located in a food desert and houses a retail market, but it sits somewhat dormant because we can’t find funding/investors to build it. We keep a few chickens and grow some herbs, but it will take a good partnership to reach its full potential.
Our most successful operation is our CSA on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The full-service CSA serves 300 members and supports many local farmers. This program has become very successful, and we’d like to expand.
4.With all of urban farming’s challenges and hard work, what do you find most rewarding?
ML: My dream has always been to expand the mobile market concept, partner with local farms and create jobs. It can be a big money-making thing, but my main goal has always been to support local farmers and build a more sustainable food system. I give some of my farmers $20,000 to $30,000 dollars a year, which helps them stay afloat. Seeing people smile when they pick up their CSA and supporting these local farmers makes the work worthwhile. Enough small changes to our food system will make a big difference, and that’s what I do.