Daron Babcock, who runs the largest urban farm in the United States, was born in Amarillo, Texas but first encountered Bonton, a poor and deprived area in Dallas, when he was living in San Francisco and working at a high-powered job. It was not somewhere you might ever have expected to find him.
Danny George, now the manager of Bonton Farms, was raised in Bonton and remembers when people from the Rhoads Terrace housing project would take potshots across the street at the officers’ wives when they’d come by the police station with lunch. “Growing up in Bonton was like growing up in Afghanistan or Pakistan,” he says. “People were shot and killed daily. My mother would cover me with her body when the shooting would start.”
But hope is what he has brought to Bonton since he moved there in 2011, having sold his house in San Francisco and quit his job. And hope, as he notes, is contagious.
He first heard about Bonton when he was having coffee with a friend, worrying about his work-life balance. His friend was volunteering with H.I.S. BridgeBuilders, mentoring men coming out of the prison system. One Saturday, Daron drove down there with him. He felt comfortable there; their life experiences weren’t so different. An article in D Magazine in 2018 explained why.
That article is one of the few I’ve found that tells his own story. I have the sense that he doesn’t talk about himself much – he is much more focused on his friends, neighbors and community. He doesn’t take credit for all the changes that have occurred in Bonton (by 2020, Bonton has had the lowest crime rate of any neighborhood in South Dallas for two years running), but it does seem clear that the model that evolved as he learned about his new community has had powerful effects. So powerful, in fact, that others in Dallas are now trying to emulate it.
Rebuilding the basket
To live in Bonton as a good neighbor, he had to do as much unlearning and learning. He approached it much as Meas Nee once did in his work in Cambodian communities recovering from horrific violence that had happened there. Meas once described it this way in his book, Towards Restoring Life in Cambodian Villages:
“The village is like a basket that has been broken and the pieces scattered. The pieces are still there but not everyone can see them. What has been broken can be rewoven slowly and gradually, but only by those who will take the time to stay close to the village people and build trust with them. I know for certain that this can be achieved, even though it must be done slowly and carefully. Eventually the village people are the weavers themselves and they carry the task forward further, further. The basket will be better than before, but first it must be something like the same.”
Daron moved into a house in Bonton that you might almost see as a symbol of what the community looked like then. It was a house that had been built by Habitat but the family had moved out in the middle of the night, and all the wire had been stripped out, so there was no electricity.
Lots of people came by to welcome him and he thought how friendly the place was. Then he learned that people were taking bets on what branch of law enforcement he was working for. But he kept talking with people. And for the first six months he was there, the answer everyone gave him when he asked what he could do was the same – jobs.
But hardly anyone had experience to put on a resume to apply for a job. So he began working with individuals on whatever needed to be done around the community, picking up trash and fixing fences, thinking he could write resumes based on what people had done.
Then when people began calling in sick, he realized that people were not healthy. People didn’t have fresh food because Bonton was a ‘food desert’. The nearest grocery store was three hours by bus; only pre-packaged food was on sale in the three liquor and beer stores. So he started a garden on the vacant lot next to his house to grow fresh vegetables.
A door closes, another opens
But even when people had resumes, no one would hire them, because almost everyone had a criminal record and there were ‘liability’ issues. But as they say, when one door closes, another opens.
Natural foods company owner Nathan Sheets offered to fund the start up of a honey business for two years. That was the start of what is now Bonton Honey Company. And the farm grew and grew as people heard about what he was doing and gave him more land. Habitat gave him two lots to expand the farm. In 2015, a family who had heard about Bonton Farms donated land which made it possible to expand to 40 acres. Now the farm sells its produce to high end city restaurants, and that makes it possible to provide affordable food locally through the Food Market and cafe in Bonton. There’s a catering business.
Along the way, he has learned that all the challenges are interconnected – it’s not just jobs and fresh food. Bonton was an opportunity desert, too, without the nutrients – the social determinants of health – that let people find their true potential.
“Moving into the community changed me in profound ways,” he says. “Without that physical proximity, I would have missed many vital learning opportunities. Once I was there, we began trying to help the men build resumes and gain work experience by cleaning up our community. Working alongside them, I learned that many were not healthy enough to work. I had never been around so many sick people in my life. I started asking, “Why? Why are so many here so sick?”
“Soon enough, I was then introduced to the term “food desert,” which was completely foreign to me. It was difficult to grasp how communities existing within the richest country in the history of the world wouldn’t have access to food. …..
“My friends and neighbors began teaching me that these issues are a bit more complicated. I learned that poverty greatly impacts mobility. I learned that even if you’re able to spend hours each week on public buses to get to a grocery store, you still have to lug as much as you can carry from the grocery store to the bus stop and from bus stop to your home.
“I also started to investigate why my new community was so poor in the first place. This is when I found myself confronted with an uncomfortable but necessary conversation about all that has happened since the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Fixing broken systems
In other words, it is a bigger systemic problem. As he says, “Our goal is not to simply grow food because we’re in a food desert but to address WHY Bonton is a food desert. We’re not here to fix broken people but to be the hands and feet to fix broken systems.”
Now other neighborhoods are reaching out to learn how to do this, and Daron is invited to speak at events around the world. All of us want to apply solutions, not moan about problems – but change is a long-term, holistic commitment that effectively disrupts the status quo.
“We’re saying that in 20 years, communities like Bonton could normalize. And how much better is that than building another prison? Or another homeless shelter?” he asks in a powerful 2020 video.
“There should be a huge shift in investment of time and energy from the downstream measures we do to deal with people once they’ve fallen in the river and they’re drowning, and move it upstream before they fall in and give them the resources they need to become something special and give back to this world. How much more beautiful would that be when we do that?”
Bonton Farms now is the largest urban farm in the US, with 42 acres in production inside the city of Dallas. More than 18,000 people a year come to visit, and they sit down together and share a meal, and talk about “the things we have in common, instead of the things that make us different.”
“When that happens,” he says, “it’s no longer us and them, it’s we. And things change.”
And Bonton offers a model to the world of how that can happen.
As he says, “There’s nobody, I think, that really thinks that we’re better off when some people are left behind.”
Daron Babcock of Bonton Farms. Good God podcast by Faith Commons. 2020.
How Urban Farming Saved a Dallas Community. Million Stories, You Tube, Feb. 5, 2020.
Shaping: DFW – Daron Babcock. Nov. 13, 2018.
The Rogue Shepherd. D Magazine. Jan. 15, 2018.
Daron Babcock – The Answer was a Farm. Sub-Zero, Apr. 7, 2016
From the Ground Up. Texas Country Reporter. Sep. 21, 2015.