The following was left by Alicia as a comment about farmers markets and the expectations we have of the vendors. A few weeks afterwards, Farm to Family issued a response.
At the risk of making myself unpopular, I’m going to say it: I’ve got beef with the Veggie Bus guy.
Don’t get me wrong. I think what he’s trying to do is great, and I love the idea that anyone with the time and means can buy (or salvage) a bus and start a program in their own area. My ‘beef’ lies in the disconnect between principal and practice. I think that consumers have a right to make informed decisions, to know what they are buying, and to not be misled. I was all about getting on the bus, Gus… until I did. And then I was sad– and a little bit mad.
According to Mark Lilly’s (self-penned) Huffington Post blog entry entitled ‘Beginning,’ he has “created a perfect local, sustainable food distribution system that can penetrate any demographic area in any city or town with nutritious, tasty, organic, local food.” He goes on to say that he “[sources] local products from family, friends or anyone that grows clean food within a 150-mile radius of where I am located in Richmond, VA. I build relationships with local farmers, drive to their farm, load up the bus, and then distribute it into the urban landscape through set routes.” Although his straw-hat persona suggests otherwise, Mark is primarily peddles wares grown by others. I have no problem with Virginia farmers needing middlemen to get their goods to market so that they can keep running the farm. In fact, it’s a darn good idea… if only the execution matched the ideals.
The Farm to Family website states that “[Mark] is an expert in local food distribution, the slow food movement, marketing, CSA’s and setting up a successful small sustainable business concept.” I guess, in the same way that a person whose dog has had a littler of puppies might consider themselves a ‘dog breeder,’ he might be an expert. In which case, I’m an expert, too. I’ve read several books on the subject and I follow the ‘slow-food’ movement in the news and blogosphere and Twitterverse. I have also taken graduate and undergraduate courses in Natural Resources, Food Science, and Agriculture in which sustainability, the collapse of the global food chain, and alternatives to industrial farming practices were discussed ad nauseum. But I don’t go around calling myself an expert, because I’m not. I’m just a person with a strong interest in a subject who tries to educate themselves as much as possible. Mark has a bachelors degree in Fine Arts from VCU and took some courses for a Disaster Science degree at the University of Richmond — a degree which he did not finish. Now, I could care less that a person started taking courses and, for whatever reason(s), decided not to finish a program– but you do NOT get to call yourself an expert for so doing.
I rode with Mark in mid-April on one of his weekly runs to the Shenandoah Valley. We hit up the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction in Dayton, VA, where he purchased rhubarb, strawberries, bean sprouts, asparagus, tomatoes, lettuce, watercress, herbs, and some flowers. Much of the produce up for auction was brought to market by large-scale Mennonite farmers– but some of it was also trucked in by other distributors from parts unknown. I watched Mark bidding because I was curious, once I saw how the auction worked, how he knew where the stuff he was buying came from. When I questioned this he said “Oh, I ask.” Well, maybe he does ask sometimes– but he did not ask that day.
Organic is a word thrown around a bunch in Farm to Family marketing, interviews, and blogs. On the side of the bus, Mark painted “How food secure is your family? Eat at home, cook, have fun! Don’t rely on a failing highly processed unsustainable TOXIC food system!” Toxic? Wow. Toxic implies chemicals. Food grown without chemicals (synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides) is organic. So, everything on the bus must be organic, because otherwise, it would be toxic—grown with chemicals. Right?
Some of the asparagus purchased at the produce auction was both organic and local (to the Valley, grown in greenhouses… obviously, since it was April, in the Shenendoah Valley. I am definitely saying that with my best “in a van down by the RIVER” Chris Farley voice.); I schlepped boxes and helped pack the trailer, and the word ‘organic’ was absent from all but three boxes of asparagus. Given that slapping an organic label food generally gives it a premium price, you would expect that farmers and growers who put in the time and effort to raise said produce would make sure it was marketed and labeled as such. I chatted up one of the pleasant Mennonite women whose organic asparagus Mark had purchased– I have family from those parts, and as it turns out, my first bicycle came from her cousin’s shop. Small world. I digress. Anywho, she was telling me that they, the Mennonite farmers, don’t really see a profit on the organic produce, and therefore they don’t grow much of it. Most everything else was local, to my knowledge—lettuce and asparagus, for certain, were grown in Dayton. Strawberries came from Moseley, VA. But the potatoes? They either came from California or were packed in boxes that once held potatoes that came from California. (Potatoes? In April? IN THE VALLEY? Who knows. Stranger things have happened.)
We left the produce auction and headed to another part of the Valley (Fairfield, to be precise) to pick up the dairy items for his CSA customers—milk, yogurt, butter, and a soft pepper cheese spread. From there we motored on to Wade’s Mill in Raphine (for grits) and finally to Crown Orchard Company in Covesville to pick up some apples—delicious, juicy apples, so juicy I almost needed a bib.
Wait!! Apples, grown in Virginia? In APRIL?? Ok, I don’t have the full scoop on the ‘taters, but the lukewarm news for the hard-core followers of the local food movement is that the Crown Orchard Company apples that are being peddled by F2F are ‘local’ (to Virginia); they were simply harvested last fall. Apples are often held in controlled atmosphere environments in which oxygen and carbon dioxide levels are maintained at optimum levels to delay the ripening/rotting process. I spoke with the company directly; Crown Orchard’s apples are held in 2% oxygen environment. Organic, however, they are not. Mr. Chiles said that “no sprays were used” (and I am assuming that by sprays he means pesticides) but that they were not ‘fully’ organic. Meaning, probably, a lot of synthetic fertilizers. What’s that about clean food?
Why am I writing this? I certainly do not want to put the bus out of business. I share the same food principles and values as Mark claims to. I just think it is lame that people aren’t necessarily buying what they think they are buying in the same way I think it is lame that skate meat sometimes gets passed off as scallops. I have a feeling that people would flock to the bus (and now, to the Market) regardless of whether the produce was local or organic. It’s a novelty, a fun place to shop. The produce, for the most part, is fresher than you will find in the grocery store, and by buying from Mark, you are supporting local (Virginia) businesses. It is certainly more convenient than making the rounds yourself, and Mark will even bring the bus to YOU, like he did during Snowmageddon. However, people have the right to be informed, to know that not everything they are buying is organic and to choose to buy or not buy based off of their own food principles and needs. And currently, the news, hype, and marketing practices of Farm to Family does (do?) not convey that fact.
To be fair, with regard to the labeling of produce on the bus, it’s not as though he is putting in writing, “these are local organic apples, this is local organic asparagus, these are local organic potatoes,” etc. But it is very much implied. Certainly, for the processed/packaged items sold on the bus (cider, honey, syrup, flour, grits and other grain products, etc.) people can read and see for themselves whether it is organic or not and whence it comes.
Finally, I take particular issue with the milk that was, at the time I worked with Mark and wrote this article, provided for CSA members and available for purchase on the bus. Labeled and marketed as “Meow Milk,” it said right on the label “Not for human consumption.” On Facebook, a CSA customer wrote on Farm to Family’s wall and asked about this. She said something along the lines of (forgive me for being too lazy to go back to 2009 and find the exact wording on this one!) ‘My milk says not for human consumption, should I be concerned or are they just re-using containers?’ Mark replied “It is fine, don’t worry about it.”
What he didn’t tell her was that the milk was thusly labeled because the dairy does not have a license to sell milk for human consumption.
WHAT??? No sir. NO. You do NOT get to make that choice for people!! Does he know the sort of sanitation conditions necessary for producing safe-to-drink milk? Can he assure anyone that those standards are being upheld in a facility with zero oversight? Does he know the kind of sick people can get from drinking bad milk– especially children and seniors?? And if that alone weren’t enough, on the farm’s website, it states that “All of our farmstead cheeses are made using raw milk from our dairy herd, cultures, rennet, sea salt as well as various herbs, spices, and peppers.” Raw milk?? Don’t get me wrong, it’s delicious– but I’m sorry, did this farm really invest in the infrastructure necessary for pasturizing milk that they aren’t allowed to sell?? That, I don’t have the answer to.Was he, or was he not, peddling raw milk? I probably wouldn’t get a straight answer if I called the dairy directly, because they were not supposed to be distributing milk in the first place. I certainly wouldn’t get a straight answer from Mark because he didn’t feel that his CSA customer deserved one.
And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is why I do not patronize the Farm to Family bus or market– because I do not tolerate such misrepresentations that border on outright lies. The fact that he put himself out there at the markets in direct competition with producers from whom he obtained his goods is just further proof, to me, that his business practices and my values system are not aligned.
Mark’s Huffington Post Blog, ‘Beginning’ entry
Info about the Apples:
For more information, see the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center publication “Controlled Atmosphere Storage of Apples and Pears” available at http://postharvest.tfrec.wsu.edu/EMK2001D.pdf
Farm to Family website: