By David Wilfong, NDG Contributing Writer
In South Dallas, a few blocks further than the final stop on DART’s No. 11 bus, lies Bonton Farms. The agricultural oasis is located in the heart of what was once a front line in the violent racism of Dallas’ past. The original name was “Bomb Town,” but through time and phonetic alteration, the more pleasant “Bonton” came to represent this largely African American community.
Today a small farm answers a lack of both economic opportunity and food quality in the neighborhood with a few sheds for chickens and goats and 1.25 acres which currently grows 12 tons of food crops per year. In a community where 85 percent of adult males have spent time behind bars, it has also presented an opportunity to enter back into the productive ranks of mainstream society. As of late, construction is underway for the addition of a restaurant.
Word has spread of this small-scale enterprise, and between campaign rallies with hundreds of political supporters, U.S. Rep. Robert “Beto” O’Rourke – the El Paso Democrat running for the U.S. Senate – took a break to come and tour the facility, and visit with the staff.
“We’ve been hearing about some of the challenges that communities have; whether it’s being a food desert or it’s not having local business ownership, whether it’s being under-served in public schools or housing or in so many different ways,” Beto said. “Then we’ve also heard of Bonton as an example of how to meet those challenges of the community investing in itself; literally growing its own food, investing in a market, and a café.
“It’s a place where I was just told by Daron (Babcock, Bonton Farms executive director) that there’s not a single establishment here where you can sit down and enjoy a meal, and literally break bread with your family or your neighbors. They’re creating that here. So we were inspired by the story and wanted to come and see it for ourselves.”
The visit to the farm was not exactly a public campaign event, but several ardent local Beto supporters who caught
wind of the visit also attended. Almost from the beginning of the campaign, there has been a feeling among Democrats that Beto’s senatorial run could ultimately be successful.
“I think he’s doing a lot of work getting to know Texans and getting to know what we need,” said D’Andrala Alexander. “That’s the kind of senator that I think needs to go to Washington, who can truly represent our interests. People don’t pay attention to Senate races like they should, and I’m just glad someone’s paying attention.”
Farm Manager Danny George responded to Beto’s questions about the logistical operations of the farm, proudly pointing out neighborhood customers can simply show up at the front door in a neighborhood traditionally known as a food desert.
“They come here,” George said. “We sell on-site because it’s all about the community. We are based here. It started here, so it’s just a part of what we have going on here.”
While touring the grounds, Beto got an earful from Babcock, who left a career with a private equity firm to push the effort in Bonton. Originally the farm provided work for former prisoners. In recent years, the workers have come from all walks of life. However, criminal justice reform is still a high priority for Babcock, along with the inequality of opportunity he sees in the neighborhood around the farm and a high school graduation rate below 50 percent.
“I fight these battles with people I deeply care about every day,” Babcock said after Beto had departed for his next rally. “I have never had a chance to tell a politician who has the influence to do something about it. These are things – you don’t rehearse it – it’s here every day. Every. Day. So until somebody takes it seriously and starts to really challenge the systems that are in place, we’re going to continue to have this jacked-up system of people who are filled with problems and struggles we’re paying for because we didn’t make the proper investments on the front end.”
It has been a good week for the Beto campaign, a poll conducted by Quinnipiac came out showing the race against current Senator Ted Cruz at 3 points, within the margin of error in a state considered safely Republican. Supporters of the Democratic campaign are more than pleased with this early hint of an upset.
“I’m really optimistic,” said Brandon J. Vance, an active Democrat who was on hand for the tour. “I think in this day and age, in this cycle, that it’s possible. I’ve been one of those in the past who’s worried about whether or not we can ever ‘turn Texas blue,’ but I believe that this ‘blue wave’ is mounting as across the nation Democrats continue to win seats.
“We have a current senator who is not well-liked, I believe, by both sides of the aisle, and we have a great candidate in Beto O’Rourke who is doing amazing things. He’s visiting every county. He’s coming and visiting places like Bonton Farms and he’s coming down to South Dallas to see what the issues are for the people in their community. He’s meeting us where we are.”