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US (TX): Cultivating prosperity in South Dallas through urban farming

When you hear about urban farming, SMU faculty members Doric Earle and Owen Lynch want your next thought to be about entrepreneurship. The co-founders of the nonprofit Restorative Farms are helping to build a sustainable and profitable AgriSystem model in South Dallas.

It's about more than providing fresh, responsibly sourced food. Restorative Farms trains, hires, and pays members of the South Dallas community to work at its locations. Additionally, the organization offers training resources for those looking to start a produce business.

It also sources materials needed for the nonprofit from other South Dallas businesses, so every dollar spent by Restorative Farms is reinvested into the community. There is also an internship program for high school and college students that teaches farming and nonprofit skills.

South Dallas has carried the "food desert" label for years – a community where residents have limited access to affordable and nutritious food. But Lynch thinks that term focuses on a neighborhood's deficits instead of its assets – and what he sees is opportunity.

Lynch's research focuses on asset-based community development. This approach encourages communities and individual households to identify their existing assets and use what they already have more efficiently and effectively to improve their lives. As a community-engaged scholar, Lynch believes every community in Dallas should have access to fresh food, beautiful spaces, and local jobs.

Earle holds similar beliefs. After 30 years managing large technology consultancies, he reinvented his career to help communities, social enterprises, and entrepreneurs achieve collaborative, engaging, and sustainable solutions. In the classroom, Earle teaches social entrepreneurship and offers opportunities for students to intern and consult with nonprofits in South Dallas.

To address food hardships decades in the making, Restorative Farms leans into a "community food system" where food production, processing, distribution, and consumption are integrated to enhance a community's environmental, economic, social, and nutritional health.

"For many reasons, including climate change, fluctuating health of American soil and water availability, we need to be building more resilient systems in cities in terms of how we source food locally," Lynch said. "COVID made people aware of how fragile our supply chains are, and communities like South Dallas are the first to take the brunt of scarcity. Restorative Farms trains members of the community to become professional farmers, grow locally, and supply their neighborhoods with healthy food at affordable prices. And this model is about more than just farming; it's also about taking underutilized urban land and turning it into rejuvenated, productive plots."

Since its start in 2017, Restorative Farms has collected every bit of real-world data to ensure actionable items take place to build and scale the project to last.

Achievements Include:

  • Urban Farming Practices: Baby plants grown at Restorative Farms's Seedling Farm (at the MLK Community Center near Dallas's Fair Park) are transferred to the organization's Hatcher Station Farm for easy planting, training farm apprentices, and providing the start of crops at affordable prices for community growers and producers. Crops are also available to families, with Restorative Farms on average feeding over 100 households a week with vegetable boxes. Hatcher Farm sits on a lot that the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) system leased to Restorative Farms, a collaboration that could be replicated at other unused DART plots.

  • GroBox Program: Available at the Hatcher Station Farm and online, a GroBox provides a box, soil, and seedlings so households, schools, and more can grow healthy produce. Lynch points out that produce has its most nutritious density right when picked and that nutrition is lost every day it takes for produce to ship elsewhere. The boxes, which can contain peppers, tomatoes, herbs etc., are produced in South Dallas, and proceeds help fund Restorative Farms' efforts.

  • Closed Environment Agriculture: Big Tex Urban Farms, a mobile agriculture system located in Dallas's Fair Park, is home to Restorative Farms's hydroponic container farm Grozilla, where 250 plants are grown per week under LED lights. Because climate is altering areas where food is grown, training farmers to care for crops in closed agricultural environments creates more stable and secure systems for future food supply.

"We're trying to be an economic catalyst in this community where efforts are creating stability, jobs, and growth," Earle said. "By utilizing this area's strengths and leveraging those to build systems like the AgriSystem, we transform South Dallas. Restorative Farms started from an entrepreneurial framework, which is different from other urban farm programs."

In addition to Lynch and Earle, Restorative Farms was founded by entrepreneur Brad Boa and farms system manager and horticulturalist Tyrone Day. Boa leads the efforts for Restorative Farms to establish partnerships and collaborations with businesses, government agencies, and community organizations.

Collaborators have included the City of Dallas Economic Development, SMU Meadows School of Arts, Frazier Revitalization Inc, Tito's Vodka, Kosmos Energy, Texas A&M Agri-Life, State Fair of Texas, Green Mountain Energy, Toyota Motors North America, Whole Foods Market and the USDA & USDA NRCS.

Born and raised in South Dallas, Day oversees the Seedling Farm, where he's grown tens of thousands of seedlings of many varieties, and is a lead trainer for others pursuing farming at Hatcher Station.

With a focus on building a sustainable and profitable AgriSystem, Restorative Farms is setting an example for other communities facing food disparities and proving that urban farming can be a viable solution to address food deserts in other parts of the United States. What began as a seedling farm has become an integral part of a larger movement for urban economic viability and permanent fresh food options.


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