They came crammed, and cageless, in a U-Haul truck. Chirping chickens — a noisy choir of black, white, gold and brown — could be heard from behind the latched door.
“You guys are going to be so happy here,” said farm director Daron Babcock, grinning.
There was a clank as the back door opened. Their caretakers shooed them forward, thrusting the flock of nearly 400 young chickens into a new world.
“Go, go, go,” shouted John Ramos, an East Dallas chicken rancher who has raised the chickens in his backyard since they were hatched. “It’s kind of like my kids going to college, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
This grassy, open field of overgrown weeds and sunflowers — some the size of small children — is their new home at Bonton Farm’s 18-acre extension off Seagoville Road in southeast Dallas. In the coming weeks, about 150 more chickens will arrive.
The birds and pasture-raised broilers — meat chickens — are the only animals that will live on the extension this year.
Babcock and others coaxed the chickens into their new home with soft voices and kind words, calling them ladies, girls, sweeties and babes.
Farm manager Patrick Wright held one of the golden birds at his chest, stroking its feathers and naming it Lambchop. Nearby, workers continued construction of the chicken coop — converted from an old cotton trailer.
Work began in February on the Bonton Farms extension. That month, the farm received an $85,000 GroundFloor grant from United Way that, along with donations, is funding the extension’s development.
Last year, Fred Treffinger offered to donate the parcel to Babcock, who started the original Bonton Farms in South Dallas through the Christian ministry H.I.S. BridgeBuilders.
More of an urban garden, the original Bonton Farms covers roughly an acre at the southern end of Bexar Street in South Dallas — a neighborhood with a gritty past. There, a flock of about 130 chickens live and 10 baby goats were birthed this spring. More recently, the farm was approved to accept food stamps to sell fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs to Bonton neighbors.
The new land is about 12 mile southeast from the original farm and across the street from a concrete plant Treffinger owns.
The farmland is surrounded by a thicket of trees and brush. Blocks of dumped concrete and dead trees once littered the rocky soil. For months, farmers and volunteers bent over, gathering stones and tossing them in pails.
In March, farmers planted the first seeds on a small portion of what one day they hope to build into an 18-acre farm operation.
They tossed seeds for cover crops — rye grass, soybeans and buckwheat — in the open pasture that now serve as food and shade for the roaming chickens. In a month or two, the chickens will lay their first eggs — a rainbow of white, blue, green, speckled and dark chocolate brown.
Next to the pasture, tomatoes, shisito and bell peppers, okra, eggplant and corn grow.
Farm manager Patrick Wright carried a basket of just-harvested peppers last week, passing them out to farmers and volunteers.
“Hear that crunch,” he said, biting into a shiny green shisito pepper. Peach juice stained the front of his white T-shirt. That morning, he and Babcock plucked the fruit, tasting bites of the first harvest.
For Babcock, the chickens’ arrival is a turning point. With only vegetables, it was a garden.
“This is like the first day we really are a farm,” he said.
And one day, it could be more.
The farm is working to separate from H.I.S. BridgeBuilders, which has guided its growth since the beginning, and branch into its own nonprofit to grow as an independent mission in South Dallas.
“I want to keep pressing forward,” Babcock said. “That takes BridgeBuilders off-mission from what they do. We’ve just outgrown them.”
Last month, Babcock, vice president of urban missions for the ministry, resigned. A team was formed to decide how the transition will work. Babcock will remain with the ministry until the separation is official, he said.
Michael Craven, president of the ministry, said there are a lot of unanswered questions and nothing is official.
“We’re not a farming agency. [Bonton Farms] just grew beyond what we imagined,” he said.
It’s an amicable split and discussion about the possibility began months earlier, after the extension was acquired and the farm began to grow into a larger farming enterprise, Babcock said. The process is underway but will take months until it’s finalized.
According to a news release from H.I.S. BridgeBuilders, Bonton Farms and the ministry will continue to partner to help alleviate poverty.
Babcock said the acre-plus Bonton farm has drawn attention toward the neighborhood’s lack of fresh food and been a catalyst for change, spurring ordinances at Dallas City Hall to make urban farming more accessible.
But it’s not enough.
On the original farm, there are plans for a community center that will house a market, cafe and cooking and health classes.
At the extension, only about five acres of land will be farmed this year. In a few years, Babcock hopes to grow that to the full 18 acres.
He wants to teach others around the country what he’s learned.
“I want to do more,” he said. “But I don’t want to get all gung-ho to change the world, until I know I can change my community.”