August 2005
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Geneva County Unearths Dirt Diva

 
  When life got dirty, Debbie DeRossette turned to produce farming and became, as her cap proclaims, a true ?Dirt Diva.?

Debbie DeRossette doesn?t look like a farmer.

Her overalls may not be designer jeans but they certainly aren?t over-hauls. She wears flip-flops instead of brogans, but her pink caps says, ?Dirt Diva? and she?s a-talking farm talk, and a-pickin? peas, so maybe she is a farmer after all.

DeRossette punctuates most of her sentences with a laugh ? an almost nervous laugh. She talks fast, scarcely taking a deep breath and moves so fast that she is almost a blur.

When she does light for a few minutes, she speaks in a slower, softer voice but her eyes are bright and hopeful and give little indication of the disappointment that brought her to the fields.

For about 15 years, DeRossette was the publisher of a successful regional magazine. She had just won a regional travel writer?s award and was in the process of purchasing a complex in which to continue to build the magazine that was her ?baby.?

Through no fault of her own, the deal turned ?dirty.? To survive, she ?got down in the dirt.? She had two huge holes in her life that had to be filled, so DeRossette turned to farming ? dirt farming.

Not only had she lost a business that had brought her so much satisfaction, she also lost her husband. Looking for a place to turn, a place to begin again, she got back to the basics of life.

?I grew up on a farm and I knew what it means to work the land,? DeRossette said. ?I needed time to think and time to heal. I didn?t know of a better place to do that than out here on the farm. It took a while for me to realize that, but I finally knew that this is what I needed to be doing at this point in my life.?

 
Debbie DeRossette?s prayers were answered with a bumper crop of peas.  

Coming to that realization took a while. Although the idea of farming kept popping up in DeRossette?s head, she couldn?t picture herself growing peanuts or cotton as her dad had done on his Geneva County farm. But she knew she wanted to do something ?dirty.?

And, as fate or luck would have it, a friend came into her life and he caught on to her dream. William Easom suggested that DeRossette give produce farming a try.

?If you?re going to farm small, then produce farming is the way to go,? she said, laughing. ?I couldn?t make a go of farming with 20 acres of peanuts, but I sure could grow a lot of peas.? So, that?s what she made up her mind to do.

?Last September, I started preparing to go into produce farming,? DeRossette said. ?I read everything I could read ? in books, on the Internet. I went to Auburn to get help and to the Extension service. I didn?t know much when I started but I learned a lot.?

And, when it was time to put the plow in the ground, DeRossette sought the advice of her friend and ?those good folks down at the Enterprise Farmers Co-op. I don?t know if I could have grown one pea without their help,? she said. ?I mean those folks walked me through everything. I went down there to get my seeds and now they can?t get rid of me. They told me what kind of fertilizer I needed, what kind of insecticides ? what kind of everything. And, they told me how to do and when to do. I get equipment from them and very good, sound advice. When you?re a first year farmer, the Farmers Co-op gets to be your best buddy.?
DeRossette?s first produce farming venture included primarily peas.

?Folks are crazy about peas, so I wanted my farm to be heavy on peas,? she said. ?I planted mostly peas ? white peas and purple hulls.? She also planted okra, butterbeans, cucumbers, corn and an acre of squash for market.

 
  Picking is hard work, but DeRossette feels she has the best pea pickers around.

?And, I can tell you that if you?ve got an acre of squash, you?ve got too many,? she said, laughing. ?Why, I was giving squash to everybody that looked at me.?

And, DeRossette was blessed with an abundance of peas.

?The success of a farm depends a big part on the weather,? she said. ?My mama knows all about that. I was counting on my peas to produce if I was going to make it in farming. So, Mama and I prayed for peas and, boy, were we blessed. We got 100 percent germination and we?ve had more peas than you can say grace over. God has been so good to us.?

DeRossette?s main markets for her abundant crop of peas have been the farmers? markets, especially in Birmingham.

?We?ve gone up the night before and had folks knocking on our door at 2 o?clock in the morning wanting peas,? she said. ?One man comes down from Tennessee to buy peas. They?re having drought conditions up there and twice he has bought our entire truckload. We haven?t any trouble getting rid of our loads ? except after the storm.?

DeRossette said she had about 40 pickers in the field trying to get the peas in ahead of Hurricane Dennis.

?We didn?t know when we would be able to get back in the field, so we picked all we could,? she said. ?Right after the storm, I gave peas away. If somebody bought a bag, I?d give them one. You could just see those little ol? ladies faces light up when I gave them an extra bag. But, hey, I?d rather give peas away than throw them away any day.?

During her first ?green acres? year, DeRossette has learned many lessons.

?I know that it?s mighty hot out here in the pea patch,? she said, wiping the salty sweat from her eyes. ?And, I know that it?s a lot of hard work and I know that it?s hard to get people to work fields. But we?ve got a good, dependable bunch of folks helping us and we?re mighty proud to have folks like them. They are the best and we appreciate them.?

There was no doubt in DeRossette?s mind that she had the best pea pickers around. So, when she hired a crew of Mexican pickers to help gather the peas, she didn?t bat an eye in accepting their challenge to see which crew could pick more ? hers or theirs.

?We beat ?em,? DeRossette said, laughing. ?I?ve never picked peas so hard in my life. But when the day was done, we?d beaten them by one bag. And, then we beat them again. I?m real proud of our crew.?

And, even though the tally?s not in and DeRossette?s not sure about the margin of profit on her first produce crop, she?s optimistic about her future in farming.

?Oh, I?ll get better at it. I got good folks around me ? working with me and advising me,? she said, and added with a hearty laugh. ?And, those folks up at the Co-op probably love me because I?ve got a big account with them. So all of us working together can make it happen. And, being out here has already helped me. I feel better and I know that farming is helping the healing process. Farming?s good for the soul and I thank God for blessing me the way He has. It?s good life out here on the farm."

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.