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Who remembers the streakers of ’74?

By Hardy Jackson

Come with me back to those thrilling days of yesteryear.

February 1974 to be exact.

That was when brave Southern boys and girls broke down the last barrier that stood between themselves and good taste and took off their clothes – in public.

Though it was still winter, the weather cleared, cold air from Canada stopped above the Ohio River, and the sun broke out to heat the ground. Deep Dixie is famous for February warm-up, daffodils pushing out, plum trees budding, a false spring that brightens spirits before March comes in like a lion.  

It was one of those February days. And because winter had been particularly bleak, Southerners welcomed the warmth like a long-lost friend. 

Some say it began at Auburn University.  Some say at UGA.  Other schools claimed the honor.  The one thing the claimants had in common was that they were Southern.

The day was sunny and a few male students, full of themselves as young men are, stripped down and ran from one dorm to another. Seeing this as a challenge, other students followed suit without suits. Coeds, emboldened by the Women’s Rights Movement, joined their brothers in the buff.  

Afternoon stretched into evening and as night fell more students came out, bared it all, and “streaked” across campus. 

The next day university officials issued the order, “Wear clothes please, we’re Southern” – or something to that effect.

But it was too late. It was a movement. On university campuses throughout the Dixie students stripped down in the pre-spring rite.  

Now, of course, most students did not take part in this. However, I firmly believe that even those who watched and cheered, fully clothed, supported the movement and wished they were bold enough to be in it. 

Still, there was opposition. College administrators, of course, took a dim view of such doings. Young Republicans grumbled that it was just the sort of thing one would expect from students raised on Dr. Spock parenting and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Campus religious organizations also took a dim view of the proceedings, though none ventured to say that their members weren’t involved. Others claimed to see the Lord’s displeasure in the cold front HE sent down a few days later to nip the buds and slow the sap HE had warmed the week before.

So it followed that by the time spring came for real, colleges were prepared with rules and penalties.  It was over.

But consider this – they are still among us, those boys and girls of February ’74. In the years since then, they have taught our children, run our companies, sat in church with us, and worked to make our communities better places in which to live. 

Good for them. And if you are one of them – good for you.

Matching wits with the toughest game animal in Alabama

Game camera captures a group of feral hods in west Autauga County.

Bristling with razor sharp tusks and protected by a tough hide covering thick hardened scar tissue, a big, ornery boar makes a fearsome adversary.

“The largest hog that I have ever seen was probably a little over 300 pounds,” says Matt Brock, an Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division biologist. “I’ve heard of people who claimed to have killed 400- to 500-pound hogs. I know such hogs do exist, but any boar that’s 300 pounds or more is an extremely large pig. Most will be between 200 and 275 pounds.”

Fearing nothing, feral pigs offer extremely challenging hunting. Hogs can’t see very well, but they can instantly notice movement. With their incredible noses, they can detect danger from a distance.

“Hogs are adaptable and learn very quickly,” Brock says. “They can be difficult to hunt. If they smell a human, they react quickly. They learn to avoid areas where they have conflict with people, but their weakness is food. They are enslaved by their stomachs.”

Omnivorous hogs eat almost anything including nuts, fruits, roots, berries, bulbs, mushrooms, insects, invertebrates, even carrion. Most people hunt hogs from stands overlooking food plots or natural nutrition sources. Look for pigs to come out at first or last light to feed around field edges.

“On public land, people need to find food sources,” says Barry Estes with Alabama Hog Control in Prattville. “Pigs love white oak acorns and swamp chestnuts, but by December, most of the acorns are gone. In the winter, hogs don’t have much to eat and there isn’t much green food available except for planted food plots. Now it’s legal to bait for hogs so that will help get them in at certain times.”

In 2019, the state passed a new law that allows people to hunt feral hogs and white-tailed deer over bait on private property if they buy a baiting license. Many people use spin feeders that fling corn or other tidbits in all directions at predetermined times. Pigs quickly learn to associate feeder sounds with food, so they frequently come running when the spinner goes off. 

“All hunters wishing to hunt over bait must purchase the baiting privilege license,” says Chuck Sykes, the AWFFD director. “This includes even all hunters historically exempt from purchasing a hunting license. Baiting on public lands remains illegal for both deer and hogs. Also, it is still illegal to hunt any other wildlife other than deer or hogs with the aid of bait.”

Estes also suggests using a “pig pipe” to bring hogs into range. Take a length of PVC pipe, cap one end and drill holes into it big enough to barely let corn kernels out. Add a screw cap to the other end so the sportsmen can keep refilling the pipe with more bait. Then, place it in a likely area where pigs will find it.

“A pig pipe keeps hogs around longer because it takes them three or four hours to empty the pipe,” Estes says. “They’ll roll that sucker around all over the place.”

A big pig can take considerable punishment, so many hunters use large caliber, high-velocity rifles firing full-metal jacketed rounds or shotguns loaded with 00 buckshot.

Some sportsmen hunt hogs without guns. They follow chase dogs trained to find and bay pigs. Once the chase dogs corner a pig, the hunters release a catch dog, usually a tough pit bull that grabs the hog’s ear, nose or another vital organ and holds it until a hunter can kill the beast with a knife. From May 1 through Aug. 31 each year, sportsmen can use dogs to hunt hogs at night on private property, but they cannot use firearms to kill hogs after dark without a permit.

Some of the best hog hunting occurs in late winter or early spring after most of the foliage disappeared, giving hunters better visibility. In addition, hogs move around more at that time to look for food.

On private land, people can shoot pigs all year long without limit. Since hogs eat so much and cause such damage, many landowners welcome hunters who want to kill hogs on their properties. Most wildlife management areas allow sportsmen to kill hogs during any open hunting season with weapons legal for that game animal. Some wildlife management areas offer special hog seasons.

Growing feral swine population difficult to control

By John N. Felsher

A small sounder, or social group, of feral hogs trapped in a corral in Tuscaloosa County. One expert says that in trying to eliminate the hogs, it’s best to try to trap an entire sounder, if possible. Photos Courtesy Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

When Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto landed in North America in 1539, he brought domestic pigs with him to feed his troops. During his wanderings across what would become the southeastern United States, including Alabama, many swine escaped and turned wild. Now, their descendants number in the millions.

“Pigs are extremely prolific,” says Matt Brock, the top wild hog biologist for the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. “Sows can reach sexual maturity as early as six months and reproduce up to twice a year. Generally, they have four to 10 piglets per litter, but average about six to eight.”

Until about three decades ago, wild pig populations in Alabama remained concentrated primarily along the lower Tombigbee and Alabama river drainages. Some people trapped feral swine to release on hunting properties throughout the state. Now, wild hogs populate every county in Alabama.

“Wild hogs don’t naturally expand outward very quickly,” Brock says. “Highly territorial, pigs gather in social groups called sounders that typically occupy about 300 to 900 acres for their home range, depending upon the habitat type. For 450 years, pigs were confined to a few counties in south Alabama, but now they’re everywhere. I don’t know if they have quite reached the same numbers as deer, at least not yet, but in certain parts of the state, they probably have.”

Pigs can cause severe problems for other animals by displacing native wildlife like white-tailed deer and competing with them for food. Pigs eat almost anything. Wild swine can also carry diseases, such as anthrax and brucellosis that could spread to humans, wildlife and domestic livestock.

v“As a state wildlife agency, we want to improve native wildlife populations,” Brock says. “Hogs probably affect deer and deer habitat most, but they can affect small ground-dwelling reptiles, mammals and birds as well. They eat anything that nests on the ground, so hogs are potential threats to those species. They’ll eat quail and quail eggs, but there’s also evidence that they have consumed turkey poults and eggs as well. Anyone who captures a wild hog in Alabama must kill it on site. It’s illegal to transport live wild hogs in the state.”

Effects on the environment

Hogs can also cause significant environmental damage. When searching for food, pigs root around with their noses. After hogs go through an area, it looks like someone rototilled it by plowing up the dirt and uprooting plants that other animals need for food or cover. Feral hogs also consume large quantities of agricultural crops like corn, soybeans and peanuts.

Many people hunt pigs. Landowners can also apply for free permits from any district wildlife office to remove nuisance hogs. With a permit, people can shoot hogs on private property at night during certain months. However, hunters can only do so much to trim burgeoning hog populations. 

“To control wild hog populations, people need to kill 70 percent of the pigs in an area annually just to maintain the status quo,” Brock says. “I don’t see recreational hunters killing 70 percent of the hogs across the board, but it might happen on certain properties.”

Some landowners hire hog control experts like Barry and Bart Estes with Alabama Hog Control in Prattville. The Estes brothers use rifles equipped with thermal sights to shoot pigs at night. 

“When people are having hog problems, they call us and we do our best to decrease that number dramatically,” Barry says. “In 2018, I killed 1,310 feral hogs. I killed more than a thousand with thermal optics and trapped more than 250.”

To trap pigs, Estes uses a Jager Pro M.I.N.E. Trapping System. M.I.N.E. stands for Manually Initiated Nuisance Elimination. With this system, Estes places bait in a large corral-like trap. Motion sensors send texts to his smart phone when pigs arrive. Estes can remotely watch the trap with video cameras. When the entire sounder enters the corral, he can transmit an electronic code to close the gate.

“We want to catch the whole sounder in a single drop,” Barry says. “If we don’t, the rest get wise. My personal record for a single drop is 51 pigs. I give a lot of pigs away to people who need the meat. I’ve also given away hundreds of pigs to reptile farms and zoos to feed the animals and I’ve donated pigs to wild game cookoffs.”

Landowners can ask state biologists for technical assistance on how to reduce hog populations on their properties. Periodically, officials hold public seminars to teach landowners how to control pigs. For more information, call Brock at 334-549-3032.

Controlling feral hog populations takes time, money and effort. Despite these efforts, feral hog populations will continue to grow in Alabama and elsewhere as de Soto’s gift from centuries ago keeps giving year after year.

Alabama Recipes | Pork

Styling/Photos by Brooke Echols

Cook of the Month

Evelyn Milner, Wiregrass EC

Pork in Brown Sauce

3 cups beef or chicken broth

2 tablespoons molasses or cane syrup

4 teaspoons soy sauce

½ teaspoon salt

¼ tsp paprika

¼ teaspoon pepper

1 cup carrots, sliced 

¾ cup onions, chopped

½ cup green bell pepper, chopped

1 to 1 1/3 pounds ground pork

3     ounces sliced mushrooms, drained

½ cup water

1/3 cup flour

Blend syrup (molasses or cane) into warmed broth. Add in soy sauce. Blend in the salt, paprika and pepper. Add oil to a cast iron skillet and sauté pork, draining fat. Add mushrooms, carrots, onions and bell pepper to pork. Pour in broth mixture; cover and simmer about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, put ½ cup water in a jar with a lid. Add flour to water and shake (with the lid on) to blend. Stir into meat mixture; simmer and stir until thickened like a gravy. 


Instant Pot Baby Back Ribs are a great way to have that sultry cookout food anytime you want it. In less than 30 to 40 minutes, these ribs are slathered with a great wet rub. The addition of Southern Flavor Charbroil seasoning and apple cider vinegar will have you tasting that great apple smoked flavor, but without all the mess or fuss.

Brooke Burks

If you don’t have an electric pressure cooker, never fear! Just prep these gorgeous guys the same way the recipe calls for: Wrap them in some aluminum foil and slow-cook them in the oven at 250 degrees for 2 to 4 hours or until internal temperature reaches 180 degrees. Take them out and place under the broiler for a few minutes until they brown like you like them! 

No matter how you cook them, you can have Baby Back Ribs any old time. For more great recipes like these, visit us at www.thebutteredhome.com.

Instant Pot Baby Back Ribs

1-2 small to medium racks of baby back pork ribs

1 cup water

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup BBQ sauce, optional or on the side

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon Southern Flavor Charbroil seasoning

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon prepared mustard

1 teaspoon maple syrup

Set ribs out to come to room temperature. Remove membrane from back of ribs carefully. Mix salt, pepper, southern flavor, garlic, chili powder, onion, smoked paprika, brown sugar, mustard and syrup in a small bowl. set aside. 

Place trivet inside 6 qt or larger Instant Pot. Add in water and apple cider vinegar. Rub racks of ribs down with wet rub and carefully place around outside of inner pot standing on their sides, meat side out.  (If you are using two racks of ribs, it is ok to nestle one inside of the other.)

Close lid, seal vent and set to manual or pressure cook for 20 minutes for one rack, 30 minutes for two. When done, allow to release pressure naturally for 10-15 minutes. Release the vent to allow any more pressure to escape. Carefully open lid and place on oven safe pan. Ribs should be 180 degrees internal temp for doneness.

Place under the broiler for 2-3 minutes until outside skin is brown and crispy to your liking. Enjoy!


Easy Hawaiin Luau Lion

1 5-pound pork loin    

1 20-ounce can pineapple chunks, with juice

1 tablespoon vegetable oil 

Easy Hawaiian Luau Loin

1 small onion chopped (about 1/2 cup)

2 cups ginger ale 

Pour oil into a heavy skillet, sear loin on each side. Remove loin and add onion. Cook until transparent. Transfer loin and onion to crock pot. Cover with pineapple, pineapple juice and ginger ale. Cook 8 hours on low heat. Serve with rice.  

Becky Chappelle, Cullman EC


Pork Chop Sunrise

4 pork chops

6 potatoes, sliced ¼-inch thick

1 can cream of mushroom soup

Water

1 envelope dry onion soup mix

Brown pork chops on both sides. Transfer to a slow cooker. Add potato slices. Pour soup over chops. Add enough water to cover all ingredients. Cover and cook on high for 6-8 hours. Variation: combine 1 envelope dry onion soup mix with the water before pouring over chops and potatoes.

Mary McGriff, Cullman EC


Tender Pork Roast

1 3-pound boneless pork roast

1 8-ounce can tomato sauce

¾ cup Moore’s Original Marinade

½ cup sugar

2 teaspoons ground mustard

Slice roast in half; place in a 5-quart slow cooker. Combine remaining ingredients; pour over roast. Cover and cook on low for 8-9 hours or until meat thermometer reads 160-170 degrees. Remove roast to a serving platter and keep warm. If desired, skim fat from pan juices and thicken for gravy. Yields: 8 servings.

Mary McGriff, Cullman EC


Maple Glazed Pork Chops

4 boneless pork chops

2 tablespoons onion powder

2 tablespoons garlic powder

1 teaspoon paprika

 4 tablespoons brown sugar

4 tablespoons maple syrup

2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place pork chops in a baking dish (or line a sheet pan with aluminum foil) and cover pork chops with the olive oil. Combine the brown sugar, garlic powder, onion powder and paprika in a cup or small bowl. Rub the brown sugar mixture over the tops of each pork chop. Bake them in the oven for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, pull them out and pour the maple syrup over the top, approximately 1 tablespoon per pork chop. Put them back into the oven for 5-10 minute or until golden brown and fully cooked.

Katelyn McBride, Central Alabama EC


Barbecue Boston Butt

6-8 pound Boston butt

1 cup original barbecue sauce

½ cup regular Sprite

¼ cup red hot sauce

1 package fajita seasoning mix

Rinse meat and pat dry. In a slow cooker, mix barbecue sauce, Sprite and hot sauce. Rub fajita seasoning all over the Boston Butt and place in slow cooker. Cook on low 6 hours. Remove from slow cooker. Trim off fat; take 2 forks and shred meat. Serve with mustard slaw, a little extra barbecue sauce on a bun.

Teresa Hubbard, Franklin EC


Submit your recipes and you could win a $50 prize and title of Cook of the Month!

Themes and Deadlines

May: Avocados | Feb. 7

June: Potluck | March 13

July: Squash | April 3

Please send us your original recipes (developed or adapted by you or family members.) Cook of the Month winners will receive $50, and may win “Cook of the Month” only once per calendar year.

3 ways to submit:

Online: alabamaliving.coop

Email: recipes@alabamaliving.ccop

Mail: Recipes, P.O. Box 244014, Montgomery, AL 36124

Alabama’s biodiversity makes it a haven for mushrooms

When a spate of warm, rainy weather causes mushroom populations to mushroom in your landscape, there’s no cause to worry. It may, however, be time to find the sauté pan. 

Mushrooms, along with molds and yeasts, belong to the fascinating kingdom of fungi. Unlike members of the plant kingdom, which make their own energy through photosynthesis, fungi gather sustenance directly from their surroundings through mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungal colony made up of thread-like structures that reside in, and absorb nutrients from, soil and other organic substrates (leaf litter, dead wood, etc.). As mycelium feed, they also recycle nutrients, promote decomposition, build soils and filter pollutants, plus they provide food for other creatures. 

Most of this process occurs out of our sight until moist, humid weather conditions prompt fungi to go forth and multiply, which they do primarily by forming above-ground fruiting bodies (what we call mushrooms) that rise up to release fungal spores into the world. These ‘shrooms emerge, usually in sporadic flushes, in a diverse array of shapes, sizes and colors that spark another post-rain spate of activity — groups of humans dashing to the woods to admire and acquire wild mushrooms.

Anthoni Goodman, president of the Alabama Mushroom Society (alabamamushroomsociety.org and on Facebook), is one of those mushroom hunters. Goodman says this pastime is especially rewarding here in Alabama, home to thousands of different fungi species, including potentially dozens that have not yet been described. 

The Alabama Mushroom Society offers expert-led hikes to look for Alabama’s amazing fungi, such as this interesting and edible shaggy-stalked bolete.

Goodman, who lives in the Birmingham area, founded AMS in 2018 to help connect the state’s mycophiles (fungi lovers) and to educate the public about Alabama’s fabulous fungi resources. (AMS now has two active chapters, North Central in Birmingham and AMS South in Mobile.) 

“Our members join with a host of interests, from fungal taxonomy and photography to cultivation and unique culinary adventures,” Goodman says. The organization’s 100-plus members work together toward the AMS mission to “garner interest in and facilitate education” of Alabama’s amazing fungi kingdom. 

They do this through educational programs and other events, such as expert-led fungi foraging outings during which a hike can become a harvest of what Goodman described as “highly sought-after ingredients that can’t be bought in stores” — edible fungi.

Wild edible fungi (typically mushrooms) are healthful, nutritious and coveted by epicureans and chefs for their distinctive flavors, which range from earthy to woodsy, meaty to briny and nutty to smoky. However, because some wild mushrooms are toxic, foragers should always keep this cautionary adage in mind: “There are old mushroom eaters and bold mushroom eaters, but there are no old, bold mushroom eaters.” 

“You should never eat things (berries, leaves, ‘shrooms, whatever) you find in the forest unless you are 100-percent confident in your identification,” Goodman says, adding that it’s also wise to not be “too bold about that confidence.” 

Education is the key, but more risk-averse mushroom mavens have another option: home-grown mushrooms, which are the specialty of AMS board member Allen Carrol, co-owner of Fungi Farm LLC in Dadeville. Fungi Farm (fungifarmllc.com and on Facebook) offers high-quality wood-grown mushroom supplies and advice for home or commercial production, and they can be grown almost anywhere, from warehouses to shady yards to urban apartments. What’s more, growing mushrooms is good for the food web. 

“If you’re growing mushrooms, all you’re really doing is composting with a very specific organism,” Carroll explains. While the byproduct of that composting is fresh mushrooms to eat, the process also builds soil, which can then be used to grow more vegetables and fruits and to strengthen the health and wellbeing of ecosystems. 

Even when they pop up in our yards, mushrooms contribute to this cycle of life, so unless they pose a threat to curious pets or children, the best thing to do with a flush of mushrooms is leave them to their work. And, once you are 100 percent sure they’re safe to consume, maybe toss a few in the sauté pan.

February Tips

  • Plant roses, trees, shrubs and hardy perennials.
  • Repair gardening tools and equipment.
  • Clean out and properly dispose of unwanted or outdated chemicals.
  • Start seeds for early spring crops and flowers.
  • Clean and refill bird feeders and baths.
  • Celebrate Valentine’s Day with gifts for, and of, the garden.

Worth the Drive | Pizza fanatics flock to Cullman for made-to-order meals

Story and photos by Jennifer Crossley Howard

Lucy Gable, manager of Carlton’s, and her father,
Dr. Harry Blaylock, owner, have worked together since
her father, a retired veterinarian, bought it in 2009.

Lucy Gable assumed she would follow in the footsteps of her father, Dr. Harry Blaylock, after she graduated from Auburn University and become a veterinarian. 

Her father had other plans. He had just bought an Italian restaurant in her hometown of Cullman, and he needed help running it while maintaining his veterinary practice. She came home and started pitching in what has become the family business. 

“I went from an animal science major, to this,” Gable says, gesturing to a dining room that would soon fill for lunch.

She hasn’t looked back.

“It’s so rewarding every day, though it feels overwhelming at times,” she says. “We really try to maintain the Carlton’s tradition.”

She describes that tradition as maintaining all of the original owner’s recipes. All sauce and pizza dough are made in house, and cooks use nothing frozen to prepare their menus. 

“Literally every ticket is made to order,” Gable says. “That is, I guess, the hardest part. Every pizza we hand roll and top and then bake.”

The most popular dish is the lasagna, followed by Dr. Blaylock’s Supreme, a 10-topping pizza cooked in a slate oven at 600 degrees.

“It cooks just perfect,” Gable says. “A lot of pizza fanatics come here,” she added, including those from Birmingham and Huntsville.

All in the family

Her father bought the restaurant a few years before retiring, and he relied on the women in his family to run the business, including Gable’s other daughter, Katie Blaylock.

But as he worked, a unique team stepped in to run the place: his wife, Leslie Blaylock, and ex-wife, Kaye Blaylock.

The two women worked side by side for years with the common mission of operating a successful business.

It got to where, “truthfully, they were best friends,” Dr. Blaylock says.

Business picked up as it got closer for Blaylock to sell his veterinary practice in Hanceville. 

“It’s just been snowballing ever since then,” he says. “I love it. I enjoy coming to work every day.”

Though switching from treating animals to wooing the palate of humans might seem a bit of a stretch, there are similarities. Dr. Blaylock dealt with the public as a veterinarian, and he does so daily still. 

He wanted to own a restaurant since he was 12 years old. After eating and making memories at Carlton’s for years, when it came for sale, he couldn’t pass it up. 

He met with the owner and made an offer on the spot.

Later, “I went home and told my wife I bought a restaurant,” he says.

Reclaimed history

Walking into Carlton’s, located in downtown Cullman, sets the mood for what will surely be a sensory experience. Old, worn wood doors lead diners inside to an open dining room with a tiled floor. Lighting is low, even on a rainy day, and fresh Peruvian lilies sit in bud vases on each table and booth. 

Southern Accents Architectural Antiques, another local, family-run business, had renovated Carlton’s before Blaylock bought it. The restaurant’s location and decor sold him. 

“I thought this was a diamond in the rough,” Dr. Blaylock says. “There wasn’t picture on the wall or anything. This was just a beautiful restored building.”

Southern Accents Architectural Antiques in Cullman, another locally- and family-owned business, had renovated the Carlton’s space shortly before Dr. Harry Blaylock bought it. The décor is full of salvaged and repurposed materials. Below right, Dr. Blaylock’s Supreme, a 10-topping pizza, is a best-seller.

Its standout features include wooden doors used as booth tables, salvaged from Chicago brownstones, and brick on the patio from the old Sweetwater Mill in Florence.

“Everyone always asks, ‘Don’t you want a bigger building?’” Dr. Blaylock says. “But that’s what makes us Carlton’s. It’s rustic, and you can’t replace the building.”

In the future, Dr. Blaylock envisions possibly expanding the building at its current space adding a bar and maybe a cigar bar, which would be a first for Cullman.

Expanding Social Security field office hours

Social Security Cards for identification and retirment USA

All Social Security field offices will now remain open until 4 p.m. on Wednesdays, with typical field office hours from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. You can locate the closest field office to you using our field office locator online. 

In another move to improve service to the public, Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul announced in his Open Letter to the Public at socialsecurity.gov/agency/coss-message.html that the agency is hiring 1,100 front line employees to provide service on the agency’s National 800 Number and in its processing centers. The agency is currently bringing onboard 100 new processing center employees and approximately 500 new teleservice representatives for the 800 Number. An additional 500 hires for the 800 Number will occur later in 2020.

“Improving service is my top priority. Increasing full public service hours at our nationwide network of more than 1,200 field offices is the right thing to do and will provide additional access,” Commissioner Saul said. “The additional hiring of National 800 Number and processing center employees is an important step in the right direction to greatly improve the service we provide.”

While we continue to improve both the access to and the experience with our services, it is important to note that most Social Security services do not require the public to take time to visit an office. People may create a my Social Security account, a personalized online service, at socialsecurity.gov/myaccount

Through their personal my Social Security account, people can check personal information and conduct business with Social Security. If they already receive Social Security benefits, they can start or change direct deposit online, and if they need proof of their benefits, they can print or download a current Benefit Verification Letter from their account. 

People not yet receiving benefits can use their online account to get a personalized Social Security Statement, which provides earnings history information as well as estimates of future benefits. Currently, residents in 40 states and the District of Columbia may request a replacement Social Security card online if they meet certain requirements. The portal also includes a retirement calculator and links to information about other online services, such as applications for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits. 

Many Social Security services are also conveniently available by dialing our toll-free number,  1-800-772-1213. People who are deaf or hard of hearing may call our TTY number, 1-800-325-0778.

The state’s top financial watchdog

Rachel Riddle of Prattville was named the chief examiner for the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts in June 2018, becoming the first woman to hold the position, and the first new person in that position in 37 years. No stranger to state government, she worked as an analyst and fiscal officer for the Legislature for several years and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Alabama and a law degree from the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law. 

She took time to answer a few questions for Alabama Living about the job, and it became quickly apparent that she is very passionate about it and is eager for the public to know more about the department’s important work. –Lenore Vickrey

What was your biggest challenge coming in as Chief Examiner?

Opening lines of communication and educating auditees, government officials, and the public at large. From the onset of my appointment, I made it my mission to try to educate other government officials, as well as the public, about our department. It was surprising to me how little people really knew about what our department did. While yes, we are the governmental entity that keeps an eye on the public’s money and how it is spent, we do so much more. The department conducts audits that allow for the flow of federal funding to state government, as well as local governments, colleges and universities, and local boards of education.

Previous articles have noted that a reduction in staff has been a challenge and that you wanted to rebuild. How is that coming along? 

Being around government long enough, I knew money or funding alone was not going to fix our staffing and delinquent audit issues. I knew coming in that I was going to need a plan.  Upon taking over as chief examiner, I assessed past and current staffing levels. We decided the department didn’t necessarily need to strive to get back to previous staffing levels and could perform the required duties with approximately 60% of prior cut in staff. After this assessment, I came up with a two-year plan to rebuild and move forward. The Legislature, through the department’s Oversight Committee and the appropriations process, graciously provided the first year’s funding needed to implement the plan. As we go into the fiscal year 2020 session, I will be asking for the funding necessary to finish implementation.

Were you able to hold the training sessions for board and commission members that you wanted? 

Yes, the department has restarted training for all state board and commission members and their staff. My hope is to spread these types of trainings to other categories of auditees in state and local government. We have had nothing but positive feedback from this initiative. I personally have even had individuals call and email asking if they could come and just listen because they had heard the training was so useful.

Why is it important that our state have a Department of Examiners of Public Accounts?

It is the government entity charged with making sure public funds are spent legally and appropriately. As a legislative department, we are the check on state and local government entities. Without the audits and examinations performed by the department, there would be no one analyzing how the public’s tax dollars are being spent.

We are also the department that provides expertise when public funds are thought to be misspent, mismanaged, or stolen. In addition to being the check on all forms of government, the department also provides required audits for the federal government and bond issuances and covenants. This is a service that many do not know that we provide. These audits are essential to the continued running of government at the state and local level. Recently, we have been educating the public on the presence of our department, hoping to provide some reassurance that there is someone out there looking.

What motivates you to get up in the morning?

First and foremost, I get up to fulfill my purpose to the ones I love the most. My husband and 3 young children (ages 7, 3 and 8 months) really drive me in all I do. As far as my work goes, I truly have a passion for this state and working with the Legislature. I feel that in some little way that this is my contribution to make our home a little better for us and those that come after us.

How do you wind down?

Sometimes it’s pretty hard to wind down from a hectic day. My husband, kids, and I are a very active crew and love being outdoors. The best winding down I get is when I am able to get outside and play with the kids, dig in the flowerbeds, work out or just sit and enjoy nature.

Solar sunrise

The growth of solar power is making it a more useful energy source

By Paul Wesslund

Not long ago, solar energy was considered an oddity. Electricity generated from the sun was expensive, so not many people used it. Solar power barely registered on the list of electricity sources.

Then, members of local electric cooperatives started asking their co-ops if solar energy might be worth a try, so several of those local electric co-ops set up small panels of solar cells on their property as test projects.

Something to know about local electric co-ops is they don’t generate their own electricity. That’s a huge and costly project. So, they band together to form a larger co-op with the financing and technical expertise to build power plants and transmission lines. They call those generation and transmission co-ops, or G&Ts, because they make and ship the electricity to the co-ops, who ultimately send that power to your home or business.

As more and more solar panels started appearing on the front lawns of electric co-ops across the country, their G&T partners said, “We can help you out with those.”

Electric co-ops are leaders in community solar installations like the one shown here. Even though electric co-ops make up about 10% of the nation’s utility industry, at one point, electric co-ops maintained about 60% of all utility-led solar programs in the U.S. 

Photo Courtesy Dennis Gainer, NRECA

The result has been a dramatic increase in solar energy generation, says Debra Roepke, a solar energy specialist who consults with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).

“There’s been a tenfold increase in electric co-op solar capacity in the last five years,” she says, “and that’s on track to more than double over the next one or two years.”

Electric co-ops aren’t the only source of solar growth, of course. While the 900 electric co-op utilities across the country tend to serve small towns and rural areas, other utilities have been adding solar power as well. 

Solar is spreading across the country, pushed by improving technology and declining costs. One industry analysis finds that the cost for electricity from large-scale solar energy installations has fallen 13% a year for five years. The cost has reached the point where it’s competitive with other fuels. Solar now supplies 2.3% of the nation’s electricity. That may not sound like much, but it’s the equivalent of more than 40 nuclear power plants, and the upward growth and declining costs are expected to continue.

And while electric co-ops can only claim a portion of the credit for the solar energy boom, they have pioneered parts of solar’s success, especially in an area called community solar. With community solar, the electric co-op builds a bank of solar panels and co-op members can buy or lease the electricity the panels generate.

“Co-ops are leaders in community solar,” says Roepke. Even though electric co-ops make up about 10% of the nation’s utility industry, she says, “At one point, co-ops had about 60% of all the utility-led solar programs.”

Roepke credits co-op solar energy developments to their industry business structure of member-owned distribution co-ops and their G&Ts.

community solar, the electric co-op builds a bank of solar panels and co-op members can buy or lease the electricity the panels generate. Here, Wade Castleberry, a field-service technician, maintains and cleans fan units at Green Power EMC’s solar facility in Georgia.
Photo courtesy Dennis Gainer, NRECA

She says, “When co-op members are engaged with their local distribution co-op and the distribution co-ops are working with the G&Ts that they own, solar is a story about how the co-op model works.”

Community solar is one of three ways solar panels are used to make and deliver electricity. Probably the most well-known technique is called rooftop solar, where a homeowner lays solar panels on their roof or in the back yard. But most of the growth happens with utility-scale solar—fields of panels that can cover several acres. The growth in utility-scale solar is one reason costs are coming down—a bigger project can sell a lot more electricity without being that much more expensive to build, lowering the cost of each kilowatt.

Making solar energy more useful

As solar energy becomes more widespread, utilities are figuring out ways to make it more useful. Once it seemed obvious that there was no solar power at night. But bigger and more powerful storage batteries can soak up the sun for use later. Once it seemed solar power wasn’t so useful because it peaked during the day when no one was home. But utilities are using sophisticated computer software to figure out how to juggle power sources like solar, wind, coal and hydro among users, like homes, businesses and manufacturers.

The most well-known technique for generating solar energy is through rooftop solar, where a homeowner lays solar panels on their roof or in the back yard.
Photo courtesy Dennis Gainer, NRECA

Other technologies make solar installations increasingly efficient and productive. Improvements in tracking technology mean more power as solar panels move to follow the sun across the sky. Bifacial solar panels contain solar cells on both sides of their surface, adding reflected light to the energy they receive.

Electric co-op expertise in solar energy includes rooftop and other residential solar setups. For a co-op member interested in trying solar power for themselves, Roepke says their local electric co-op makes a good first stop. The co-op can help answer questions like how much will it cost, will it pay off, how can it be installed safely and what vendors can be counted on. She cautions that there are a lot of people around the country installing residential solar panels, and their quality can vary.

“There are some very good rooftop vendors out there, but there are also some predatory vendors,” says Roepke. “Someone can make a claim that they’re going to save you all this money by putting solar on your roof, then six months after it’s installed, you wonder why you’re not saving all this money, and nobody can get a hold of the solar company.”

If you’re considering solar panels for your home, says Roepke, “Your electric co-op is a trusted energy resource. Talk to them first.”

Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56 percent of the nation’s landscape.

A look ahead at the Legislature

By Allison Law

Alabama’s 2019 legislative session was, by most accounts, tough. Controversial. Contentious. And for that session, nearly a third of the state’s legislators were new. 

Rep. Mac McCutcheon

Now that they have a year’s worth of experience, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon thinks these new legislators will be able to build on relationships and work more closely with their colleagues. 

But he stops short of saying the 2020 session will be any easier. 

“Some of the things that we’re going to tackle are still just as difficult,” he said in an interview in early January. Thorny issues with Corrections, budgets and education will loom large.

 “I really felt for those 25 new members in the House (last year),” McCutcheon says. “Those men and women were put through a tremendous amount of stress.” But those new legislators gained a lot of experience and have a better feel for the districts and constituents they represent, which may translate into a smoother session. 

“It will run smoother from the standpoint of accomplishing things.”

Among the larger issues McCutcheon expects for the upcoming session, which begins Feb. 4:

Education. McCutcheon says the legislators will be looking at student/teacher ratios, the governance process of the education system, mental health counseling for schools and school safety. “We’re trying to recognize and help students with mental health problems, so that we create a safer environment for all our school systems.”

Prison reforms. “We’ve got a correctional system that’s got to be fixed.” Overcrowding, violence and homicides, understaffing and lack of mental health care have plagued the Alabama Department of Corrections, and the Department of Justice has put the state on notice. McCutcheon says the state needs to deal with the brick-and-mortar facilities, recidivism and increasing supervision for probation and parole. “Corrections officers, we’re going to increase employment, and look at the treatment of inmates, which is going to take additional space as well as additional people.”

Lottery. A lottery measure passed the Senate in 2019, which would have allowed voters to decide on the issue, but it failed a procedural vote in the House. “We’ve still got all these issues out there that have to be paid for. So what direction do we go in for revenue?” 

For McCutcheon, a lottery is only one part of a three-part gaming issue: The second is the federally-recognized Poarch Creek Indian tribe, which operates three casinos in Alabama. Last fall, the tribe unveiled a plan to expand gambling in exchange for gaming exclusivity. Third are the local issues – counties that have previously passed legislation to enable gaming establishments, such as dog track operators  VictoryLand and GreeneTrack.

Alabama’s 2020 legislative session begins Feb. 4.

“I’ve shared my feelings with the governor. Let’s not leave one out and try to push another one through when it comes to these three issues. Let’s bring them all to the table and let’s find a solution.”

Rural healthcare. “I feel like there needs to be an overall assessment of the rural hospitals and their role in the areas that they’re in. Administration costs, bed space, and their function within a rural community needs to be assessed and evaluated.” But McCutcheon clarified that he was not advocating the closing of smaller hospitals. 

As a hypothetical example, he said a 30-bed facility may only serve six or seven patients on average each month. “Yet the federal government that’s subsidizing the care through Medicaid, they’re expecting them to staff that hospital for 30 beds. Well, that’s not good economics, and a lot of the communities can’t afford that.” He also says the state needs to move away from talking about Medicaid expansion.  

A system of clinics might be able to provide primary care in rural areas. And using nurse practitioners, instead of doctors, as well as more reliance on telehealth, all need to be on the table, he says. 

Census. While not a legislative issue, McCutcheon is concerned about the Census, which kicks off in March. “We need to get the message out there that this is so important to the state,” he says, not only from the view of losing a congressional seat, but the federal dollars that are allocated based on population. “We were at about 71 percent, maybe, reporting in the last Census. If we could just move up to about 76, 77 percent, (that) could possibly save that congressional seat.”