Chatham County

Her job is helping small farmers. Her passion? Saving the bees

Agriculture extension agent Debbie Roos works closely with the small sustainable organic farmers in Chatham County. Roos has planted a pollinator demonstration garden at Chatham Mills in Pittsboro.
Agriculture extension agent Debbie Roos works closely with the small sustainable organic farmers in Chatham County. Roos has planted a pollinator demonstration garden at Chatham Mills in Pittsboro. rwillett@newsobserver.com

On a recent weekday morning, under a gray sky thick with storm clouds, about 20 people braved the elements to learn about the kinds of plants that attract bees.

They wiped the drizzle off their phones to snap pictures of licorice hyssop and spotted bee balm, scribbling notes on a printed list of 200 plants, 85 percent of them native to North Carolina. Some had driven more than an hour to see the Pollinator Paradise Demonstration Garden, and to learn from its creator.

Since Debbie Roos started it in 2008, the garden has doubled in size, with large beds surrounding the converted mill building and smaller ones wedged into every available space in the parking lot.

The tours have also mushroomed in popularity as colony collapse has dramatically reduced the population of bees that pollinate crops and other plants. Earlier this month, Roos also helped organize the 10th annual Pollinator Day at the garden.

“A lot of people want to help,” Roos says of the problems with bees. “Gardening is one way they can do that.”

But promoting bee-friendly plants is just part of Roos’ job. As a Chatham County extension agent, she helps farmers with a variety of issues, from blight to marketing. Her particular focus is helping the small and organic farms that dot the western Triangle, many of them started by first-generation farmers.

Nancy Creamer, director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, says Roos has played a key role in increasing the number and variety of small farms over the years, as well as educating farmers and the public on sustainable practices – both in person and through her widely used websites and social media accounts.

“She has tremendous expertise, and she’s also very enthusiastic and creative,” says Creamer. “She’s been a model for other agents across the state and country who see how she runs her program and how useful it is to so many people.”

Seeds planted early

Roos grew up in Atlanta and always loved outdoor pursuits, including gardening. She worked at a wildlife rehabilitation center when she was in high school and college.

After graduating from the University of Georgia and a short stint as a ski bum in Colorado, she joined the Peace Corps and worked with farmers in East Africa.

She lived in a millet stalk hut without running water or electricity.

“It was a complete shock,” Roos says.

But she loved it. She returned as a consultant and trainer before going to graduate school at the University of Florida, where she earned degrees in horticulture and anthropology.

She says she wanted to continue helping farmers,but here in the United States. She was also interested in organic and small farms, a movement just gaining traction in an industry long dominated by large-scale farms.

She came to North Carolina first as an extension agent in Lee County and after a few years moved to Chatham.

Her position is unusual in the world of cooperative extension, whose agents typically work with traditional, large-scale farmers in a specialty. Roos’ job was created to help small farmers, and to promote organic farming – a nod to the state’s early interest in areas that have since garnered widespread attention.

Like most agents, a lot of her work is helping farmers with technical issues. Last week, she came in to find a specimen of fungus awaiting her identification. Dealing with pests is another issue, and a complex one on farms that eschew pesticides.

Many of the farmers she works with are new to farming, often wanting to start a small farm after another career. She advises them on everything from leasing land to writing up contracts to creating a website so that they can market their goods to consumers.

When she started working in Chatham County 16 years ago, she says, surveys showed that the farmers she worked with were already using the web extensively, so she started posting information online from the beginning, learning HTML code to create her first website.

“You wouldn’t have had the same response from traditional farmers, and that’s why I made that one of my ways of communicating,” Roos says.

Now, her Growingsmallfarms.org website has a vast amount of information that is used by growers nationwide. She also holds a wide variety of workshops on everything from using bats to control pests, to dealing with beavers and other wildlife, to organic fertilizing and pest control.

Approachable expertise

Roos started the pollinator garden in 2008 as a way to showcase plants that attract bees, as well as butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators.

An avid photographer, Roos also takes pictures of the flowers, which she’ll post to the website and Facebook account devoted to the garden.

The result is a collection that’s invaluable to those starting their own gardens – with hundreds of photos showing what’s in bloom at any given time with the names of plants and, sometimes, where to get them.

The garden provides an ideal feeding spot for the bees and helps spur others to plant bee-friendly plants. Roos is also proud of her popular tours, pointing out that they bring business to the shops at Chatham Mills, which include a market and restaurant.

She’ll hold 13 tours from May to October, in addition to six four-hour workshops about the garden. Her style is a kind of approachable expertise, conveying a wealth of information while also making it seem within reach to create one’s own pollinator garden.

Roos is continually adding and moving plants with the help of volunteers, creating a lush array of plants that bloom most of the year. She particularly enjoys rare or underappreciated plants.

Last week, tufts of purple-flowered downy wood mint, blooming alongside orange butterfly weed, were a highlight.

“The seed pods are so soft, I swear your blood pressure will go down when you touch them,” she told the tour crowd of the downy wood mint.

Roos rattled off the names and attributes of plants at a rapid fire pace, while also pointing out each mistake she had made in planting them.

“I have no background in landscape design,” she says. “I learned from my mistakes just like anyone.”

And, as always, she passes on what she’s learned.

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Debbie Roos

Born: July 1964, Atlanta

Residence: Sanford

Career: Extension agent, Chatham County

Education: B.A. anthropology, University of Georgia; M.A. anthropology and M.S. horticulture, University of Florida

Fun fact: Outside of work, Roos makes greeting cards featuring her photography that sell at Weaver Street Market and other locations.

If you go

Tours of the garden started this month and run through October. View the schedule at https://growingsmallfarms.ces.ncsu.edu/growingsmallfarms-gardentours/.

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