Photography by Teresa Rafidi
Kylie and Chris Demases with Allie (the pooch) and Ozzie at Pecan Creek Strawberry Farm in Pilot Point.
Pam (left) and George Demases at Demases Farm in Boyd, with cousin Tammy Demases McCown.
When lightning struck the Demases Farm one stormy afternoon in June 2014, it ignited a fire that ravaged the home of Robert and Pam Demases. The couple was inside when it hit.
“It literally sounded like a bomb had gone off in the house,” Pam says, telling me the story as we’re about to tour the farm near Boyd in a dusty mule utility-vehicle. Clad in T-shirt and jeans, she’s all business, her brown-blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, with a visor and shades to shield against the sun.
Even as the remains of the house smoldered, the farm couldn’t wait, the matriarch explained: You have to pick tomatoes and other summer crops daily.
“We didn’t have time to grieve over the loss of our home. We had work to do.”
Kylie Demases ran up against that single-minded dedication the first time she encountered her future in-laws.
“The first time I met (Chris’) parents,” says the raven-haired nurse, “they were tying collard greens in the field. I ended up helping them. I learned how to tie greens. I realized this was how it was going to be [i.e. farm first], and I fell in love with it.”
For more than a century, the Demases family has farmed North Texas soil, starting with Robert’s grandfather, James Demases, who came to the United States from Greece in the early 1900s. Their story is a testament not only to the tenacity it takes to farm, but the capacity to adapt and be nimble when life bites.
“(James Demases) was working in a steel mill in Pittsburgh,” says Robert, a gritty, compact man whose weathered skin bespeaks long hours outside. “He and a bunch of Greeks decided they wanted to farm.” So they got on a train and headed west. “When the train stopped in Fort Worth,” Robert says, a group of 15 or so local Greeks tried to persuade James to stay. “They said ‘We’re trying to get a farming community started.’”
James did stay and started working land in the Trinity River bottoms, then he relocated near Randol Mill (an early dam and grain mill in Tarrant County), got married in 1925, had children including Robert’s father, Johnny, and eventually moved to Arlington in 1941 where he farmed until his death in 1982. Robert grew up on the Arlington farm. But by 1982, the city was encroaching.
After heirs sold the Arlington patch, Robert and Johnny, intent on continuing to farm, moved the family to the present site outside Boyd, where they own 40 acres and lease about 20 more. “Out of high school, I went straight into farming,” Robert says, although he had detested farm chores as a teen. “It’s a way of life. You get accustomed to it.”
For decades, the family supplied greens to area supermarket chains Minyard, A&P and Safeway. When that business went away—the stores closed, the supply chains changed—they eventually shifted to selling at grower-only farmers markets, including Cowtown in Fort Worth and Good Local markets in Dallas.
Good pickings at Pecan Creek Strawberry Farm.
When people ask how they keep their fields so weed-free, “I tell ‘em, ‘with a hoe’.” — Pam Demases
They began cultivating diverse crops year-round, anchored by spinach, onions and squash in the spring; tomatoes, melons and black-eyed peas in the summer; and cauliflower, carrots, greens and cabbage in fall and winter. “Brussels sprouts were popular this fall,” Pam says. “We sold them on the stalk.”
As we traverse the farm in the mule, we pass fields planted with Austrian winter peas. “They pull nitrogen from the air,” Robert says from his twin mule shadowing Pam and me. That fortifies the soil before planting watermelon and cantaloupe. It’s indicative of changes in the family’s approach to the land. “My grandfather and dad used the most high-potent thing there was,” Robert says, as in fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. Today, the family uses cleaner, more sustainable methods, including old-fashioned elbow grease. When people ask how they keep their fields so weed-free, “I tell ‘em, ‘with a hoe,’” Pam says.
Besides selling at grower markets, the Demaseses supply area restaurants, from Sagebrush Cafe in nearby Bridgeport (which features the farm’s produce at its annual farm-to-table week) and Sweetie Pie’s Ribeyes in Decatur to Ellerbe Fine Foods in Fort Worth and FT33, Gemma and Sachet in Dallas. They also sell to Royal Blue Grocery in Dallas’ Highland Park Village.
But they’re especially proud of the little store at the front of their property, which they’ve developed into a destination for drivers from as far away as Dallas and Denton. “Facebook and Instagram have been two of the best things that ever happened to this farm,” says Pam, who grew up in Montague County. “Social media is the biggest tool there is to get customers out here.”
Tammy Demases McCown and Pam Demases at the Demases Farm store. Tammy does the canning.
A basket of fresh strawberries at Pecan Creek.
In part, that’s because you never know exactly what you’ll find any given day at the Demaseses’ farm store, which operates from about Mother’s Day through February. “People show up to get fresh produce,” says Chance, Robert and Pam’s other son. But they also come for cousin Tammy Demases McCown’s canned seasonal produce. (The retired schoolteacher lives in Keller.) Or a neighbor’s handmade fried pies. Maybe barbecue from a friend’s truck. “We tell ‘em, they show up,” Pam says, beaming.
More recently, Chance has concentrated on their restaurant clientele. When he takes me to the onion field, about a mile from the main farm, he shows me the shallots he planted at the suggestion of Matt McCallister, chef-owner of hyper-locally sourced FT33. Gemma/Sachet co-owner Stephen Rogers has requested yellow wax beans and Sungold tomatoes. Other chefs are interested in celery (in the greenhouse) and artichokes (coming in the fall).
Chance tried to leave the farm, but its force-field proved too great. After earning a finance degree from the University of North Texas, then an MBA from Southern Methodist University, he landed in North Dallas and Fort Worth, working in finance for several years.
“I really enjoyed the industry then,” he says. But the farm was always in the background, and his love of the country eventually pulled him back. Now he’s part of three generations that live at Demases Farm. He lives in one house. Robert and Pam, in another (long since repaired a er the lightning strike). And Robert’s mother, Dessie (Johnny died in 2004), lives in yet another with Robert’s sister, Marilyn.
Son Chris and his wife Kylie—the one who learned to tie greens— also lived on the Boyd farm from 2014, when they married, until recently. “We fell in love with the lifestyle,” says Kylie, a labor-and-delivery nurse at Wise Health System in Decatur.
But farming is work-intensive year-round. And Chris, the spitting image of his father, had his eye on another dream. The gleam in his eye matches the glint from his rodeo championship belt buckle. Chris was the top 2015 all-American tie-down roper.
The professional rodeo circuit requires him to be away from home three months of the year. “The biggest part of the season is summertime,” he says, “and all the rodeos are in northern states.” The rest of the time, he travels to competitions across Texas and can be home in between.
Chris didn’t want to choose between farming and rodeo riding, so he and Kylie began looking for something they could farm without tying Chris down. They came up with strawberries.
“They have a three-month season,” Chris says. “Plant in the fall, care throughout the winter.” Spring and early summer (until the heat hits) is picking time. “I could chase my dream the rest of the year.” So for three years, they tended strawberries on the Demases homestead in Boyd, selling them at the farm store and farmers markets.
In her strawberry dress, Ella Morgan shows off her strawberry basket.
Summer offerings at the Demases Farm store.
But then Chris noticed something. “People wanted to pick them.” Last fall, they made a lightning-fast decision to set up a pick-your-own. They had to move quickly, Chris explains, because it was time to plant for the spring season. “We thought Pilot Point would be a good location.” The ranch community north of Dallas is where Kylie’s family happens to live and happened to have some land available. “We talked to my grandmother and dad,” Kylie says, and the idea was a go. Within three days, they’d ordered their plants. They spent the next three months—October, November and December—driving back and forth from Boyd to tend to their strawberries. In December, they moved to a house in downtown Pilot Point.
This spring, they opened Pecan Creek Strawberry Farm and hope to have strawberries for picking into June and possibly beyond. These include sweet Camarosas, slightly tart Chandlers and fragile Albion berries which have the most intense, complex flavor to my palate. Fittingly, a weathered horse trailer marks the spot, with a hand-lettered sign on the side. Chris’ rodeo horse Ozzie lives nearby with cattle and donkeys.
For the millennial Demaseses, kinship to the soil is in their DNA, tying them back to their great-grandfather who quit the steel mill to pursue his love of farming.
“You get to work for yourself,” Chance says. “You’re independent. It offers you something you can’t get sitting in a high-rise in Dallas.”
FB: Demases Farm
KIM PIERCE is a Dallas freelance writer and editor who’s covered farmers markets and the locavore scene for some 30 years, including continuing coverage at The Dallas Morning News. She came by this passion writing about food, health, nutrition and wine. She and her partner nurture a backyard garden (no chickens – yet) and support local producers and those who grow foods sustainably. Back in the day, she co-authored The Phytopia Cookbook and more recently helped a team of writers win a 2014 International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Award for The Oxford Encyclopedia for Food and Drink in America.