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Farm on grounds of State Fair of Texas helps feed homeless

Posted August 11

— Drew Demler is digging in a box of dirt in the middle of Fair Park.

The Dallas Morning News reports he is harvesting potatoes — big, small, misshapen, one that even looks like a snowman — in a hotter-than-deep-fried parking lot just outside the Cotton Bowl.

"I think potatoes and onions are two of the most important crops that we grow," Demler, farm manager at Big Tex Urban Farms , says as he uses his bare hands to search for the tubers. "They're hearty and prolific, and their storage life is long."

Demler and landscape supervisor Barron Horton take about an hour to harvest potatoes from four raised wooden containers on one side of the farm. There are more than 500 other planting beds around them, full of vegetables in various stages of promise — peppers, black-eyed peas, okra, squash, zucchini.

They bag the potatoes, take them to a weighing station and pack them in crates. They hop in the car and drive the crates about 2 miles down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Cornerstone Baptist Church's Community Kitchen, where they will be chopped, cooked and served in one of the 7,000 meals the church feeds the homeless and hungry of the South Dallas community every month.

"It makes a world of difference, from quality to taste," says Donald Wesson, program director at Cornerstone. "We get a lot of stuff that comes from the food system where it's on its last leg. But they (Big Tex Urban Farms) actually have fresh produce."

In a little over a year, Demler and his team have harvested more than 1,450 pounds of food and made dozens of deliveries to Cornerstone and the Baylor Scott & White Health and Wellness Institute at the Juanita Craft Recreation Center.

But feeding people, while essential, is only a small part of what needs to be done to establish food security and economic growth in southern Dallas, much of which is considered a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

To do that, you need a food system, a sustainable one. The State Fair of Texas is quickly becoming the backbone of such a system in southern Dallas, with its strong roots in the community, resources and room to grow. A familiar face and a friendly, "Howdy, folks," doesn't hurt, either.

This year, the State Fair has formed partnerships with Southern Methodist University's Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension and other community organizations and local entrepreneurs to build a network that they hope can transform the neighborhood.

"We're not just creating an urban farm here, we're creating a system," says Owen Lynch, associate professor at SMU and a senior fellow at the Hunt Institute.

"Big Tex has the resources, the money and the space, the scale needed to turn into a viable farm. And they aren't looking to make money."

"South Dallas is such a great resource and can be a big part of the new urban farming movement," Lynch adds. "It just needs to be coordinated."

Daron Babcock of Bonton Farms, who has met with Hays, Lynch and others, says he is on board in whatever way he can help to build a food system. "We are all in," he says. "It's a great opportunity to be a model for the country. Dallas was really late to the game, but we have a chance to catch up and become a model."

Coming together, collaborating and supporting each other is important. "We can show there are multiple solutions and various approaches that work to solve the problem," Babcock adds. "And if we all come together, city included, it can be done. We can't do it apart from one another."

Jason Hays, creative director at the State Fair, launched Big Tex Urban Farms in the spring of 2016 as a project that would align well with the fair's three important missions of promoting agriculture, education and community involvement.

Hays says the State Fair leadership researched issues in the community to see how it could become a resource. "We saw that major issues were food scarcity and the USDA food desert in this area," he says. "That was also something that was a personal passion of mine: the gardening. So how do I translate what I do into a system the fair could be a part of?"

So for every corny dog you buy or Texas Star Ferris wheel ride you take, you're supporting the farm and feeding the community.

"All of the funding comes from the fair," Hays says. "There's this thought that it's a 24-day event and that's it, but we see the fair as North Texas' largest fundraiser for the activities we do in the offseason."

Big Tex Urban Farms started out on a small "best test" scale last year with 100 beds. It experimented with the size of the beds and the soil makeup, and saw which varieties of fruits and vegetables performed the best. The project also established connections with community organizations that would receive the food.

In 2017, the idea grew, and so did the farm. It now covers ¾ of an acre with 520 beds full of vegetables. Hays and Demler plan on adding more boxes and a deep water culture hydroponic system, and they recently added six chickens that produce eggs.

Big Tex has support, scale and something else that makes it unique: mobility. The farm has to move elsewhere before the fair in September — a massive logistical undertaking — so the 40-by-48-inch planting beds were designed to be lifted easily by a forklift and moved onto a truck.

The 520 boxes currently at Fair Park will have to move in August to make room for the fair. Several community organizations are interested in receiving those boxes, which will kick-start their own community gardens.

This summer, Hays has been working with Lynch of SMU, Stephen Hudkins and Jeffrey Raska of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, and local entrepreneur Brad Boa to establish a model for what they are calling a Fair Park agri-system.

The first part of the model is to get the boxes out into the community and educate new growers through an urban farming certification program developed by AgriLife.

Not only will these organizations receive boxes with soil and seedlings that are suited to Dallas, they will also receive training and support from AgriLife before they get started and throughout the growing season. They'll learn about growing seasons, irrigation, pests and weeds, and even about nutrition and how to prepare and preserve the food they grow.

"It removed those costs and barriers to getting started. But the most important barrier it takes away is the risk," Lynch says.

"With training and support, they can try it, test it, see if it works for them, and if it doesn't, the boxes can be picked up and taken back to the fair. There is no risk to them. We are utilizing the urban farm to seed farms, to farm farms. If people bite off more than they can chew, it's OK. The reduction of risk is what I'm really excited about."

Hays says there are several interested groups that will receive boxes this year. Lincoln High School already has two Big Tex boxes for an herb garden and will receive more for its culinary program. Ten boxes were delivered to St. Philip's School and Community Center in early July. Mill City Community Garden and Urban Farm will receive at least 10 boxes, the T.R. Hoover Community Development Center will receive 10 boxes, and Cornerstone Baptist Church, which has the means to manage a growing operation, will receive up to 100 boxes.

SMU will take 10 boxes and conduct research on the boxes themselves, such as how to make upgrades for production and water efficiency. Another 10 or more will go to Texas A&M AgriLife, where workers will research soil types, vegetable varieties, planting dates and fertilization methods to maximize production.

The network is also building a seedling farm at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center that should break ground this summer. Lynch is working on that project through his own nonprofit, Get Healthy Dallas. Community organizations can get their seedlings from the center to plant in their own gardens. Lynch also hopes to add a soil farm, which would build healthy soil and compost that could be distributed along with the seedlings.

Building a food system is not just about food. It's about ending the cycle of poverty.

"A food desert is a health desert is a job desert is an infrastructure desert," Lynch says.

That's why education is such an important part of the project. Not only does a system create jobs, but budding community gardeners will learn skills that will qualify them for those jobs.

"We want to train the individuals who will actually be working in the garden," says Hudkins, a county agent with AgriLife who calls himself a farm boy from Indiana. "The folks out there with their hands in the dirt and getting sweaty every day, we will show them how to be successful as an urban gardener."

"We can help people become self-sufficient," he adds. "They have to have buy-in, they have to own it. The goal is not to give them something, but to give them a start and let them run with it."

At Cornerstone, Wesson sees many people who just need that boost. He serves a large homeless population, but many of the people seeking meals are underemployed. "We see a lot of families with children toward the end of the month," he says. "They say 'my month is longer than my money.'"

One of his goals in building the community kitchen operation is to provide food service training and management. The restaurant industry is a good pipeline for jobs.

"Food is a tool to reach people and feed that immediate need," he says, "but the goal is to provide jobs."

There are other big plans for the system, including what Lynch calls an "aggregation point," like a store or food bank where people can sell their produce or swap with something else. But that could be years away. "We have to get to an appropriate scale," Hays says.

The goal for now is to figure out something that works, something that is sustainable and can manage itself, a model for others to follow.

"Our long-term goal is not only make this concept of this agriculture system work here, but that it can someday become a model others can use," Hays says. "Our focus will always be here in Fair Park, but we can share what we learned to other areas across the state and across the country."

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