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Alabama People: Renee Simmons Raney


Teaching nature the imaginative way

Renee Simmons Raney grew up on a farm near Choccolocco, Ala., where she learned about the wonders of nature. Ever since, she’s dedicated her life to educating people about nature in unique ways.

Recently, she left a job with the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust to accept the position of park operations supervisor and director of events with Cheaha State Park near Talladega. When not leading a hike or telling stories to children, she writes books, including her most recent, Hairy Scary but Mostly Merry Fairies: Curing Nature Deficiency Through Folklore, Imagination and Creative Outdoor Activities. – John Felsher

How did your upbringing influence your career?

I was blessed to grow up on my grandfather’s dairy farm nestled in the valley just between the Choccolocco Mountains and the Cheaha Mountain range. My family encouraged me to be creative and to respect even the tiniest portions of the natural world. My imagination had no boundaries. I thought all children had this experience until I started school and realized that many children lacked the opportunity for outdoor play.

As I grew up and began my career in environmental education, my passion for merging science with art and creative play became my mission. Most people lose touch with the enchantment of youth, but I never did! I still live on a corner of that farm with my husband, my son, four happy dogs, 10 content chickens and a few hives of joyful honeybees.

How did your interest in fairies, folklore and storytelling transfer over into your career?

Albert Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.” I believe every moment in nature is a “Once Upon a Time” moment. I have spent many years working with inner city and underserved youth in Alabama. Most of these children don’t have opportunities to connect with the natural world. When we take them to national parks or forests, they are terrified.

Once I have shared my natural history fairy tale stories, explained that they can pretend to be the size of their pinky finger and allow them to create their own nature home or fairy house, they become comfortably fearless. The insects and creepy things are no longer enemies.

In my book, I share my fairy stories from childhood through present day. I include lists of activities for each chapter to make it easy for parents and grandparents to play outside with their young folks. I have developed an “enchanted curriculum” for teachers to use these techniques to teach science, math, literature, physics and other topics. After reading my first book, Calico Ghosts, Alabama’s own Kathryn Tucker Windham handed me her old black click pen and said, “Take my pen and continue to inspire imagination across the South.” It was an epic moment in my life!

People say you have a unique way of presenting your environmental education programs. How is that?

I merge my skills as a biologist and anthropologist with my passion for creative drama and storytelling to create exceptional experiential place-based education programs for vast audiences. I’ve watched the magical joy spread across a child’s face when she holds her first glob of frog eggs in her hands and witnessed an 80-year-old man transform into a mesmerized 8-year-old as he listens to stories about farms and wild places not forgotten. I use live animals, or “creature teachers,” in most of my programs.

What is Nature Deficit Disorder?

I am part of the “No Child Left Inside” movement. A few years ago, Dr. Richard Louv wrote a book called Last Child in the Woods in which he coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Louv believed that the lack of outdoor play in childhood is causing a great disconnect between a generation of young people and the natural world. We know that 30 minutes a day spent outside can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, increase mental productivity and bring pleasure.

What are your goals for your new job at Cheaha State Park?

It is my goal to provide unique environmental education, cultural heritage and nature art programs for diverse audiences of all backgrounds and ages. I want everyone to ascend the cloud-shrouded mountain and discover Cheaha State Park, which we often refer to as “the island in the sky!” Our team is developing several programs such as a permanent “Fairy Trail” where families can create small structures from all natural materials while using their creativity to connect with nature.

Learn more about Renee Simmons Raney or order her books at

Sweet Home Alabama in New York City

Alabama’s Department of Travel and Tourism staged a week of high profile promotions on the streets of New York City in June to attract visitors to the state. Similar to promotions held in previous years, this year’s event focused on giving potential visitors a vision of what Alabama offers, and provided a vivid look at its landscape via virtual reality glasses that allowed viewers to “see” Little River Canyon National Preserve on Lookout Mountain in Fort Payne.

Tristan Dersham, 16, granddaughter of DeKalb County Tourism President and CEO John Dersham, accompanied her grandfather to New York for the experience and the two wrote about their experiences for Alabama Living:

The director of tourism for the state, Lee Sentell, invited my grandpa to serve as an ambassador for the Little River Canyon promotions, which included a 20-story tall photograph adhered to the side of a building near Madison Square Garden. It was breathtaking when we walked around the corner of 34th Street and 8th Avenue and there it was…gigantic, colorful and all lit up. It made us feel so proud of our state and our area.

Just think, Little River Canyon in New York City! It was a spot of bright green in a seemingly never-ending mile of shades of gray and black. Thousands of people were here on the streets walking around night and day and there was no way to miss this gigantic view of Little River Canyon. In addition to the skyscraper art, a miniature Lookout Mountain was built at the Flatiron North Plaza. The mountain was about the size of an average living room. You would climb steps to the top and at the top put on 3D goggles to view a 360-degree virtual Little River Canyon video.

I could not believe the sensation I had as I turned around 360 degrees looking at the canyon as if floating in the sky above, looking all around, up and down feeling like I was walking about the green lush forests below. Everyone loved it. There were lines all day to see it; in fact, we stayed an hour later than planned just to allow the line to go down.

Tristan and John Dersham helped welcome visitors in NYC.

Once visitors viewed the video, they were invited to have their picture taken in front of the mountain with the Empire State building in the background. They were emailed their picture with “Sweet Home Alabama in New York” embedded in the image. People from all around the world came to see Little River Canyon in New York City and they all were impressed. They said they’d like to visit Alabama and many who have never been to Alabama were in disbelief, as we did not look at all like they imagined.

Another Alabama tourism “Sweet Home Alabama” event during the week included a media event in Brooklyn to show and sample the Alabama craft breweries. The 360 video of Little River Canyon was shown there, too.

On another day, a large Mobile Mardi Gras float was in Times Square, with a live jazz band and costumed dancers.

My grandpa and I took lots of pictures and shared them on social media all during the week to help get the word out even more. This was a very successful week with thousands more people getting to witness our “real” Alabama. I think they will come see us.

See the 360° video for yourself. Click and drag while the video is playing to get the full effect.

Salad Days

Growing lettuces in the heat of summer and all year round

By Katie Jackson

This is such an excellent time to make cool, refreshing salads with the many summer fruits and vegetables currently available from home gardens and produce stands, but don’t forget that we can also add crisp homegrown salad greens to our plates, too.

Even though lettuces and other salad greens are considered cool-season crops, a number of heat-tolerant cultivars can be grown during the summer as long as we provide them with the proper growing conditions to weather the hot weather. Plus, it’s not too early to get ready for fall salad season and establish a growing system that provides fresh salad greens all year long.

The term “salad greens” includes several different leafy greens, most of which hail from three primary botanical families. Lettuces belong to the aster or sunflower family (Asteraceae); kale, arugula and mustard greens are members of the cabbage (Brassica) family; and spinach and chard are kin to the beet and quinoa (Amaranthaceae) family. Each of these greens has their own distinctive flavor and texture qualities, from sweet and delicate to spicy and fibrous, but the easiest of them to grow this time of year are the lettuces.

Lettuces are typically grouped into four major categories: crisphead (iceberg), loose leaf, romaine (cos) and butterhead (semi-heading). Loose leaf cultivars, which includes oakleaf lettuces, are usually the most heat tolerant followed by the butterheads. Crisphead and romaine lettuces are often the hardest to grow in the heat of summer; however, a number of heat-tolerant cultivars have been developed in all four of these lettuce categories, so the options are improving.

Since lettuce seeds are relatively inexpensive and store well (in a cool, dry place), consider buying seed for lots of different cultivars. That way you can try some now and have the others ready for use into the fall and throughout the year. This time of year it may be difficult to find prepackaged lettuce seed at local nursery centers but you can order them year-round from your favorite seed supplier.

Once you’ve got seeds in hand, the biggest challenge to growing a successful late summer lettuce crop is likely going to be soil temperature. Lettuce seeds will not germinate in soil or growing media that is warmer than 80 degrees so you may want to start the seeds in growing flats that can be kept indoors or in a cool, shaded outside area until the seedlings have emerged. They can then be transplanted into the garden, which this time of year should be in an area that gets morning sun and afternoon shade.

If you don’t have such a location or if it’s especially hot outside, cover them with a light layer of mulch or a shade cloth and keep them well watered.

Another planting option that is perfect this time of year (and any time of year) is to plant lettuce in containers that can be kept outside the kitchen door or inside the house in a warm (but not directly in the sun) location. That way you can better control air and soil temperatures and you’ll have lettuce close at hand when you’re ready to harvest some for a summer meal.

In addition, lettuces and other leafy greens are pretty so they make nice, edible ornamental plants for pots and in flowerbeds throughout the year.

If you want to have a crop of lettuce growing all the time, try succession planting. Just sow new batches of seed every two to three weeks throughout the year so as one crop tapers off, a new crop of fresh greens is coming on.

As you’re exploring all the late summer/early fall lettuce options, remember that now is also the time to begin buying and starting seeds for other fall crops such as bush beans, beets, carrots, cole crops (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and kohlrabi), leeks, mustards, onions, peas, radishes, spinach and turnips.

If you need guidance on what to plant when, check out the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s free Planting Guide for Home Gardening in Alabama publication, which can be found at or through your local Extension office.

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at

For the future

Helping preserve critical habitats to keep them wild

With vast wild acreage of diverse habitats ranging from tidal marshes to mountain forests, Alabama offers sportsmen abundant places to enjoy the outdoors.

A little help from one non-profit organization can keep some of that habitat permanently wild. Based in Piedmont, Ala., the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust helps preserve about 325,000 acres in multiple states, with the majority in Alabama and Georgia.

“Our mission is to protect land for present and future generations,” says Katherine Eddins, executive director of Georgia-Alabama Land Trust. “We look to the future with a clear vision of our perpetual commitment to land conservation. We see a future where our rivers, coastlines and wild and working forests are preserved, cared for and cherished for the future use, enjoyment and education of generations to come.”

Ken Nichols next to a pine tree he planted when he was 14 on his family’s property in Dallas County. The Georgia-Alabama Land Trust helps preserve such lands across Alabama, Georgia and other states.

The land trust uses a legal agreement called a “conservation easement” to protect property. Under such an agreement, a landowner can continue using the property for hunting, farming or similar uses, but agrees to keep the land as natural as possible and never develop it commercially. The owner can sell the land or pass it down to heirs, but the conservation easement remains, keeping the land perpetually protected.

“A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between the land trust and the owner to protect the land,” Eddins says. “It changes the deed to the property so that the landowner keeps the land, but the owner’s intentions for that land are put into a legal document.

“An easement along the Cahaba River now protects 64 rare and imperiled plant and animal species, 13 of which are found nowhere else in the world.”

Landowners do not receive direct compensation for property put in easement. However, the land trust conducts a land appraisal. The landowner can then use that estimated value as a tax deduction.

“If people give up value like development rights from the use of their land for a conservation easement, the owners get a tax deduction for the value given up,” Eddins says. “The conservation easement donation can reduce estate, income and property taxes for the landowner.”

Most acreage preserved by easements remains private, but sometimes a government organization wants an easement for such public usage as trails, parks or wildlife management areas.

For instance, the land trust has been working to obtain easements to create a massive trail system connecting the Cloudland Canyon State Park in Georgia, just across the state line from Fort Payne, Ala., to Chattanooga, Tenn.

“We’re also working on another property just over the Georgia line where we partnered with Southeastern Cave Conservancy to create a cave preserve,” Eddins says. “We usually concentrate on more rural areas, but might work with a community to protect important property for parks or places with scenic value, perhaps for a green space plan. Even on private land, easements still help the people of Alabama because it’s conserved as wildlife habitat or for other natural uses. That benefits the quality of life for people living in that area.”

The land trust not only preserves land, but might also enhance or restore natural habitats. The organization did extensive work on restoring wetlands and critical native longleaf pine savannahs in Alabama and Georgia.

States prepare wildlife action plans that define habitat conservation priorities to protect flora and fauna within their boundaries. Sometimes, the organization seeks specific critical habitat it wants to enhance or preserve based upon those plans, but more often, individuals or groups ask for help with their lands. The organization also conducts periodic seminars on conservation easements.

“In Alabama, we need to focus on certain specific high-priority areas like parts of the Tombigbee or Coosa rivers,” Eddins says. “The Coosa River watershed, including the Choccolocco Creek watershed, is believed to support the largest number of endangered and threatened species found in any Alabama waterway of comparable size.

“We also rely upon the Alabama Forestry Commission’s guide on key working forest areas. We also look closely at soils. Food producing soils across Alabama and Georgia have been threatened by development over the past decade. Conservation easements can be used to preserve working farms and ranches.”

The non-profit organization receives funding from various sources, but most of it comes as donations from individuals passionate about conservation. Some foundations make donations. Sometimes, the land trust partners with other likeminded non-profit organizations, government agencies or corporations to collaborate on projects.

“We get a lot of phone calls from people interested in conserving their lands,” Eddins says. “The main way people find out about our work is through word of mouth. Our organization maintains a stewardship fund to ensure that we have the capacity to permanently monitor each easement annually. These funds, mainly built from contributions related to donated conservation easements, are not used for operations.”

To make a tax-deductible contribution, identify potential easement properties or obtain more information, contact the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust at 256-447-1006. On line, see

John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who writes from Semmes, Ala. Contact him through his website at

Organic Farming


Charles Walters of River Oaks Farm, now a certified organic operation, with his traveling farmer’s market. Both farmers focus on natural growing methods.

Farmers see increased interest in natural growing methods

By M.J. Ellington

An Elmore County farmer said he wanted a theological reason to explain his career choice, so he got a master’s degree from Duke Divinity School so he could explain his decision.

“I felt called to farm and I needed to have a theological basis for my decision,” Charles Walters said. The son of cattle farmers in Linden, Walters grew up hearing his parents talk about the challenges of his career choice.

Walters bought a former brick manufacturer’s worn-out clay field near the Alabama River. Years of clay and soil removal by the brick company had left the property lacking in nutrients to support healthy plant and animal life.

Four years ago, Walters began rebuilding the land with truckloads of ground pecan shell compost, humus and manure to make the soil healthy. Now Walters grows produce and raises cattle and chickens to sell on the 28-acre organic River Oaks Farm, now a certified organic operation.

Richard Dean of Gold Branch Farm harvests lettuce at the farm in Deatsville.
Photo by Albert Cesare

Richard Dean observed small farmers’ ancient growing practices while he and his wife, Jodi, were teachers in China. Now Dean and his business partner, Tyson Rogers, own five-acre Gold Branch Farm near Deatsville, a member of Central Alabama EC. They grow lettuce and other leafy produce, vegetables and fruit trees with natural growing methods and no artificial chemicals.

Dean said Alabama farmland is often thin as a result of intense heat and many years of farming. It normally takes about seven years with natural growing methods for the artificial chemicals to be filtered out of the soil. “Compost is our number No. 1 thing to help build healthy soil that retains nutrients and moisture that often washes away from soil that is unhealthy,” he says.

In North Alabama, soil scientist Karen Wynne agrees. She puts organic farming methods she teaches to practice in the food her family grows on 25-acre Rosita’s Farm near Hartselle, a member of Joe Wheeler EMC. Wynne also owns Crotovina, a company that provides technical assistance, planning and development support to small farms across the Southeast.

At all three operations, the farmers emphasize building the soil naturally, practicing minimal tilling and planting fill crops that nourish the soil and retard weed growth in months between growing seasons. Their methods are tools that even people with tiny backyard gardens can use to have healthy soil without artificial chemicals.

Above, River Oaks Farm with carrots for sale; such farms are helping to meet a growing consumer demand for food grown locally.

Kirk Iverson, an Auburn-based soil scientist who works with Auburn University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on sustainable farming projects, said Alabama’s hot weather makes farming a challenge.

“The state’s intense heat can break down the organic matter that is the key to healthy soil,” Iverson says. “The key things to make our soil healthy are organic matter and good farming practices. It’s also important to test the soil to know any nutrients you may need to add.”

Both Iverson and Wynne said it’s better to do minimal tilling instead of stripping away all spent crops or weeds from previous growing seasons, and to mulch or plant cover crops. Minimal tilling helps vegetation decompose naturally between growing seasons while fill crops hold moisture and nutrients and reduce erosion, they said.

Wynne says soil is “the earth’s natural carbon dioxide filtration system, it feeds us and it can help mitigate climate change. We need to look at long-term soil sustainability.”

In town, Wynne says property owners can have healthier soil by setting the lawn mower to cut the grass a little higher, and planting low-growing plants that will help keep nutrients in the soil.

The farmers from Gold Branch and River Oaks sell what they grow at local farmers markets, helping to meet a growing consumer demand for food grown locally.

U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show that the number of farmers markets nationally increased 93.3 percent between 2006 and 2014. Agriculture and Industries Commissioner John McMillan said in Alabama, farmers markets increased from 17 statewide in 1999 to 164 today.

As interest in farmers market shopping has increased, so have the number of small, natural growing farms. In a state where large commercial farms became the norm in the past 20 years, small family-owned operations seemed at risk of dying out. But the consumer push to eat locally grown and organic foods has helped increased interest in the industry in Alabama.

Iverson, Wynne and Walters are on the governing board of the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network. Founded in 2001, ASAN is a resource for more than 2,000 farms, ranches, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and households interested in sustainable agriculture.

Learn more about ASAN at or call 256-743-0742.

Pigs at River Oaks Farm are fed non-GMO feed and fresh vegetables.

A hero for horse owners

Northwest Alabama’s Life Data Labs helps horses around the world

By Jennifer Crossley Howard

On first stepping into the manufacturing plant at Life Data Labs, the clean, earthy aroma of teatree oil and alfalfa remind you of a natural foods store. But this place is actually one of the most sought-after animal nutrition and healthcare product businesses in the world.

The majority of its clients are concentrated in the United States and the United Kingdom, and the bestselling products are made in Cherokee, Ala., population: 1,050.

Along this three-mile stretch on U.S. 72 in western Colbert County sit the manufacturing and office headquarters of Life Data Labs, the efforts of a local veterinarian who took a chance on an idea.

In the 1980s, Dr. Frank Gravlee decided to give up animal medicine to study a supplement that nourishes and strengthens horse hooves. Called Farrier’s Formula, it is the business’ top selling product and is sold in more than 40 countries. Its name is an ode to specialists who care for horse hooves.

The heart of Gravlee’s business philosophy harkens back to the one he started his journey for: the horse.

“Dr. Gravlee has always said if you help a horse, he’ll help you back,” says Darryl Spencer, chief financial officer of Life Data Labs.

Gravlee’s business acumen follows a similar notion. Its marriage of local business and forward-thinking practices, such as solar energy that drives production and vacuum-sealed products to preserve shelf life, are what distinguish Life Data Labs.

Solar panels provide energy to Life Data Labs’ manufacturing facility.

A yard full of solar panels sit out back, but today it is cloudy. Spencer said determining how to store energy to use on such days is on the list of things to do.

“On sunny days, we make more energy than we can use,” he said.

The Northeast and California are the business’ biggest U.S. markets. Clients include breeders, rodeo trainers in Texas and quarter horse owners in the Shoals who ride the trails.

The brand’s logo that adorns most of its slick packaging — an engraved drawing of a stepping horse — fits the business’ nod to old-school values and dedication to the future. It would look at home in the yellowed pages of an animal anatomy book.

But for all its global reach, some of the most loyal customers of Life Data live down the road in and around northwest Alabama. The Robbins family that operates the Bluewater Creek Polo Club in Killen uses it on their horses, as does Bob Baffert, a thoroughbred trainer in California, whose horses have won Kentucky Derbies and Triple Crowns.

As a story of risk typically goes, critics first underestimated Gravlee when he debuted Farrier’s Formula.

“When he first developed this formula, he called it Skin and Coat,” Spencer says. “Tack stores wouldn’t sell it, so he went it to the state farrier organization.”

Changing the name to Farrier’s Formula helped by appealing to a hardworking trade, Spencer says. Farriers shoe horses every six weeks, and found Gravlee’s formula worked and liked that it was made in state.

A horse’s livelihood depends on its hooves. Properly tending to six-inch hooves that support a thousand-pound animal makes the difference between a healthy horse and one prone to illness.

“If you don’t have strong, healthy hooves, your horse is going to get down very quickly,” Spencer says.

Dr. Frank Gravlee’s company conducts research, manufactures products and provides product support from its headquarters in Cherokee, Ala.

Successful formula expands

The success of the original Farrier’s Formula led to the debut of Farrier’s Formula Double Strength Plus Joint in November.

Much of Gravlee’s research was done on site and at nearby Rosetrail Stables, a 12-acre horse farm where he studied and cared for animals from birth to maturity. His son, Scott, also a veterinarian, does most of the research now.

In Alabama, and the rest of the country, Life Data Labs sells through farriers, veterinary offices and tack and feed stores such as the Colbert Farmers Cooperative in Tuscumbia.

The Shoals boasts a thriving equine community, including a rescue home in rural Florence, says Brandi Robbins, an employee at the co-op. Horse care makes up 90 percent of business. Her brother is a farrier who’s a fan of Life Data.

“It’s one of the few foot supplements we carry because it’s local,” Robbins says. “Everybody likes local stuff, and this is a good product.”

Life Data Labs follows a streamlined business plan and employs 15 workers.

Though machinery in such factories has replaced millions of jobs in recent decades, Dr. Gravlee’s philosophy finds a balance between maintaining jobs while looking to the future.

“If we get to the point we need to hire more people, we think, is there anything we can do to make our equipment more efficient, because you can pay people more to run a machine than supervise other people,” Spencer says.

This local business is one that intends to stay stateside, specifically in Alabama. Warehouses in Canada and the United Kingdom could grow, but production will remain in the Yellowhammer State.

“I anticipate all manufacturing to continue here, forever,” Spencer says. “You can’t outsource quality. If we have any plans to expand, we will do it here.”