In Collaboration with Underserved Community an Outsider Helps Establish First Urban Farm in Dallas
August 30, 2018 | Karen Briner
In what some might describe as a midlife crisis and others an epiphany, Daron Babcock, the executive Director of urban farming organization Bonton Farms, quit his all-consuming job in the corporate world and moved to Bonton, an impoverished inner city community in Dallas, Texas. He had already been volunteering there once a week, meeting with a group of men who had been in prison and were struggling to get their lives back on track. But two hours on a Saturday was not enough, so he decided to work full-time with the men.
After moving to Bonton, he noticed that many people were sick and dying at a rapid rate. He also learned that Bonton was a food desert, with the nearest grocery store a three hour return trip on public transportation. Daron recognized a correlation between the lack of access to healthy food and the high rate of cancer, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes – Bonton had a 300 percent higher death rate from diabetes than the county rate.
It was a collaboration between six men, three of whom suffered from diabetes and cancer, that led to a decision to plant a garden.
Daron emphasizes that the idea was not his – it was born organically through his interactions with the community. His philosophy has been to make sure that he, as an outsider, never imposed his own ideas onto the community. Any change, he believes, must be initiated from within if it has any chance of succeeding.
The idea behind the garden was that it would enable the men to put something positive on their resumes, while also enabling them to take home food from the garden as payment for their work. They never expected that this “silly little garden” next to his house would spark a conversation about food deserts in Dallas. The newspaper covered it, the mayor came down to see it and this all led to Habitat for Humanity and the city of Dallas coming together to donate land to expand the garden.
Now Bonton Farms, the first urban farm in Dallas, occupies almost an entire city block inside the community. The farm operates not only as a functioning business entity, but also as a safe harbor for people coming out of prison, drug rehab facilities or domestic abuse shelters, to receive skills training and tools to survive life on the outside.
He explains that Bonton Farms takes a “Robin Hood” approach to the marketplace. To create jobs the farm must make money, so it sells about half of its produce to the most profitable market – the best chefs in town. Those profits in turn subsidize the farm so that it can sell produce at or below cost in the community. This hybrid approach enables them to pay their staff living wages year-round.
The farm has seven employees, and Daron and his team have big dreams for the future. Last year a family donated 18 acres of land to Bonton Farms and was so impressed with the organization’s work that it bought and donated another 20 acres of land next door. Daron’s vision is to grow the farm’s operations and hopefully create an urban farming industry that will transform South Dallas’s food deserts into the city’s breadbaskets.
“We hope to be a catalyst to create more farms, and more jobs,” says Daron.
His hope is also that children in this inner city community see their parents going to work and recognize that if they stay in school, there is economic opportunity and the possibility for them to thrive.
Daron relates how early on, some curious school kids, who passed by his house every day, volunteered to help him plant carrot seeds. As the weeks passed, the kids kept on asking when the carrots would be ready to harvest. When Daron eventually pulled up the first carrot, the children stared at it in disbelief and declared that it was not a carrot. He realized that they had never seen a carrot in its natural state, being accustomed only to the commercially produced carrots that arrive in plastic bags, already peeled and whittled down.
Now, with kids volunteering and having hands-on experiences with growing their own food, he hopes that this exposure will create change so that the health statistics of the city’s next generation will be much more in line with the rest of the county’s. He knows that this kind of change doesn’t happen overnight, but in the five years since they started with a small garden, there has already been a shift in the way the community perceives itself, he says.
The farm is having a radical impact on the reputation of Bonton – a neighborhood traditionally associated with crime and poverty now shines brightly as a beacon of hope where food deserts are giving way to thriving urban farms.