DALLAS — Drew Demler is digging in a box of dirt in the middle of Fair Park.

The Dallas Morning News reports he is harvesting potatoes — big, small, misshapen, one that even looks like a snowman — in a hotter-than-deep-fried parking lot just outside the Cotton Bowl.

“I think potatoes and onions are two of the most important crops that we grow,” Demler, farm manager at Big Tex Urban Farms, says as he uses his bare hands to search for the tubers. “They’re hearty and prolific, and their storage life is long.”

Demler and landscape supervisor Barron Horton take about an hour to harvest potatoes from four raised wooden containers on one side of the farm. There are more than 500 other planting beds around them, full of vegetables in various stages of promise — peppers, black-eyed peas, okra, squash, zucchini.

They bag the potatoes, take them to a weighing station and pack them in crates. They hop in the car and drive the crates about two miles down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Cornerstone Baptist Church’s Community Kitchen, where they will be chopped, cooked and served in one of the 7,000 meals the church feeds the homeless and hungry of the South Dallas community every month.

“It makes a world of difference, from quality to taste,” says Donald Wesson, program director at Cornerstone. “We get a lot of stuff that comes from the food system where it’s on its last leg. But they (Big Tex Urban Farms) actually have fresh produce.”

In a little over a year, Demler and his team have harvested more than 1,450 pounds of food and made dozens of deliveries to Cornerstone and the Baylor Scott & White Health and Wellness Institute at the Juanita Craft Recreation Center.

But feeding people, while essential, is only a small part of what needs to be done to establish food security and economic growth in southern Dallas, much of which is considered a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

To do that, you need a food system, a sustainable one. The State Fair of Texas is quickly becoming the backbone of such a system in southern Dallas, with its strong roots in the community, resources and room to grow. A familiar face and a friendly, “Howdy, folks,” doesn’t hurt, either.

This year, the State Fair has formed partnerships with Southern Methodist University’s Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension and other community organizations and local entrepreneurs to build a network that they hope can transform the neighborhood.

“We’re not just creating an urban farm here, we’re creating a system,” says Owen Lynch, associate professor at SMU and a senior fellow at the Hunt Institute.

“Big Tex has the resources, the money and the space, the scale needed to turn into a viable farm. And they aren’t looking to make money.”

“South Dallas is such a great resource and can be a big part of the new urban farming movement,” Lynch adds. “It just needs to be coordinated.”

Daron Babcock of Bonton Farms, who has met with Hays, Lynch and others, says he is on board in whatever way he can help to build a food system. “We are all in,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity to be a model for the country. Dallas was really late to the game, but we have a chance to catch up and become a model.”

“We can show there are multiple solutions and various approaches that work to solve the problem,” Babcock adds. “And if we all come together, city included, it can be done. We can’t do it apart from one another.”

Jason Hays, creative director at the State Fair, launched Big Tex Urban Farms in the spring of 2016 as a project that would align well with the fair’s three important missions of promoting agriculture, education and community involvement.

Hays says the State Fair leadership researched issues in the community to see how it could become a resource. “We saw that major issues were food scarcity and the USDA food desert in this area,” he says. “That was also something that was a personal passion of mine: the gardening. So how do I translate what I do into a system the fair could be a part of?”

So for every corny dog you buy or Texas Star Ferris wheel ride you take, you’re supporting the farm and feeding the community.

“All of the funding comes from the fair,” Hays says. “There’s this thought that it’s a 24-day event and that’s it, but we see the fair as North Texas’ largest fundraiser for the activities we do in the offseason.”

Big Tex Urban Farms started out on a small “best test” scale last year with 100 beds. It experimented with the size of the beds and the soil makeup, and saw which varieties of fruits and vegetables performed the best. The project also established connections with community organizations that would receive the food.

In 2017, the idea grew, and so did the farm. It now covers ¾ of an acre with 520 beds full of vegetables. Hays and Demler plan on adding more boxes and a deep water culture hydroponic system, and they recently added six chickens that produce eggs.

Big Tex has support, scale and something else that makes it unique: mobility. The farm has to move elsewhere before the fair in September — a massive logistical undertaking — so the 40-by-48-inch planting beds were designed to be lifted easily by a forklift and moved onto a truck.

The 520 boxes at Fair Park will have to move in August to make room for the fair. Several community organizations are interested in receiving those boxes, which will kick-start their own community gardens.

This summer, Hays has been working with Lynch of SMU, Stephen Hudkins and Jeffrey Raska of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, and local entrepreneur Brad Boa to establish a model for what they are calling a Fair Park agri-system.

The first part of the model is to get the boxes out into the community and educate new growers through an urban farming certification program developed by AgriLife.

Not only will these organizations receive boxes with soil and seedlings that are suited to Dallas, they will also receive training and support from AgriLife before they get started and throughout the growing season. They’ll learn about growing seasons, irrigation, pests and weeds, and even about nutrition and how to prepare and preserve the food they grow.