How teenagers, veterans and farmers are finding purpose at this Tarrant County farm
Pulling off onto the dirt road to Conundrum Farms finds a world of its own. Just minutes away, cars whiz down Chisholm Trail Parkway without a second glance at the swaths of open land that surround Lake Benbrook.
At the six-acre property in Crowley, volunteers tend to neat rows of crops and pull weeds out of native prairie. But the community farm, and the coalition of groups coming together to build it, was anything but inevitable.
“It wasn’t a grand plan. We just started doing the work,” said Cort DeHart, co-founder of Funkytown Food Project and owner of Conundrum Farms. “It’s kind of funny. You manifest something, and sometimes it happens.”
The farm put down roots in 2019, when DeHart decided to turn the property into a community gathering space for people from all walks of life to work toward a common goal: bringing fresh, locally grown produce to underserved areas. Last year, the farm produced more than 2,000 lbs. of food, including fresh fruits and vegetables, according to previous Fort Worth Report coverage.
The idea was born out of DeHart’s frustration with political divides in Tarrant County, which he describes as “everybody yelling at everybody, and no one listening.”
Over the next two years, he found common cause with Reginald Robinson and Kent Bradshaw, who have helped build the Funkytown Food Project into a nonprofit organization providing programs to high school youth. The group also sells its produce at local farmers markets and donates a portion to organizations like the Tarrant Area Food Bank.
For the second summer in a row, a class of students will come together for a six-week paid internship program providing lessons on community service, courage and hope alongside labor on the farm. This year’s class, which has increased from 10 students to around 40, will kick off June 20.
Bradshaw, who serves as Funkytown Food Project’s chief operating officer, has watched the property turn from an uncultivated field to an operating farm that will soon feature a refurbished barn to hold its growing volunteer base. But the group’s ultimate goal is to build a stronger community, he said.
“To create cohesive groups that understand each other, you have to create that sense of: ‘I know you and I respect you no matter what, and I know where you’re coming from,’” Bradshaw said. “You have to have a certain amount of empathy.”
Joining forces to help at-risk youth
The internship program isn’t the only seed of community building sprouting at Conundrum Farms this spring. Over the past year, Funkytown Food Project has joined forces with the prairie-focused Great Plains Restoration Council and Farmers Assisting Returning Military (F.A.R.M.) to expand the farm’s reach to veterans and youths in the juvenile justice system.
Jarid Manos, founder of the Great Plains Restoration Council, has brought at-risk teenagers to restore elements of Fort Worth’s native prairie for more than two years. Through its Restoration Not Incarceration program, the council works with youth recently released from juvenile justice facilities to reduce their risk of returning to the criminal justice system.
Manos’ goal is to connect young people with the outdoors and use natural spaces to help them recover from their previous trauma. Joining Conundrum Farms last year – and restoring the prairie located right next to the property – provides Manos with another venue to achieve that objective.
“Even in the hood, we still live on the prairie. We share the same sun and storms and water,” said Manos, who founded the council in 1998. “For us, it’s about becoming ecosystem participants and understanding that this is what the land looked like to start with. It’s the idea of breathing life back into life.”
Conundrum Farms is part of the movement to make environmental activism less exclusive and include people from different racial and income backgrounds, Manos said. He and the coalition are in it for the long haul, he said.
“You’ve got to flow like water through life,” he said. “If you need to get something done, you find your way to get through it and to make it happen.”
Veterans offer farming expertise, healing experience
Farmers Assisting Returning Military was looking for a new home in North Texas last summer when executive director Hyiat El-Jundi met leaders of the Funkytown Food Project at the Cowtown Farmers Market.
They invited El-Jundi to visit Conundrum Farms and see if the space would work for the nonprofit’s 4,000-plus members in Texas.
The group, founded by two Army veterans in 2014, provides veterans with “dirt therapy,” or healing through learning agricultural practices. F.A.R.M. also connects veterans with recreational opportunities through horseback riding, hiking, camping and other group gatherings featuring farm-to-table produce.
Once El-Jundi saw the property, she knew that F.A.R.M. had found its new home in Tarrant County. Funkytown wasn’t looking for free labor, she said, and agreed to a long-term partnership.
“It was the first time we all walked away and were like: ‘OK, it could work,’” El-Jundi said. “And we saw that they also needed some farming expertise. They did a really great job for their first year, but we stepped in to just refine some processes.”
To give the coalition more time to fundraise and the soil time to recover, El-Jundi decided that the farm should not go into full production this year. She looks forward to expanding the farm’s harvest in 2024 and hosting other programming for veterans at the property.
“It’s a way for them to renew their mission and give them a sense of purpose again, because they’re used to being part of something bigger than themselves,” El-Jundi said.
Bringing together nonprofits with varying purposes is not always easy, Bradshaw said, but the coalition is finding a path forward through consistent communication and coordination. Their next goal is expanding educational opportunities so more people can learn about animal life and native plants in the region, DeHart said.
The vision is simple, he said.
“When it’s really hitting its stride, we can have great conversations, do a little work and sweat together, and break bread together,” DeHart said.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cristian ArguetaSoto is the Fort Worth Report’s community engagement journalist. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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