In Oak Cliff, an artsy and diverse nook of Dallas, there’s a little farm store where friends and neighbors gather around a common interest — local, fresh food. The shelves are filled with Texas produce just pulled from the ground, farm milk with cream still on top, eggs and meats from pastured animals, artisan breads baked that morning, fair-wage coffee roasted down the street. Urban Acres is my and my husband’s labor of love, a business we started together two years ago, and I can say it has become my greatest earthly lesson on the beauty of growing and sharing food.
For us, it begins with the Texan family farmer whose hands we’ve shaken, whose land our feet have touched. We travel down dirt farm roads to meet them and learn about their world, their passion, and what they have to offer. From there, the process through which that farmer’s hard-earned golden beets or wild blackberries or baby ‘bellas arrive on someone’s dinner table is because of one word: community.
To truly envision Urban Acres, you must first understand the neighborhood where it lives. Oak Cliff prides itself in being a hidden jewel in the middle of the city. Just over the Trinity River from downtown, Oak Cliff is truly “old Dallas,” a historic area where chain stores are few and far between, and mom-and-pop shops and restaurants reign. Until recently, many people who’ve lived in Dallas their entire lives didn’t even know it existed. Oak Cliff has it all — steep hills, mature oak trees, the best authentic taco stands, bike-friendly thoroughfares, a plethora of front porches, and heck, even a house on stilts. The culture of our store was birthed from its surroundings, and our staff, volunteers, and customers are as unique as the neighborhood itself. These advocates of authenticity have become the backbone of our Urban Acres community.
At 11:00 am every Friday morning, precisely ten of these folks gather together when “the dance,” as we call it, begins. Over the next few hours, this small team of volunteers hand-sorts almost 10,000 pounds of organic produce into hundreds of individual bin shares for Dallas families who are members of our “co-op style produce” system. Each Friday, it seems practically impossible. And each Friday in an impressive act of teamwork, the sort-team accomplishes the impossible with smiles on their faces and high-fives all around.
First, the farmers arrive, backing up trucks to the warehouse doors and unloading that week’s bounty. Perhaps it’s the Orth’s toting baskets overflowing with fresh arugula or the Morrison’s with bundles of spinach so beautiful they could be bouquets. Someone turns up the music, and the sort-team — who by now are friends and comrades — assemble, swigging bottles of water as if in preparation for a marathon: Patrick, Kathi, Chris, Jamal, Chase, Cynthia, Joe, Jim, Carrie, and Saul. The team leader shouts out the first item: “Cauliflower! Two heads in every bin — let’s GO!” And it carries on for several hours until they’re finally done and get to cash in their volunteer hours with food credit in the store, which has been styled by Cynthia, a design firm owner who pots succulents from her backyard in repurposed beer cans and wine bottles. They fill baskets with fresh produce, gluten-free goodies, farm dairy, or local honey to take home and enjoy. Each member of our small team of volunteers and staff has their own reasons for being involved. Maybe they’re out of a job and need food; maybe they just find it fun. They each use their creativity and their area of expertise, leaving the store more connected to the farmers and the land and the people who will eat that fresh food the next day. All those hands working together create something beautiful.
Early the next morning, bins full of fresh produce are delivered in a truck driven by Saul to our “farm stand” pick-up locations all over Dallas. The farm stands are churches, non-profits, or businesses that are already plugged into their neighborhoods. On a Saturday morning, city-dwellers hustle around the concrete jungle to make appointments, run errands, and fight traffic. But for a two-hour window at a community garden or in a church parking lot, neighbors gather and connect. “What’s this?” a woman asks, examining the leafy grins resting atop other produce in her bin. “Oh, that’s kale, and here’s how I like to cook it,” another member responds. Conversations flicker, recipes are exchanged, reminiscent of the old-time general store. What’s in the bin each week is a surprise, largely depending on what’s seasonal and available at the time. You should see grown men and women hauling bins to their cars and then peeking inside like kids on Christmas morning.
It’s exciting for me to see someone’s eyes light up at the first bite of a Texas blueberry sweeter than candy, especially when I was there when those blueberries were delivered in wooden crates by the farmer who grew them. It’s fulfilling to see parents and two kids riding their bikes home from our store with produce stuffed into the front baskets or a couple walking home each holding one side of their produce bin, swinging it between them as if it were a happy toddler. I imagine them sharing a meal at their dinner table later that night, and I hope a discussion happens — “Where did these turnips come from?” The answer is simple: Cleburne, TX, 53 miles away.
There is something powerful about food. The abundance of it can cause feelings of thankfulness, or conversely, greed and arrogance. The lack of it can cause humility, or anger and frustration. Food stirs people emotionally, and ideally, draws them together.
At the end of the produce pick-up days, the leftover organic food is donated to ministries that hand-deliver it to people in need, maybe some who would otherwise go without. For example, Kelly from The Rose Garden who works with women who were formerly in prison. Elizabeth at Promise of Peace Community Garden who gets kids off the street by teaching them the value of getting their hands in the dirt. Others deliver to refugees who have no idea what food to buy here, much less where to buy it. And that’s the miracle of this whole thing because now, a seed that was planted by a farmer on Texas soil several months ago has the potential to have a healing effect on a stranger’s life. Somehow, my little family’s efforts combined with that of so many others is a gift to the community, a voice shouting over the din of this big city that knowing where your food comes from does matter.
How has all this affected me? I’m a full-time mom to an infant, but I’m still able to fulfill my nerdy side by keeping up with accounts payable and filing membership forms. My creative side finds joy in illustrating the chalkboards in our store in fanciful colors, which as silly as it may sound, is something I’ve always wanted to do. And then I get to correspond with our customers, which is always a trip. Sometimes it’s helping someone figure out how to cook bok choy. Sometimes it’s rescuing someone from making a fruit pie out of swiss chard that they mistook for rhubarb!
Being a new mom who owns a small family business is a huge sacrifice and one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I feel completely frazzled most days. But this experience has also simplified life in a beautiful way. Just a few days ago on a mild spring day, I was walking home from our store with a bag of produce on my wrist, a bottle of kombucha in one hand, and my nine-month-old daughter nestled in her carrier against my chest. I saw my reflection in the windows and paused, smiling. During moments like these, I can stop and be thankful that I can raise my family in an environment where everyone is someone, and food is more than just physical sustenance.
Through the opportunity I’ve been given to help feed my community, I’m reminded daily of this truth: food is a gift. I have the chance to hold that gift in my hands before it passes on to others.
“People should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:13, NLT)
Christine Bailey is wife to Steven and mama to nine-month-old Luci Isabelle. After working in the music industry in Nashville for many years and then for an African relief organization, she and her husband now own a farm store in Dallas and would love to have their own farm one day. In her (not so) spare time, she shares her art, photography, and writings on her blog, Dreams of Simple Life, works in her backyard garden, takes walks with her little girl, and looks for the beauty in everyday life. “I believe that everyone has some creative spark in them, because we were all made by a Creator, and it’s just a matter of finding what that creativity means to you.”