The dusty black pickup rocked back and forth along the dirt path as it charged forward into new territory.
With the windows rolled down and late morning sun on their faces, the farmers drove past thickets of yellow flowering weeds, past two barking dogs, past an old shed and an abandoned trailer.
“It smells good. Smells fresh,” said visiting East Dallas chicken rancher John Ramos as he hung his head out the window to survey the mostly undeveloped acreage.
It’s a new frontier for Bonton Farms.
In late August, the farm added 20 acres to the neighboring 18-acre extension, rapidly growing the operation into a nearly 40-acre enterprise in less than a year.
“So what do you think? Am I crazy?” farm director Daron Babcock asked, laughing.
From 1 acre to nearly 40
In February last year, the farm was only an acre-plus urban garden in South Dallas’ Bonton neighborhood — a food desert with a gritty history. Located at the end of Bexar Street, the farm is a green haven of fruits and vegetables next door to the Buckeye Commons public housing complex.
Its mission then was small-scale and focused on giving neighborhood residents jobs and fresh food. Now, it boasts rows of crops, milking goats, chickens and pigs. And there are plans for a community center to house the farm’s market and health programs for residents.
But as the farm has grown, so has its interest in helping to alleviate food access problems outside the Bonton neighborhood.
In January, the farm expanded from that initial acre to include an 18-acre extension off Ravenview Road in southeast Dallas. Fred Treffinger, who owns a concrete plant across the street, donated the parcel.
Since then, farmers have worked to ready the land. They built a fence and a bumpy rock-paved road that cuts through the property. They cleared blocks of dumped concrete and dead trees. They bent over, painstakingly gathering stones and tossing them in pails.
In the spring, they planted okra, peppers, corn and tomatoes. And in June, more than 500 chickens — a pecking choir of browns, blacks and whites — arrived.
“I knew it was going to grow. I just didn’t know it was going to grow this fast,” said Ramos, who delivered the first batch of chickens to Babcock a couple of years ago when Bonton Farms was simply a garden in Babcock’s backyard.
In July, Babcock hired Kim High to manage the extension. A diabetic, she left a more than three-decade job in claims at Allstate Insurance to learn about farming and change her lifestyle. Since then, she’s started a garden at her Oak Cliff home, where she grows tomatoes, okra, cucumbers and peppers.
“I didn’t know anything about farming. I’d never planted a plant. Never harvested a thing,” she said. “I’m crazy in love with the farm. I just can’t help it.”
“You ain’t in love,” Ramos teased, cradling five eggs — shades of green, blue and brown — in his T-shirt from the chicken coop.
Later this month, 20 Nubian milk goats are expected to join the operation, along with 100 broiler chickens and two pigs. And a massive hole toward the back of the property is the makings of a pond.
Now, Treffinger has given the farmers 20 more acres.
“You see a guy like Kerry out here working,” Treffinger said, pointing toward longtime farmer and Bonton resident Kerry Baker, who was preparing a plot of freshly tilled soil for fall planting on the extension. “It’s heartwarming to me.”
And more land could mean a broader mission. A dreamer with curly hair and a stubble beard, Babcock hopes the growth of the farm will help those outside his neighborhood. He wants to grow more food, create more awareness and more jobs for men and women struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, even if they don’t live in Bonton.
“We’re going to build this up,” he said.
Babcock also hopes to play a larger role in the city’s food access problem. He called a city of Dallas proposal to give at least $3 million to build a grocery store in South Dallas “ridiculous.”
“You can’t build one grocery store and solve the food problem,” Babcock said.
Learning from mistakes
Despite the farm’s successes, there have been some growing pains.
A pack of wild dogs attacked the extension one night in early July, mauling about 150 chickens.
“They just came in there and killed them. They didn’t even eat them,” Ramos said. “It was bad. Horrible, horrible, horrible.”
He blamed the killing frenzy on a miscommunication about who had the night shift to ensure the chickens were secure in the coop. The attack affirmed a plan he’s talked about for months: to stake a double-wide trailer on the farm and live on-site.
“A big investment loss,” Ramos said. “But everything is about learning when you’re farming.”
Besides the chickens, much of this summer’s crop also didn’t survive the season at the extension.
Before the farmers took over the land, it sat unused for decades — a dumping ground for blocks of concrete.
Weeds overtook the plots. A hot stretch in late July and early August, along with a lack of water, exacerbated the problem.
Last month, the farmers shifted their focus to the fall crop and repairing the soil. They unloaded 12 semi-trucks worth of compost over the plot. They tilled it repeatedly to battle the nutsedge — a grasslike lawn weed — before planting rows of collard greens, spinach, arugula and broccoli this week.
“It’s a long war that we’re going to be in with this stuff,” Babcock said of the weed. “It’s evil. We will not have nutsedge in heaven. I’m convinced of it.”
Standing on their own
The expansion comes at a tenuous time for Bonton Farms.
In August, the farm separated from the Christian ministry H.I.S. BridgeBuilders, which has guided its growth since the beginning. Discussion about the split began months earlier, after the extension was acquired and the farm began to grow.
“We’re still in that weird transition phase,” Babcock said.
Babcock is now president and executive director of the farm, which is in the process of becoming its own nonprofit.
That could take up to a year. Until then, it’s under the wing of the Dallas Foundation, which fiscally adopted the farm so it could continue to raise money and apply for grants. An $85,000 GroundFloor United Way grant that the farm received in February is funding the 18-acre extension development.
But there aren’t funds for the 20 acres where Babcock envisions picnic tables, farm-to-table dinners, horseback trail rides and pumpkin patches.
“I have no vision for what else is going to happen out here, and I have no money to do it,” Babcock said. “But we have it, and so it’s going to turn into something. I just don’t know exactly how that’s going to work.”