The Good Earth: Hobby farmer's green thumb in full bloom

It is a cool spring evening, and Burgin “Buster” Dabney, just coming back to the house after planting, is as close to the good earth as you can get – he’s barefooted.  “He takes his shoes off when he gets home from work when the temperature turns 60 degrees and they don’t go back on until November,” said Debbie Dabney, his wife of 30 years.  “He’s always been like that.”  

Bootie Archer, who owns Archer’s Store on Hickory Road, said, “He used to come with no shirt and shoes, but now due to health regulations, shoes and shirt are require to enter.”

The Dabney’s carbon footprint is as bare as Buster’s feet, and as Earth Day approaches on April 22, the Dabney’s green comes as second nature and is played out every day of the year.

The Dabney family is somewhat typical of a family who has grown up in rural Chesterfield and who enjoys creating something out of the dirt. The Dabney family has worked the ground on their Cattail Road acreage for 30 years. Buster is a third generation farmer but he and his wife are what you might consider hobby farmers.  

Members of the Archer family, who live on Hickory Road, have known the Dabney’s for a long time.

“We’ve known Buster’s family for over 100 years,” said Bootie Archer, owner of Archers Grocery. “His father and mother’s family and my grandmother was a Rowlett. They are good people,” Archer said. “Down to earth, thrive off the land that provides food to nourish them and provides them a way of life.”

The Dabneys live a sustainable life on a slice of land surround by nearly 130 acres that was deeded to his mother and father by his grandfather, Paul Rowlett.  The matriarch of the family, Nola June Dabney, still resides next door and is content in knowing her son and daughter-in-law continue to live on the family farm.  Along with planting nearly two acres of vegetables, the Dabney‘s cultivate over 20 acres of hay, maintain an 84 ft. greenhouse that provides seedlings for their garden, as well as, operating a small business that provides seedlings for feed stores while growing enough food to feed them and the family for a year.

“I like growing stuff,” said Buster.  “We’re not making a living off of it. It‘s a way of life.”   

They grow what they need to eat, determined by how the freezer looks at the beginning of the growing season.

Debbie said when they first married she didn’t know much about farming but she took right to it.  Helping to keep Black Angus cattle in the fields, protecting chickens from hawks and foxes and learning the process of canning from her mother-in-law were early learning experiences.  She quickly found herself in the fields alongside her husband planting vegetables and harvesting hay. The cattle, horses and chickens are gone but keeping their carbon footprint low continues by growing their own vegetables and hunting, during season, for their meat.  

They both share in the duties during the growing season.  “If the hay needs to be cut and Buster can’t take off work, then I am out there,” Debbie said, her can-do attitude projected in her voice. She also knows how to bale hay but leaves the rolled hay to Buster.  They hay is harvested to sell to local horse and cattle owners.

The Dabneys planted their cold weather crop last week.  Side by side they worked, Buster in his bare feet with the hoe in hand and Debbie placing cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower plants in rows. They worked until the sun set and light was gone.

But that was only one evening’s work. After returning home from her part-time job with the school system, it’s back to work in the greenhouse for Debbie filling orders for the feed stores.  

“The greenhouse was their eldest daughter Rebecca’s idea,” she said.  “She took a greenhouse class at the [Chesterfield County] tech center and absolutely loved it.  Buster always wanted a greenhouse.  She and her dad, along with her sister Kimberly, built it in 2006. It started out at 20 feet but it just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

After running out of growing room, Buster enlarged the greenhouse 64 additional feet.  They heat it with a wood burning stove that also heats their home. The wood comes from the mostly forested area on Buster’s mother’s property.  “Wood that we are able to pick up off the ground that has been discarded” by Mother Nature in the form of fallen trees is what gets burned.

Work begins in the greenhouse in January seeding their cold weather crops.  “One seed per container,” Debbie said.  In February, the warm weather crops are planted in the greenhouse. In true entrepreneurial spirit, Debbie also started growing annual flowers but not without fuss from Buster.  “He always said ‘if you can’t eat it, you don’t need it,’ but he’s come around,” she said. Even though the growing period ends around June in the greenhouse, after a short break from tending other duties, clean-up begins.

Hay cutting season starts around May and in between cutting the hay the pair can be found in the garden doing what they call “hoe-chopping.”  

“We all do the weeding – hoe chopping,” Buster said. “Before you finish the last row, you start all over again. And you’re normally behind.”

When not at her day job, Debbie says her morning work involves the greenhouse, mid-day it’s housework and in the evening it’s back outside to the garden.  “You always have something to do,” she said.

“Too bad there are not more people like them. They would do anything for you,” Archer said. “If there were more people like them in the area and the world, it would be a better place.  That way of life is leaving us.”


Neat story, but you don't need shoes to enter a business

Bootie Archer is mistaken; there are no regulations of any kind in the Commonwealth - or anywhere else in the United States - requiring customers to wear shirts or shoes. That is an urban legend.

In fact, requiring a customer to wear shoes is a risk to the business. If you require shoes, and the customer is injured as a result, the business *is* liable. Can't happen? The most common of these injuries is where high heels sprain an ankle.

Anyway, interesting story.

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