South Dallas residents deserve healthier food than what’s available, but overcoming the long history of neglect that contributed to its systemic food shortage is anything but simple. Community leaders and advocates have struggled for decades to tackle the menace of food deserts, which contribute to serious malnutrition and chronic malaise. Not only do few retailers offer fresh food, few grocery stores exist at all outside of convenience stores. While efforts to attract quality stores to the area have not borne much fruit, a movement is emerging with the potential to revitalize the community’s wellbeing from the ground up: urban farming.
Urban farming is the practice of cultivating and distributing fresh grown food in or around a village, town or city. In South Dallas, two vibrant urban farms are flourishing. Big Tex Urban Farms and Bonton Farms share common aims with different approaches toward the goal of making fresh food accessible to South Dallas residents. Big Tex Urban Farms has established raised movable beds on 0.77 acres within the State Fair of Texas’ 277-acre fairgrounds, with plenty of potential to expand as scalability becomes viable. Bonton Farms grows its produce in the ground, beginning with a 1.25-acre farm to welcome the public, while cultivating additional crops on a 40-acre farm nearby.
These farms practice a combination of organic and mixed farming, with each striving to provide the healthiest food possible. Mixed farming entails the growing of crops and animal husbandry at the same time and location, while organic farming uses no chemical or artificial additives in its operations. To help foster plant growth, both farms use manure from farm animals that, in turn, help consume by-products such weeds from planting.
“We’re doing everything organic right now,” said Drew Demler, greenhouse manager of Big Tex Urban Farms. “It’s better for the environment. The more research I’ve done on this, the more validity there is.” Beyond the ecological and health advantages of urban farming are the social benefits.
“We have communities where people are planted and they don’t have nutrients to prosper,” said Daron Babcock, who founded Bonton Farms five years ago with a mission to “cultivate lives.” Babock’s goal is to provide the nutrients that “help people flourish” – including economic opportunity, accountability, education and other incentives toward personal development.
The workforces for both farms are made up of a combination of volunteers and permanent employees. At Big Tex Urban Farms, workers are typically volunteers and employees of the State Fair of Texas who are passionate about providing accessible fresh food and serving the people in the community. In the case of Bonton Farms, workers can upgrade from intern to permanent worker status, earning stipends funded through revenue earned through the sale of produce.
Bonton Farms goes to the extent of employing people from the community who are otherwise unemployable, including former inmates and people without the necessary skills to compete in the job market. Given that approximately 77 percent of released prisoners find their way back into prison, Babcock considers Bonton an alternate and more positive path than the current failed system has to offer.
Urban farming is a good option for sustainable land utilization and a help to the community, but it has its share of challenges. Both projects struggle with a shortage of skilled employees with the technical and agricultural expertise needed for the job. These initiatives also encounter financial constraints and other hurdles that affect the farms’ day-to-day operations. For example, both farms must contend with lack of education about fresh foods on the part of customers, many of whom still do not understand the need to consume fresh food for overall health.
“Scalability is another big issue,” said Jason Hays, the State Fair’s creative director and operations manager for Big Tex Urban Farms. Partnering with organizations, as Big Tex does with SMU’s Hunt Institute of Engineering and Humanity and Baylor Scott & White Health and Wellness Center, helps the farms increase capacity and expertise.
Funding for these projects comes from philanthropic donations as well as sponsorships from companies interested in furthering sustainability goals or community-based programs, as AT&T does by supporting Bonton Farms. To facilitate integration into the community and spread the word to stakeholders, digital media and word-of-mouth communication help maximize visibility while minimizing marketing spend. Bonton Farms uses a video on their website while Big Tex Urban Farms maintains a blog in addition to holding food fairs for residents around Fair Park.
Big Tex Urban Farms and Bonton Farms represent unique and promising models for sustainable land use that can be replicated in other metropolitan areas to address the gap in availability of fresh food in low-income communities. These neighborhood-based efforts’ improvements to local food security and ecosystem services are laudable. With benefits ranging from personal and economic empowerment to spiritual sustenance, urban farms offer a healthy dose of hope for residents of South Dallas, as well as for the visitors from around the world who study them.