With thick, wavy hair and sky blue eyes that match his checkered shirt, Daron Babcock looks like Ryan O’Neal if the Ryan O’Neal from Love Story had hit middle age sober, healthy, and at peace with his demons. We are sitting at a covered picnic table across the street from Bonton Farms, the urban oasis he founded in South Dallas. A cool fall breeze blows down a levee at the end of a cul-de-sac. Goats bleat and chickens cluck. I am trying to understand how this successful businessman and father of two could sell his 3,600-square-foot home in Frisco, give up a job with a mid-six-figure salary, move into a Habitat for Humanity house with a two-time convicted felon, and start a farm in a food desert. It seems improbable, to put it kindly.
As I ask Daron how the death of his first wife, Marcy, drove his radical life change, a young man walks up from the street and sits down at another picnic table. He’s wearing sweatpants and a green Henley shirt. He has earbuds in, a cigarillo over one ear, and is smoking a cigarette. I worry that Daron may not want to talk about his personal life in front of a stranger, and I’m about to change the subject when he turns to the young man.
“How are you doing, Peanut?”
“I’m good,” the young man replies.
“Are you working yet?”
“Yeah, a little bit, at Lakewood Cafe. I got to work on weekends, though.”
“You should have gone to Cafe Momentum like I told you.”
“I did. I’m too old to go there. They were basically trying to get me in this program, like an intern thing or something, and get me in a homeless shelter. But I don’t want to go to a shelter.”
“Where are you staying?”
“At my friend’s. My grandma ain’t going to let me in.”
Peanut turns back to his music and Daron turns back to me.
I am struck: for moments like this, he gave up everything.
Bonton Farms is set on a 1.25-acre plot of ground bordered by Bexar Street to the east, the Trinity River floodway to the south, and the Buckeye Commons public housing complex to the west and north. Standing amid the tidy rows of San Marzano tomatoes, multicolored globe eggplants, collard greens, and pepper plants, it’s hard to believe this is South Dallas.
In the early 1900s, this area was home to black workers who were brought in as cooks, maids, and yardmen for the Jewish merchants in the mansions on Park Row and South Boulevard. When blue-collar whites started to move in after World War I, according to the documentary Bonton + Ideal by bcWORKSHOP, Jim Crow laws were used to enforce segregation, limiting black residents to the least desirable areas along the flood plain and train tracks. An area near the confluence of the Trinity River and White Rock Creek, former farmland that routinely flooded (the Rochester Park levee wouldn’t be built until the early 1990s), was set aside for blacks. The neighborhood was called Bonton.
“Growing up in Bonton was like growing up in Afghanistan or Pakistan,” Danny George says. “People were shot and killed daily. My mother would cover me with her body when the shooting would start.”
After World War II, when returning black veterans tried to move into neighborhoods just to the north, many of their homes were bombed by white residents, and Bonton became known as “Bomb Town.” The construction of the C.F. Hawn Freeway in the 1960s served to further segregate the neighborhood, and crime and blight escalated in the ensuing years.
Daron introduces me to Danny George, the manager of Bonton Farms, who takes me on a tour of the goat pen, chicken coop, beehives, in-vessel composting machine, and rows of vegetables. He was raised in this neighborhood and remembers when people from the Rhoads Terrace housing project would take potshots across the street into the police station and shoot at the officers’ wives when they’d come by 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.”
Danny left the neighborhood and worked as a machinist in Garland for 10 years before Daron convinced him to move back and manage the farm. He makes less money now, but he says he’s doing God’s work. I ask him what it’s like working with Daron, and, tilting his head, he gives me a wide-eyed, incredulous look, as if to say, Have you met this man? When he offers you something, you accept it. And your life is better for it. And you don’t even know.
The premise of the farm is relatively simple. Daron gives people work; they in turn build résumés and get other jobs. Some even start their own small businesses. The work is on a farm because Bonton is a food desert, meaning the nearest grocery store is more than a mile away. Daron sells or barters the food to people in the community so they can eat better and get healthier, so they can get and keep jobs. There’s a larger farm extension to the southeast, where more food is grown, which Daron sells to restaurants like Meddlesome Moth, Cafe Momentum, Flora Street Cafe, and the Dallas Cowboys training facility in Frisco to help subsidize the farm. He plans to open a market in the spring so he can provide even more food to the community and offer cooking classes, healthcare, yoga—even bring in his own chiropractor.
At the end of our tour, Danny introduces me to Minnie Pearl, a miniature chicken that showed up one day in the backyard of Daron’s house a few blocks away, on Valentine Street, and now plays mother hen to all of his heritage breed chicks. She is emblematic of the simple ethos of the place: show up on Daron’s doorstep and you will leave with a home and a job.
But it’s more complicated than that. To really understand what is happening here, you have to understand Daron Babcock. And to understand Daron Babcock, you have to understand what brought him to Bonton.
Daron sold his home in Frisco in 2011 with the conviction of a calling but without a plan. Like, any plan. He didn’t yet know exactly what he was going to do in Bonton. The farm wasn’t even an idea yet. And, even more pressing, he didn’t know where he was going to live.
He had assumed it would be easy to move to Bonton; he could just buy a small plot of land and build a house. He was wrong. Homeowners here often die without wills, and the properties languish in probate limbo, owned in small percentages by multiple heirs. Taxes and mortgages don’t get paid, and the city or the bank forecloses. To further complicate things, much of the city-owned land is restricted for low-income home buyers.
Out of options, Daron called Mike Fechner at H.I.S. BridgeBuilders, the South Dallas organization he had been volunteering with, and told him he had to be out of his house in less than a month. Fechner told him he had a possible solution. A family had moved out of a Habitat home in the middle of the night, and neighbors had come in and ripped out all the copper wiring. Prostitutes and crack addicts were already moving in. Habitat needed someone to come in and secure the property. Assuming Daron could deal with moving into an electricity-free trap house, there was just one more catch: he would be sharing the house with Hector, a two-time felon who had just gotten out of prison and needed transitional housing. Daron took the deal.
“When I moved in, I brought my bed down and just a duffel bag of clothes,” Daron says. “My dad helped me. We went to put my bed in the room, and it didn’t fit. We had to go all the way back to Frisco and get a bed out of the guest bedroom and bring it down.”
When Daron and his father got back to the house, a guy from the neighborhood known as Big Gerry showed up. “He was all drunk and high, and he starts giving me all kinds of grief,” Daron says. “I’m not really paying much attention to him, so he starts picking on my dad. I said, ‘Gerry, you’ve got to stop.’ He said, ‘You can’t make me stop.’ My mind was racing, like, what do I do? I’m not visiting here. I have to have boundaries, or else this is going to be my reality.”
Gerry is a broad man, over 6 feet tall, with a salt-and-pepper beard and the fiery eyes of a zealot or a comic. When I first met him at Bonton Farms, he serenaded me with Rod Stewart songs, all charm and swagger. The second time I saw him, he was leaving Wednesday night Bible study, precariously balanced on a bike with a homemade Oreo shortbread cookie in one hand. But I could see how, encountering him late at night, drunk and high and angry, the guy could be scary. Like wounded bear in the woods scary.
Daron isn’t big, but he’s solid, with a low center of gravity. It’s still easy to picture the former college wrestler on the mat, taking guys down quickly with an ankle pick. Backing down isn’t really in his repertoire, so he didn’t.
“Gerry and I got into a little scuffle, and I thought he was going to come back and shoot me,” Daron says. “But the next day he showed back up and said, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t want to be like this anymore. I’ve been like this since I was 6, and I’m just tired of it.’ ”
Gerry told Daron that he was the product of rape and that his mom couldn’t handle raising him. She gave him to another family in the neighborhood who took him in as their own. When Gerry was 6, the three of them were in a car accident. Gerry survived, but both his surrogate parents were killed. He had been living on the streets ever since.
“He would go door to door,” Daron says. “People put him up for a night; people would give him a meal. He has just made it somehow. He’s a survivor. He’s been to prison five times. He’s an addict; anything that you can consume, he’s done.”
Daron invited Gerry to come back the next day, and the next. Habitat was still rewiring the house, so Gerry and Daron would sit on the front porch to escape the heat and talk and read the Bible.
People walking by would do a double take when they saw the white guy in the rocking chair. One day, a young man was walking past with headphones in and his head down. When he glanced up and saw Daron, he exclaimed, “Motherfuckin’ Chuck Norris!”
“Nobody uses their real name down here, so that was like my hood name in the beginning,” Daron says. “I was like, ‘You can’t call me Motherfuckin’ Chuck Norris,’ so they gradually went down to Chuck. Then they started calling me Doc Holliday, and then it was just Doc. It’s a little more palatable, Doc.”
Others started to join the two on the porch. Gerry told Daron he needed to set a regular time to meet the increasing demand, but Daron was reluctant. “No, this is for us,” he told Gerry. “I’m not trying to save the world. This is what we do.”
When Gerry’s friends started giving him a hard time for hanging out with Daron, telling him he was being used, Daron decided he needed to do something. “It was really hard on him,” Daron says. “I thought, If we’re ever going to make it, whoever those people are that are trying to do better are going to have to stick together.”
They started meeting at his house on Wednesday nights for what Daron called “family time.” Five people turned to 10, turned to 30. When the group started snaking down the hallway and into the kitchen, to the point where Daron couldn’t even see everyone anymore, he finally broke down and moved the group to the Turner Courts Recreation Center, where they still meet for Bible study every week.
Oftentimes there are about as many people from North Dallas churches as there are from Bonton. It might seem patronizing, and maybe it is. But there is a strange symbiosis established through shared crises and shortbread cookies in a community space that seems equally alien to North Dallas emissaries and South Dallas residents alike. On the night I went, a Bonton man whose house had burned to the ground gave thanks for toiletries and supplies provided by a college coed, while a white business owner broke down in tears talking about his impending divorce.
“People from North Dallas come and are drawn to the real survival and the honesty of just, This is my life and I’m struggling and I need help,” Daron says. “We don’t have that permission to be vulnerable like that up where we come from.”
Daron was born and raised a city boy, in Amarillo, the son of a banker father and a stay-at-home mother. But his paternal grandfather had a small farm in the Panhandle, between Pampa and Groom, where he planted mostly wheat and grain sorghum, sometimes cotton. Growing up, Daron and his boy cousins would spend summers there, driving tractors and kicking dirt. “I thought it was really boring,” Daron says. “Commercial farms like that—you don’t really relate those grains to food, so it didn’t make a lot of sense to me as a kid. You’d just sit on a tractor all day.”
His family eventually sold the farm, squeezed out by agribusiness, and Daron went away to college at the University of Oklahoma. He decided to major in pre-med, thinking he’d become a vet, but after his first biology class, he realized he’d made a mistake and switched to business. After all, he was really there for the wrestling team. And the girls.
The athletic facilities at OU were separate from the campus, so Daron spent most of his time in the gym, isolated from the usual coed experience. When the coach was happy with the team, he would take the wrestlers on long runs that ended in the middle of sorority row and then release the hounds, announcing, “All right, you’re free to go.” On one run, they ended in front of a dorm, sweaty and eager. When they saw the front room full of Kappa pledges studying, they decided to walk on in and introduce themselves.
Daron vaguely remembered that his mom had told him that Marcy Knight, the daughter of an acquaintance, had pledged Kappa, so he asked around the room for her. The girls told him she had skipped study hall, so he flirted for a few minutes before running the final lap back to the locker room.
“The next day I’m walking out of the shower room in a towel,” Daron says, “because nobody’s supposed to be in the dorms. We had security guards; you can’t get in unless you’re an athlete. All of a sudden I walk out of the bathroom, headed down to my room, and there’s a hall full of girls.” Marcy’s friends had told her a cute wrestler with curly hair and dreamy eyes had come looking for her, so she went looking for him. “We went out that night and went out off and on through the rest of college,” Daron says, “then got married when we graduated.”
Marcy’s family had a place in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and Daron wanted to get married in a small mountain chapel there. But Marcy’s mom talked her out of it, instead planning a big Baptist wedding in her hometown of Borger, Texas, a small oil town north of Amarillo. The church wedding was a little tricky. Daron was raised in a religious family, attending the First Baptist Church in Amarillo, but he thought it was all a bunch of hocus-pocus with a fair dash of hypocrisy. Marcy’s family had once tried to join one of the three Baptist churches in Borger. The church turned them down because Marcy’s dad owned a beer distributorship. When you live in a small town and know everyone, and you walk down to the front of the church to ask the preacher to join the congregation, it’s a hard pill to swallow when he says no. It can make you think that if God doesn’t have room for you, you don’t have room for God. “We played along, I think, for family,” Daron says, “but it was not a big part of our lives.”
Daron’s first job was with the Scott Paper Company in Mobile, Alabama. He quickly moved up the ranks and across the country to Dallas and Tulsa. But he turned down a promotion that would have taken him to New York when he found out that Marcy was pregnant. Instead, they moved back to Borger, and Daron started working with Marcy’s father at his beer distributorship, learning firsthand how to run a business from the top down. When he felt he was ready, he bought the area development rights to Schlotzsky’s in Oregon, and the family, now with sons Cole and Beau, moved to the Willamette Valley, just south of Portland.
“There were all of these people who had never taken care of themselves worth a damn. They were in horrible condition, and yet they were OK. I just remember thinking, ‘This makes no sense. There is no justice or equity.’”
When the snow was good, they’d go to a friend’s house in the mountains to snowboard. When the snow was bad, their friends would come down their way and they’d go to the coast and surf. It was an hour and a half from the mountain to the ocean. The sandwich business was thriving. Life was good.
Then, one day in 1997, Marcy noticed a small ulcer on her tongue, the kind you get that’s annoying more than anything because you can’t drink orange juice. It didn’t seem like a big deal, but it just wouldn’t go away. Her doctor said it was probably due to a food allergy, but the diet he put her on didn’t seem to help. She went back to the doctor to have a biopsy the day before the couple was leaving for a well-earned surf trip to Mexico. They came home to a brief message on the answering machine: “You need to call us.”
There are three ways to treat cancer: poison, burn, or cut. The surgeons removed a third of Marcy’s tongue. She had to relearn how to speak, because they took the tip of her tongue and wrapped it around the side to fill in the gap, meaning the muscle that she had thoughtlessly used to form words her whole life was now sideways. They hoped that might be the worst of it, but when the doctors did a neck dissection, they discovered the cancer had metastasized and spread to Marcy’s lymph nodes.
While in his 20s, Daron had to have a melanoma removed. He continued to go in for routine checkups and went to the same Oregon Health & Science office at the university that his wife went to. Daron told his wife that he would stop in after his appointment to check on her latest round of test results.
When he stopped in the doctor’s office, the doctor pulled him inside. “It’s back,” he said, “and there’s really nothing else we can do.” Daron couldn’t process the information. It made no sense to him. He was 32; Marcy was 31. Cole and Beau were just 7 and 8 years old. In a fog, he got in his car and started to drive home. He was panicked: how was he going to tell his wife? The kids?
Coming out of downtown Portland to get on I-5 South, he passed Waterfront Park, a landscaped strip along the Willamette River that is often populated by the homeless, the mentally ill, the drunk and the high. And he felt the anger rise. “It seemed like at every light I stopped at, there were all of these people who had never taken care of themselves worth a damn. They were in horrible condition, and yet they were OK. I just remember thinking, This makes no sense. There is no justice or equity. How could something exist like a God that lets things like this happen to good people?”
After his wife passed away, almost two years to the day of her initial diagnosis, Daron fell apart. He was still in Portland, far from his family in Amarillo, trying to keep his business together and raise his two sons alone.
“When I got to college, they handed out this shirt that said ‘Oklahoma Wrestling’ on the front,” he says. “And on the back it said, ‘If it is to be, it’s up to me.’ Basically what they kept reinforcing was to apply yourself. Whatever you apply yourself for, you can have. And for me, that worked. Everything I worked for I got. Then all of a sudden my wife gets cancer and there’s nothing I can do. I was powerless, and so my whole belief system was shattered. It just sent me on a tailspin.”
He stopped talking to friends and family, eventually becoming so reclusive that some of his buddies got concerned and came over to his house one night. They knew just the therapy he needed: they were taking him to a strip club.
“Once I learned that we have communities of people that are sick and dying because they just don’t have a way to get to food, it is just one of those profound things that you have to say is unacceptable.”
As soon as they walked in, the group ordered a round of drinks and immediately downed them. They ordered a second round, but before they were finished, the bouncers—maybe sensing a dangerous edge even then—came around and took the drinks away.
“Nothing had happened,” Daron says. “We’d only had one drink. It was like a match that just lit and we got in this big brawl. It was the first time since Marcy passed away that I had a sense of peace for a little bit. In that chaos, it was like a release. I’d much rather get punched in the nose than feel that horrible grief inside. It was the first time that it released for a minute, and so I started looking for that release again.”
The next weekend, he got into another bar fight, and this time the police came. Looking for a way out, he jumped in a car with some strangers and wound up back at their apartment. In a plot twist so bizarre that a Hollywood studio would reject the script, those strangers turned out to be members of the Mexican Mafia who were running cocaine from Mexico up the West Coast. That was the first night he snorted a line of cocaine, and it had the same effect as the bar fight. He couldn’t feel the crushing grief anymore.
Because of his depression, he had trouble sleeping at night and then couldn’t stay awake to oversee his three sandwich franchises during the day. Everything was upside down. So he started using cocaine to function during the day and then would drink himself to sleep at night. Within eight or nine months, things had gotten so bad that his parents told him that if he didn’t get help they were going to take his kids away.
“They probably were the only things keeping me alive,” Daron says. “I was scared to death if they took my kids that I’d somehow kill myself.”
He reluctantly agreed to check in to an in-patient rehab in Oregon, but he decided to go on a hunger strike to make it clear the whole thing was against his will. He didn’t eat or drink anything for three days.
He started participating partly so he could eat and partly because he realized the other guys in the program were doctors and professionals, guys he could relate to, who had started coping the same way he had and had wound up in the same place. They had been there for a little while and were getting better. He started to think maybe he wasn’t as big a loser as he thought he was. But he was still angry, and he still didn’t see a future for himself.
“I just fell to my knees one night and I said, ‘God, I don’t even know if you’re real or not, but if you are, I quit. I don’t know how to do this. I’ve fucked everything up.’ I just woke up the next day and everything changed,” Daron says. “I can’t explain it. I still wouldn’t believe in the Christian God. I went to this church that had a Buddha statue out front. I just kept praying. I don’t know how to explain it, but I said, ‘I quit.’ I don’t know what that means, and I don’t know who I quit to. I just kept praying about it, and, for me, it just kept coming back to Jesus.”
After he got out of rehab, Daron knew he didn’t want to have his own business anymore. He was worn out. In an effort to scout out opportunities, he called Dennis Riffer, his former boss at the Scott Paper Company, who was then the CEO of Afflink, a supply chain and procurement company. Riffer agreed to meet with him and ended up offering Daron a job running the company’s healthcare division in Alabama. Within eight months, Daron was overseeing all of the company’s supply chain divisions.
In 2007, Afflink was acquired by The Blackstone Group as part of a $1.4 billion multi-company acquisition to try to create a national food service distributor to compete with Sysco. Afflink was hidden in the financials of the deal, but when Blackstone realized what it had, the company ended up hiring Daron to oversee the verticals at a number of its recently acquired portfolio companies in addition to continuing to manage Afflink.
Daron loved the work and was good at it. He traveled all over the country. One day he was on a plane working on his budgets, and he asked his assistant to send him his expense reports. “My email started pinging while I was on the plane, so I opened up the first file and it was my air travel for the year,” Daron says. It was early September, and he had already flown 54 flights and spent more than $30,000 on travel. “It was a wake-up call to me. I thought I wasn’t a workaholic; I was just doing what my job required. Now I thought, What am I doing?”
Not long after that, while having coffee with a friend, Daron expressed concerns about his work-life balance. His friend told him that he had been volunteering in South Dallas with a group called H.I.S. BridgeBuilders, mentoring men coming out of the prison system.
Daron rode down with him one Saturday. He had no idea what to expect, but he found he enjoyed it. The men were simply trying to survive, a reality Daron could relate to. They weren’t pretending like everything was OK. So he kept going back.
Soon, the two hours he spent volunteering on Saturdays didn’t feel like enough. He started asking himself why he was going to Bonton: was it to give himself a purpose and make him feel better about himself, or was it because he really wanted to make a difference in people’s lives? Because if he was doing it for others, then he needed to do more.
“I know this sounds weird, and it wasn’t like a conversation, but I felt like God said, ‘Remember that day you quit, like I have something for you? If you really mean it, then this is what I have for you. So you’re either going to have to trust me, or you can go back to doing things the way you used to.’ It wasn’t creepy, like a voice or anything. It just made sense to me.”
Daron went to his boss and tendered his resignation, but his boss refused to accept it. “I finally just said, ‘January 1 I’m not going to show up, and so you’d better figure out what you’re going to do.’ ”
Daron’s younger son, Cole, was a freshman in college when his father decided to quit his job and sell the family home in Frisco. Even though he knew his dad had been getting more and more involved with his volunteer work, he was shocked.
“At first, I kind of resented it because of the financial impact,” Cole says. “I was in college and my brother was just getting out of the military. I kind of felt like he wasn’t helping us when he could have been, but now I’m really glad that he did it. I think it’s been good for the family as a whole, and good for him as a person.”
At the time, though, Daron still had to figure out his role in Bonton. As he met with people on his front porch and around the neighborhood, he started asking everyone what was the one thing they thought he could do to help. “Almost everybody I met had been to prison,” Daron says. “And all of them said jobs.”
Most of them had never had a real job before, so the first hurdle was creating résumés. Daron made them a proposition: “If you’ll show up and work with me every day, we’ll clean up the community that you spent your life tearing down, and in so doing we’ll build a résumé.” He couldn’t pay them, but he would treat them like employees, documenting whether they showed up on time, worked hard throughout the day, got along with their co-workers, and helped solve problems. If they followed through, he’d help them set up interviews and vouch for them with potential employers.
He had six guys take him up on the offer, but almost immediately they started calling in sick. “I know I’m white and I’m new,” Daron says, “but I’m not stupid.” He told them they needed to bring him a doctor’s note. “All that time volunteering down there, I couldn’t see the problem because they looked healthy on the outside. I didn’t know that Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, when I was up doing my thing, that they were sitting in the dialysis chair. I was just overwhelmed by the amount of people that were really sick, chronically sick, and would never be better. I just didn’t understand it.”
He started asking questions and realized that Bonton was a food desert. “I had no exposure to this kind of world before, so I was really ignorant to it. It made no sense to me because I live here now and it’s no problem for me to get to the store. I didn’t understand how poverty impacts transportation. Once I learned that we have communities of people that are sick and dying because they just don’t have a way to get to food, it is just one of those profound things that you have to say is unacceptable. In our city, it’s unacceptable. So what are we going to do about it?”
Daron started small. He planted a garden next to his house with no greater vision than that it would give the guys something to do every day and they could take the food home at night. Meanwhile, he documented their work and set up the first round of interviews. But it didn’t go as planned.
“The guys would have the CEO or the president of the company crying on the other side of the desk,” Daron says. “I’d say, ‘I told you so. You’re going to get a call back and you’re going to get a job.’ Three days later, I’d get a call back saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I talked to our legal counsel or human resources and the liability is just too great.’ ”
The men were disheartened, but then a sticky window opened. Nathan Sheets, who owns Nature Nate’s Honey Company in McKinney, called Daron and asked if he thought the guys would be willing to work with bees. If they would, he offered to fund a honey start-up for two years. If they could make a go of it, they would have their own business going forward.
Daron posed the question to his crew, and the response was swift and unequivocal: “Hell, no, we’re not working with bees.” Daron countered, “You’ve been shot three times, what do you mean you won’t work with bees?” He convinced them to give it a go, and the Bonton Honey Company was born.
Between the honey and the garden, Habitat for Humanity took notice. They donated two lots along the south end of Bexar Street so Daron could expand his garden. The city ended up donating six more lots behind those, because the road behind the lots, Canaan Street, had long been abandoned by the city, so the back lots weren’t even accessible without trespassing.
“There were safes and ATMs and tires and syringes and guns and knives. We found everything back there, cleaning that up,” Daron says. “That’s how Bonton Farms was born. It was an accident. We never planned it. And then, all of a sudden, we had to figure out how to do something bigger with it.”
To talk about Bonton Farms is to talk about God. Like many, I have a long and complicated relationship with religion. I grew up in the church, spending weekends and holidays playing in rectories and church basements. My aunt was a Lutheran pastor, as was my grandfather. His wife, my grandmother, played the organ and directed the choir. Her father was a missionary in rural Japan, given the plum assignment by his father, my great-great-grandfather, also a pastor and a leader in the church. But at some point my family used the church as a means to exclude me, and I in turn left the church.
Spending time with Daron, I find that he is surrounded by people who have had the opposite relationship with God. Many abandoned their families, or were abandoned by their families, through drugs, alcohol, violence, or poverty. In meeting Daron, they found a new family. And through that family, they found God.
Even those in Daron’s orbit from the Frisco side of the tracks are clearly moved. They speak with the conviction of apostles, sharing stories of heaven-sent honeycomb and divine serendipity that make it easy to believe.
One such apostle is Trey Holloway. I meet him on an unseasonably brisk October morning at the farm extension, set on 40 acres located farther east, off I-20, just south of Balch Springs. He used to have a pool construction business, but he quit six months ago to work on the extension full time. Today, he’s overseeing the construction of an outdoor pavilion built with cedar logs cut from trees on the back of the property. It’s part of a plan to also build a spacious barn, so that the property can start generating revenue from corporate events. I ask him if he regrets his decision to leave his own business, and he smiles. “Now I go to sleep every night excited about what I’m going to do in the morning,” he says.
As we warm our hands at a blazing outdoor fireplace, Trey points to a concrete company across the street and tells me that after the owner, Fred Treffinger, read an article about Bonton Farms, he offered to give Daron 20 acres for the extension for free. He’d bought it years ago as a buffer so neighbors wouldn’t complain about the noise and dust from the concrete trucks.
Now, with the addition of 20 adjoining acres, the extension is a 40-acre organic farm where most of the produce Bonton Farms sells is grown. Workers from Bonton and volunteers have been clearing the land bit by bit. They’ve built paddocks so that the goats, cows, and Hungarian Mangalitsa pigs can be moved around the cleared fields, tearing up the land and fertilizing it one plot at a time.
The extension is bustling today because Danny, Bonton Farms’ manager, is getting married here over the weekend, and preparations are in high gear. Trey and I are soon joined at the fireplace by Kim High, who manages the extension, and Patrick Wright, the director of sales and marketing. Kim grew up in Joppa, a neighborhood south of Bonton. Like Trey, she’s already had a professional career. She worked for Allstate Insurance in the claims department for 31 years. Sitting at a desk for decades, eating birthday cake and going to happy hours with co-workers took its toll. She developed Type 2 diabetes and was taking insulin three times a day. She finally quit her job, but she still couldn’t get her blood sugar under control. A friend of hers told her he had met this white guy in Bonton who had a farm, and maybe he could teach her how to grow food in her garden so she could eat better.
Kim started volunteering at Bonton Farms. Between walking the rows and eating the fresh produce, she found that she no longer needed to take insulin. But she still needed health insurance, and when she told Daron she was going to have to leave to go back to work, he offered to hire her to manage the extension. “I wouldn’t have chosen to be a farmer,” Kim says, laughing. “I like getting my nails done. But Bonton Farms restored my health. If Allstate offered me $1 million to come back, I would turn it down. People think I’m crazy, but I’ve been in an office all my life. That’s not how I want to spend my last days.”
Patrick’s journey to Bonton Farms was a shorter one physically but a longer one psychically. He grew up in the neighborhood, selling weed by the age of 14 and getting kicked out of school by the 10th grade. He got out of Bonton for a minute, working as a sheet metal fabricator for Brandt Engineering, but addiction kept getting the better of him, and he ended up in and out of prison and unemployed. Daron showed up on his front porch one day asking to borrow electricity, because Patrick’s next-door neighbor, an elderly woman, had fallen through her porch. Daron was trying to fix the porch, but the woman didn’t have any power and Daron needed to plug in his tools. When Patrick got over his confusion about why a white guy was at his front door offering him $10 to use his electricity, and realized this crazy dude cared enough to move to his neighborhood and help out an old woman he didn’t know, he broke down weeping. Telling me the story, he’s weeping again.
Like Gerry, Patrick started coming to Daron’s house to talk and read the Bible. He kept showing up, ultimately helping Daron build the farm at the end of Bexar Street from the ground up. Now he directs sales and marketing for the whole operation, earning a $40,000 income.
“I don’t know what it is about this big-headed white guy,” Patrick says, smiling as he wipes his eyes. “He’s anointed.”
If Daron is a sort of Ryan O’Neal, then his wife, Theda, is his Ali MacGraw. She’s a stunning natural beauty, petite with long brown hair. An accountant by trade, she’s a romantic pragmatist, the kind of woman who would give up her own career path to support her husband’s dream and ensure that the bills get paid. She pulls up to the farm extension in an old BMW Z3 two-seater. That and her stylish green riding jacket appear to be the only nods to her former life in New York City, working as a controller for fashion houses. As she gets out of the car, she ignores her hair, which whips around her makeup-free face in the unexpectedly cold wind.
The widowed Daron and divorced Theda met in 2010 on Match.com, which Theda says Daron doesn’t like people to know. Theda had moved to Dallas to work for Neiman Marcus and then Red Mango, and Daron was still working at Afflink. When he would fly home on Fridays for the weekend, he’d give Theda a call and see if she wanted to go out for dinner. Their first date was at Parigi, when Chad Houser was still the chef there, before he started Cafe Momentum. Theda, a self-identified foodie, picked the place.
It didn’t take her long to notice Daron was never home. She realized he wasn’t ready for a relationship, and they decided to stay friends. After he started volunteering, he told her he wanted to show her something and took her down to Bonton. He figured that since she was from New York, she wouldn’t be freaked out. She may not have been freaked out, but later, after he quit his job and moved into the Habitat house, she was grossed out. Daron was living with several guys who needed transitional housing at the time, and she says she would have to clean the bathroom before she could use it.
A few months later, when she learned Daron was planning to have his family stay with him for Christmas, including his son Beau who was coming home from Afghanistan, she thought he was crazy. A remodeler at heart, she started working with him to fix the place up. When she overheard him tell one of the workers that he wanted the master closet to be big enough for two people, her first thought was, I better be one of the two people. Her second thought was, I guess I’m all in.
Daron proposed before the holiday. When Theda called her mother in New York to tell her, her mother said, “Just remember, this is his calling, not yours.”
That point is now moot. Theda turned down a job with Tory Burch in New York to move to Bonton with Daron, and she views Bonton as their mission, just like the missions her friends have pursued abroad. In September, she quit her latest job as an accountant with Match.com. Now she’s the full-time CFO and COO of Bonton Farms.
“Daron says God will provide,” Theda says. “I’m more nervous and practical.” She’s pursuing alternative revenue streams to support the farm, such as farm-to-table and corporate events, and she has partnered with The Dallas Foundation as a fiscal sponsor.
When I press Theda about how a born and bred New York City girl, who had lived in apartments her whole life, could give up her dream to live in a house in the suburbs, she tucks her hair behind her ears and tilts her head to look at me, almost the same way Danny did.
She says, “I just wanted the opportunity to love him.”
It’s groundbreaking day for the market, and Gerry is in a playful mood.
“Have you ever been to Canada?” he asks me.
“Yes,” I say. “It’s beautiful.”
“I’m going fishing there with Daron this summer,” he says, and gives me a sly grin. “I’m going to see a grizzly bear.”
At first I can’t tell if he’s joking. Then Daron laughs and puts his arm around him.
“Gerry is obsessed with grizzly bears,” Daron says. “I told him I’ve gone bear hunting, and the bears never show up. But every time I’ve gone fishing, I see a bear. So I’m going to take him fishing.”
“We’re going to fly in one of those little planes that lands on the water,” Gerry says. “I’m not sure if I’m going to fit.”
Daron and I walk out to the fence to watch a Bobcat make its first pass. I think he’s going to talk more about his plans for the building, which he describes like an Eatzi’s market with a cafe. The enclosed structure will allow him to have the equipment he needs to store food, offer classes and services, and accept food stamps, although he still plans to operate under the principles of an “honorable transaction,” an exchange that recognizes alternative forms of currency for those in need, including labor, prayers, and pickled vegetables in return for fresh produce. But instead of talking about the market, Daron launches into his bigger vision for the community. There’s the passenger van that will take residents from a stop at the market to their most-needed destinations not served by DART. There’s the preschool that he plans to open in the fall for the neediest kids with at least one active and involved parent. There’s the barbershop he’s going to open down the street in one of the many empty storefronts. Then he starts talking about housing, and that’s when he gets as animated as Gerry talking about grizzlies.
“We’re doing something really exciting,” he says. “I’m more excited about it than I was the farm and all the stuff with food.” After meeting Monte Anderson, the developer who saved the Belmont Hotel and the co-founder of the Incremental Development Alliance, the two hatched an innovative plan. Monte designed what he calls the Roommate House, an unsubsidized housing product that consists of a 1,300-square-foot, two-bedroom house with two studio apartments attached to the back. “It’ll have these two rooms on the back that are like hotel rooms,” Monte later tells me. “They don’t have full kitchens, but they have a hot plate, microwave, bathroom. Like a little 200-square-foot flat. But it’s theirs. They can rent them out for around $250 a month.”
Because the rental units don’t have kitchens, the structure is not considered multifamily. The rent will help pay the low-interest mortgage on the house, and, when the mortgage is paid, the owner will have the house as an asset and an ongoing income from the rental units. Monte plans to break ground in 60 days on the first house, which will be within walking distance of Bonton Farms. It will be for Patrick.
It is a beautiful, utopian plan. Watching the Bobcat level the ground, it feels believable, inevitable.
“Whatever happened to Hector, the guy you first moved in with at the Habitat house?” I ask. Daron pauses. “I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons on this journey,” he says. After getting approved as a service provider so that he could obtain housing vouchers from the city for the ex-felons he was working with, Daron had to find landlords who were willing to rent to former convicts.
“They were horrible places,” he says. “I placed seven people. Two of them got shot in the first week. Hector was one of them, and he got shot in the head and neck. Somebody kicked his door in and just started shooting. They asked him for his car keys, and he said no, and they shot him twice. Another guy got shot in the stomach. And I was like, I did this. With my best efforts, I just sent people to the slaughterhouse. Hector recovered from the gunshot wounds, but he went back to the streets. He’s still there if he’s still alive.”
We stand there for a minute, just watching the dirt move on a corner lot in Bonton. I tilt my head to look up at Daron, and I silently say a prayer.