DALLAS (AP) — Bonton farmers have big plans for a patch of dirt at the end of Bexar Street in southern Dallas, the one that just a few weeks ago was simply a hole in the ground.

Bonton Farm leaders and supporters this month broke ground there for a marketplace where farmers will sell fresh vegetables straight from the dirt — food harvested from the neighboring acre-plus farm and its nearby 40-acre extension.

The Dallas Morning News reports that for Daron Babcock, executive director of Bonton Farms, this moment has been a long time coming.

"Look at this," Babcock said in November as he pushed open the wooden gate to reveal a hole on the other side. "If everything works perfectly it's a four-month build. They're telling me to be prepared for eight months, but I say no more than six."

For years, this grassy lot at the entrance to the farm has sat untouched. It's taken until now for the farmers to raise the money to build the $450,000 project and sort through the city of Dallas' bureaucratic process to begin construction.

As part of the groundbreaking ceremony, Dallas-based AT&T presented the farm a $100,000 check to help fund tables, chairs, fixtures and equipment in the marketplace's cafe.

It's been decades since a market sold fresh produce in the Bonton neighborhood, and the nearest grocery store is a three-hour round-trip by bus. Many in the neighborhood of a few thousand residents get their meals at the corner liquor store.

In the last few years, the farm has resurrected a dead-end street and turned some empty home lots into an oasis in a food desert.

It's drawn attention across the city, opening its gates on Saturdays to a couple hundred volunteers to help pull weeds and harvest produce.

Still, the farm has only ever fed 200 or so Bonton residents who wandered onto the farm out of curiosity.

But the farmers hope to feed the entire neighborhood.

They say the new 2,500-square-foot marketplace could be the answer. They're calling it Bonton Farms 2.0.

"If we'd been doing the shotgun approach, this is the bullet," said Matthew "Trog" Trogdon, vice president of Bonton Farms.

"We're going to feed people. It will be farm-to-table," he said of the marketplace scheduled to open in April. "All the things we've been talking about we'll be able to see in real-time with the building."

Babcock has been preaching this marketplace gospel since volunteers began clearing the swath of overgrown bushes and trees to make way for Bonton Farms more than three years ago.

His vision is more than simply a food market. It includes a cafe that will serve breakfast and lunch; financial management, cooking, nutrition and yoga classes; legal counseling; diabetes testing; and a neighborhood market that accepts food stamps in exchange for fresh fruits and vegetables.

"It becomes this community hub," Babcock said.

At the market, Bonton residents will be able to buy food grown at the farm at-cost and a flat-rate for any meal from the cafe, but nonresidents would pay more. There will be classes to teach people how to cook tasty meals with vegetables and the health benefits of eating them.

Coupling the nutrition education behind fruits and vegetables is key, Babcock said.

"It's more than plopping a store down that all of a sudden has fresh food in it," he said.

Babcock was making a not-so-subtle reference to a failed city of Dallas pitch last year, when officials offered a $3 million bounty to big-name grocers to build a grocery store in any southern Dallas food desert. There were no takers.

"The reason we have these problems is because of poverty. ... And poverty creates challenges with transportation," Babcock said.

"You know how many grocery stores you'd have to build in South Dallas to get to all the neighborhoods? You'd have to build dozens of them. And you can't do it. It just makes no sense. Unless you don't understand what it's like to live in poverty."

Instead, Babcock says small neighborhood markets like the one coming to Bonton could be the solution.

Earlier this year, the city of Dallas agreed to give $100,000 to finish funding the market and cafe.

Dallas Councilman Adam McGough, who represents Lake Highlands and far northeast Dallas, is a supporter. He first visited the farm several years ago when it was just a garden in Babcock's backyard on Valentine Street.

"We always look at these solutions as ... we need a big grocery store," McGough said.  "This may be a great pilot or test case to show how it can work."

If this new venture is a success, Babcock imagines more neighborhood markets sprouting up in other food deserts like seedlings.

Time will tell.

"We could be the fools here. We could be all wrong, and we'll see soon," Babcock said.


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