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In The Driver’s Seat

In The Driver’s Seat
November 12, 2001 |

Riding high above what seem to be endless rows of corn, Annie Dee is exactly where she wants to be and the last place you might expect to find her.In fact, most folks who meet the 5-foot 3-inch, petite blonde have trouble believing she’s a full-time farmer. Even Annie is sometimes amazed how an Illinois girl found her way into the seat of a combine in Pickens County, Ala.”I’d have to say the Lord and the circumstances put me in this position,” Annie said. “I didn’t start off wanting to run a farm. I was the low man on the totem pole back home. When I graduated from college, all I was allowed to do was run the 8-foot Bush Hog.”So, just how did she graduate from mowing grass to harvesting thousands of bushels of grain? Annie said it all started in the 1950s.That’s when Annie’s father and mother, Roy and Mary Ann Dee, along with some of Annie’s uncles, decided to buy a large parcel of land in Citrus County, Fla. For the next several years, the Dee family rented the land to area cattlemen before starting their own beef herd in the 1970s. By the time Dee River Ranch was formed, Roy and Mary Ann’s family included 12 children. Though not contemplating a career in production agriculture, the ranch peeked Annie’s interest in livestock. So when she enrolled in Clemson University, Annie decided to pursue a degree in animal industries.In the late 80s, however, the Dee family was encouraged to sell their property to the State of Florida as part of the Save the Rivers program. For the next two years, they looked for a comparable block of land on which to relocate their ranch. They searched from the coast of South Carolina to Texas before one of Roy’s college roommates got word that the former of estate of R.L. Zeigler–of Zeigler Meats fame–was going on the market.The Dee family purchased the farm in 1989 and quickly began making improvements. Annie said the family built fences and roads, improved the drainage of several fields and sister Ellen, a skilled welder, pitched in to help brother Mike construct a state-of-the art grain handling facility.”We used to have about 25,000 bushels of storage,” Mike recalled. “It made harvest very labor intensive and not very efficient. We added a grain leg, conveyor system and another 25,000 bushels of storage three years ago. Then we came back in last year and added another 35,000 bushels of storage and two overhead bins to aid in shipping.”Today, Dee River Ranch, located south of Aliceville on the Mississippi line, is owned by the 12 Dee children. Annie runs the farm with help from Mike, her father and, on occasion, other family members–including a nephew, Joseph, who works on the farm during breaks from classes at the University of Illinois. Together, Mike and Annie harvest between 3,000 and 4,000 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans each year. They also have a Certified Brucellosis Free beef herd that includes 500 commercial brood cows.This year, Annie estimates the farm will average 200 bushels of corn per acre, 55 bushels of soybeans per acre and 60 bushels of wheat per acre–all on non-irrigated land. She is quick to share credit for the farm’s success with her employees: tillage expert Robert Taylor; herdsman Charlie Oliver and workers Larry Clark, Danal Clark, Willie Murry and Carl Martin. She also recently hired a secretary, Carolyn Powell–a decision that has allowed Annie to spend more time in the field.”Having her has freed me up to do what I really love–run the combine and work cattle,” Annie said. “It’s just good for your heart. You really feel like you are accomplishing something when you see grain going into the combine.”When she’s not in the field, Annie often can be found in the office, making marketing arrangements for the farm’s grain and calves. With corn and soybean prices as low as they’ve been this year, though, it’s easy to see why she’d rather be driving a combine.”It’s just hard to make ends meet with corn at $2.11 a bushel and soybeans under $5 a bushel,” Annie said. “Our input costs are so high and commodity prices are so low, it’s hard to make it even with good yields.”To ensure the farm is as productive as possible, Annie and Mike use minimum tillage practices including building seed beds in the fall to prevent the loss of soil moisture prior to planting. They also make their own cattle feed, and Annie regularly attends field days to learn about new seed varieties and technologies. In addition, she praised Pickens County Extension Agent Sam Wiggins and Noxubee County (Miss.) Extension Agent Dr. Dennis Reginelli for their advice.She admits, however, that not everyone is so ready to accept that a woman can be a full-time farmer.”It just takes some people a little adjustment to realize I’m the one who makes the decisions,” Annie said.Ironically, Annie said it actually took her a while to decide that driving a combine wasn’t “a man’s job.””About six or seven years ago Mike was showing me how to harvest wheat when it started raining,” Annie recalled. “It was Memorial Day, and he wanted to go to the beach with his friends, so I told him to go ahead. He left on Friday, and when he came back on Monday, I had harvested the whole wheat crop. And, I’ve been combining ever since.”Meanwhile, Annie has become a leader in the farming community. She is chairman of the Pickens County Cattlewomen’s Association and chaplain of the state organization. She also is a member of the Pickens County Cattlemen’s Association, the Pickens County Farm-City committee and the Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Macon, Miss. In addition, she frequently hosts field trips for medical students from the University of Alabama, and she recently was selected to participate in the Extension Service’s Leadership Pickens program. In her spare time, Annie likes to ride her horse, Star, and make beaded jewelry for her other business, “Dee-Signs.”Annie has a daughter, Rachel, 17, and 16-year-old twin sons, Seth and Jesse. Rachel, Annie said, recently returned home after attending school out of state. “She worked all her life to get off the farm, but when she got away, all she wanted to do was come back,” Annie laughed. Seth, meanwhile, loves working on the farm, and Jesse, who took an off-farm job for a while, soon will be returning as well. Mike and wife, Shannon, have two daughters, Victoria, 2, and Isabella, 8 months.Annie said she is thankful her children can grow up on a farm adding, “It’s a good way to live, and a good way to raise kids.”As for what she would say to young people interested in agriculture, Annie simply replied, “Pursue your dreams, and don’t let being a woman or a man stand in your way of something you want to do or enjoy doing.”And with that, Annie Dee waved goodbye, graciously declining an invitation to lunch–preferring instead to head back to the field and climb into the driver’s seat.

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