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Hunting works is working for Alabama’s economy

by David Rainer

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

There’s an old saying that to find a person’s passion, follow the money. That apparently is true for Alabama’s hunters, who fuel the economies in many parts of the state that need it the most.

To ensure the citizens of the state understand how important hunting is to the state’s well-being, both economically and culturally, Hunting Works for Alabama was formed last year to enlist the aid of the business community to spread this important message.

“Hunting Works for Alabama is basically a grass-roots group of people who want to make sure we inform the public about the enormous impact hunters have on our economy,” says Tim Wood, one of the four co-chairs of Hunting Works for Alabama. “You’re talking about a $1.8 billion industry in the state. You’re talking about $375 million that people spend on just hunting-related equipment. Travel expenses, hunters are spending about $405 million a year. That’s travel, fuel, food and lodging.

“In the rural part of the state, that is extremely important. The tax dollars and economic benefits in these rural areas, it would be devastating if they didn’t have it. You could look at Demopolis, Selma, Camden and Faunsdale and look at the effects on these areas. It would be absolutely devastating.”

Wood, the general manager of Central Alabama Farmers Co-ops in Selma, said the co-ops he manages cover the Alabama Black Belt, which is known for its rich soil, great hunting and fragile economy. Wood said the importance of hunting is reflected in their business model.

“Our business has changed,” Wood said at the second annual Hunting Works for Alabama meeting at the Civilian Marksmanship Program Talladega range recently. “We used to make money three months out of the year – March, April and May – from selling fertilizer, chemicals and seeds. Now we make our money in September, October and November. The paradigm has absolutely swapped.

“We’re also a sporting goods company that sells firearms. You don’t see that at farm stores. We sell hunting apparel. Our focus is on the hunting industry.”

Out-of-state hunters important

According to the latest figures, about 44,000 non-residents hunt in Alabama annually. Because the costs of non-resident licenses are significantly higher than resident licenses, those non-resident sales provide a significant funding source for the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. The economic impact from non-resident hunters also ripples throughout the state.

“What I think is so important is the out-of-state dollars coming into the state,” Wood said. “You’re talking about some of the poorest areas in Alabama in the Black Belt. People travel from all over the United States to go deer hunting in Alabama. These people are paying lodging taxes, buying food and gas, and buying hunting licenses, which supports the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. These tax dollars are not just being used by people in the hunting industry. It affects everybody in Alabama. Even the birders benefit from hunting in Alabama because the habitat enhancement made for hunting benefits all wildlife.”

Wood also outlines the importance of more hunting opportunities for the general public.

“Hunting leases have become so expensive,” he says. “People are having to pay $15 to $20 an acre for a place to hunt. The everyday hunter back in the old days didn’t pay anything. If you wanted to go hunting, you could go up the road and some farmer or landowner would let you hunt. Those days aren’t here anymore.

“That is why it is absolutely critical that programs like Forever Wild and the Wildlife Management Areas from Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries provide the everyday citizen places to hunt and give them a reason to buy hunting licenses. It is crucial that this Division is properly funded.”

Become a member

Wood said anybody or any business that wants to become a member of Hunting Works for Alabama can sign up and it won’t cost a dime. Go to www.huntingworksforal.com for information or to join the organization.

“When you become a member, you’re able to come to our meetings and meet with other people in the industry,” he says. “You learn the facts and figures about the economic importance of hunting in the state. We are fortunate to be in Alabama, where we are a hunting and gun-friendly state. It’s a luxury, and we want to keep it that way.

“We’re trying to build a network of support. Eventually, we’re going to have to talk to our legislators, because there will be issues that come up that will end up in the Legislature. We need to have voices in the different districts who will contact these legislators to express how important hunting is to the state.”

After one year, Hunting Works for Alabama has 107 members with a goal of reaching at least 150 by the end of the year. Pam Swanner of Alabama Black Belt Adventures, David Dexter of Mobile and Grant Lynch, chairman of the Talladega Superspeedway, serve as the other co-chairs for the organization.

“We’re looking for slow growth,” Wood says. “When you have an all-volunteer staff, we have paying jobs we have to tend to. But for many of us, this does affect our paying jobs. And it also affects our way of life, which I think is more important.”

Social security

Ex-spouse benefits and how they affect you

Just like during tax season, it’s good to have all the information you need early so you can prepare and get any money you are due.   

If you are age 62, unmarried, and divorced from someone entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits, you may be eligible to receive benefits based on his or her record. To be eligible, you must have been married to your ex-spouse for 10 years or more. If you have since remarried, you can’t collect benefits on your former spouse’s record unless your later marriage ended by annulment, divorce, or death. Also, if you’re entitled to benefits on your own record, your benefit amount must be less than you would receive based on your ex-spouse’s work. In other words, we’ll pay the higher of the two benefits for which you’re eligible, but not both.

You can apply for benefits on your former spouse’s record even if he or she hasn’t retired, as long as you divorced at least two years before applying. If, however, you decide to wait until full retirement age to apply as a divorced spouse, your benefit will be equal to half of your ex-spouse’s full retirement amount or disability benefit. The same rules apply for a deceased former spouse.

The amount of benefits you get has no effect on the benefits of your ex-spouse and his or her current spouse. Visit Retirement Planner: If You Are Divorced at www.socialsecurity.gov/planners/retire/divspouse.html to find all the eligibility requirements you must meet to apply as a divorced spouse. Our benefits planner gives you an idea of your monthly benefit amount. If your ex-spouse died after you divorced, you may still quality for widow’s benefits. You’ll find information about that in a note at the bottom of the website.

Visit www.socialsecurity.gov/planners/retire/divspouse.html today to learn whether you’re eligible for benefits on your ex-spouse’s record. That could mean a considerable amount of monthly income. What you learn may bring a smile to your face … even on tax day!

Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at kylle.mckinney@ssa.gov.

About your pet

Pets are more than treasured companions

Pets are a very important part of our lives. One in six American households own a pet. Sixty percent of Americans think pet owners lead more satisfying lives than non pet-owners. From our personal experience, they would be right! We humans started forming a bond with animals many millennia ago. From being just a tool to make our existence a bit easier, like herding dogs, pets have now taken up the role of trusted friend and companion. The history of this bond goes back a long way. A gravesite in the Czech Republic unearthed a 31,000-year-old skeleton of a dog buried with a carefully placed bone in its mouth. This skeleton was found in a human graveyard. Perhaps it is romanticizing a bit, but maybe another human like us placed the bone and shed a few tears before throwing the first handful of dirt on their beloved friend. Over 50 studies in the last few decades have demonstrated the many health bene-fits of pets. Cat owners enjoy a 30 percent reduction in heart attack risk. Watching fish swim lowers blood pressure, and stroking a dog boosts the immune system. Pets provide valuable services as helpers for the blind and disabled. On top of all these herculean tasks, they also work in prisons, nursing homes and women’s shelters providing compassion and healing. The list goes on. An excellent book, Made for Each Other, by Meg Olmert is a must read on this topic. These creatures give us so much in their short lives! We bear a significant responsibility to take care of them and give them a life full of care and joy. A wonderful guideline for animals in our care is called the “five freedoms:” freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, in-jury or disease, freedom to express normal behavior and freedom from fear and distress.

This column will appear every other month.  If you have a pet-related question of general interest, please write to Dr. G at PO Box 687, Geraldine, AL 35974.

Goutam Mukherjee, DVM, MS, Ph.D. (Dr. G) has been a veterinarian for more than 30 years. He works part time at Grant Animal Clinic and is a member of North Alabama Electric Cooperative.

A conversation with the Governor

Kay Ivey talks about economic development, the Census and Alabama’s ‘first dog’

by Minnie Lamberth

Alabama’s 54th governor was inaugurated unexpectedly in April 2017, yet she is a familiar figure as a state leader. Gov. Kay Ivey was in her second term as lieutenant governor when she was promoted to the state’s top job at the resignation of former Gov. Robert Bentley. She had previously held the office of state treasurer for two four-year terms. Early in her career, Ivey had served as reading clerk of the Alabama House of Representatives under Speaker Joseph C. McCorquodale, and was also assistant director of the Alabama Development Office. She ran unsucessfully for state auditor in the 1980s. Ivey later served as director of government relations and communications for the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. Recently, Alabama Living sat down with Ivey in her office in the state capitol to discuss her current role.

Governor Kay Ivey with Rockwell students Friday, December 1, 2017 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor’s Office, Hal Yeager)

Alabama Living: When you moved into the governor’s office, you talked about “steadying the ship of state.” Do you want to speak to some of the steps you have taken toward that end?

Ivey: Before I became governor, a dark cloud was over this state for quite a long time, and that dark cloud caused great un-certainty. Certainly it hindered progress in attracting new investments and creating employment opportunities. It hindered the process of just carrying out the routine business of the state. And it certainly hindered the focus that we should have had trying to find ways to provide opportunities for all Alabamians. So a dark cloud had been hanging over us. And I knew I had to get a handle on that and, quote, “steady the ship.” To me what we did to steady the ship was to be very methodical and deliberate as we evaluated each one of the cabinet positions. That took us some time because we want-ed to be very thorough, and deliberate, but that’s been done, and that’s a good thing. When I became governor, it was in the second half of the legislative session. But even so in that time I was able to support the Alabama Jobs Act. (Ivey signed legislation in May to extend the Alabama Jobs Act, which provides incentive packages for the state to lure businesses to Alabama.) We also supported ending the judicial override situation, so that whatever a jury decides is what prevails. Whether it’s the death penalty or life imprisonment, and that was a good thing. (Gov. Ivey signed a bill in April that ended a provision that was unique to Alabama that if a jury recommended life in prison, a judge could override the recommendation and impose the death penalty.) And then the autism bill, and the late Jim Patterson was the key person that kept that alive and moving it forward, and certainly we applaud Jim for his leadership on that. (The bill, sponsored by the late Rep. Jim Patterson, R-Meridianville, required certain health insurance plans to provide coverage for autism therapy.) So we’ve just had to work hard and use a lot of common sense to be sure that people felt better about the ship of state be-cause it was now going to be steadier, and we could start getting back on track.

Alabama Living: What are some signs that you are seeing that the ship is steadier?

Ivey: Some signs that it’s working can be seen with the investments that have been made in the state during the time I’ve been governor. We’ve had over $2 billion of investments. That’s the addition of some 5,000 new jobs and more on the way. We’ve had drops in the unemployment rate in each of the months I’ve been in office, and that’s a good sign. Since I’ve been governor, we’ve taken some actions to change the date of the next Senate race election. I simply followed the law, and the law said if there’s a vacancy in the Senate less than four months away from the next election, the governor shall call a special election forthwith. I appointed two Supreme Court justices – Lyn Stuart to be chief justice and Will Sellers to fill her vacancy. So we’ve been busy doing some things that needed to be done to give some direction and stability to the state.

Alabama Living: You’ve been involved in state government for many years, but the role of governor is surely unlike any other. Can you speak to an unexpected challenge or opportunity that you have faced?

Ivey: Well, every-thing was unexpected at the moment – because I wasn’t expect-ing things to play out like it did. Remember, most folks have three months to get ready for an administration; we had three hours. One of the opportunities certainly was that we had a vacancy in superintendent’s slot right after I got to be governor. We also had the ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act, was due. It just was not complete. It was inconsistent. It had a lot of things in there that should not have been there in my view, and so I asked Secretary DeVos to grant us an extension, and she did, and I was proud to see that we were able to improve that plan substantially. We still have an opportunity to provide more amendments after the department reviews what has been sent. (ESSA was signed into law in December 2015 as a federal education law that re-places the No Child Left Behind Act. Ac-cording to the Alabama State Department of Education, the ESSA requires states to develop plans to close achievement gaps, increase equity of instruction and increase outcomes for all students.) We had the opportunity to issue an executive order that prevented the executive branch for naming lobbyists to boards and commissions – since lobbyists get paid for a particular viewpoint. Boards and com-missions are designed for citizen input. We disbanded a number of the Bentley task forces that had been created to study, study, study. We did keep the opioid crisis task force, but we have modified it and expanded the membership and included some folks that really need to be on that. That is a major crisis in this great state we’ve got to deal with.

Alabama Living: How has the transition been for you personally? How are you adjusting to being a public figure even when you’re at the grocery store, at church, at a shopping center, or other places where you used to go unobserved?

Ivey: Well, it’s for sure everywhere you go somebody’s going to see you and want to stop and talk, and that’s an OK thing. I just have to plan a little bit longer to go grocery shopping than I normally would. I have to plan a little bit longer to remain after church or whatever than I have be-fore. But that’s OK. I’m honored that folks recognize me and want to have a picture. Or they want to talk or share a concern. That’s a good thing. But yeah, you’re right. I’m meeting a lot of folks that I never would have previously. Now, my mug shot is out there, and people know me. It has certainly been an adjustment. I had to change houses.

Alabama Living: Did you move into the Governor’s Mansion?

Ivey: May 6 – me and Bear. Alabama’s got a first dog. (As the Auburn graduate explained why she would have a dog named, of all things, Bear, she told the story of how he had come to her as a hard-ship puppy. He had been injured by an automobile and was left at the same veterinarian Ivey used. After he had been treat-ed for his injuries, Ivey heard from the vet’s office.) They called me and said, “We think you’ve got a dog that you can’t live without.” They turned out to be right. After he’d been through all of that, I couldn’t change his name. So I just bought him an Auburn collar.

Alabama Living: Is the Governor’s Mansion comfortable for you and Bear?

Ivey: He’s learned to ride the elevator quite well. Mansion staff and orderlies are very fond of Bear, and he of them. They pay him a lot of attention. He has free run of the grounds and the mansion. So we’re both right at home. I still sit on the back porch at the mansion just like I sat on the back porch at my house.

Governor Kay Ivey participated in the groundbreaking of Wayne Farms Tuesday, December 12, 2017 in Enterprise, Ala. Wayne Farms will create 400 full-time jobs with an hourly wage of $13.16, exclusive of benefits. This will bring the total workforce at this location to more than 1,700, increasing production by more than 30 percent.(Governor’s Office, Hal Yeager)

Alabama Living: You’ve already alluded to some of the issues in state government. What are some of the issues that are of greatest concern to you and other state leaders? What are your concerns? What are the concerns that leaders are dealing with that are top of mind?

Ivey: Well, for me, one of the things that was missing before I took office was a strong working relationship between the executive office – the governor’s office – and the legislature. But I’m proud to say that we’ve made a big difference in that, and I’ve got a strong relationship with the leaders of the House and Senate and a lot of the members in both houses. Having a good working relationship so you can have open, transparent communications and under-standing with the legislative branch is important because the people of Alabama expect elected leaders to work together. Now we’re not always going to agree. But we can work together and find avenues and programs that we can work together on. That’s very definitely of advantage to the people of Alabama to get progress. Another concern that I have, and I’m trying to raise the issue across the state, is getting ready for the Census. The Census will occur in 2020, and while that seems like a long time away, it’s really not. Because now is the time to start getting prepared and be sure that all our people who, for example, have moved into new neighborhoods or new apartments or new condos or whatever that their addresses have been secured and sent to the Census coordinators in Alabama. ADECA is the state coordinator for the Census process, and already we have sent out letters to the mayors and county com-mission chairs advising them of the rules and the procedures they need to be under-taking now to get their roster current in Washington so Washington can send the form to everybody, and then it’s going to be key that everybody fills out a census. The reason it’s so important is, Census results determine how many Congress people you’re going to have. It also determines the federal funding you’ll get from the federal government for needed projects. And in Alabama now, while our population has been growing, it hasn’t been growing as fast as some of our sister states. So there’s a great chance that Alabama could lose a congressperson, and we certainly don’t need that. In addition, every town, every county and so much more depends on federal dollars coming in here. All of ADECA is funded with federal dollars. And if we have to lose a congress-person, it’s going to impact the amount of federal funding we get in this state. That is a serious, serious issue. So every Alabamian who is in this state needs to receive and complete a Census form. It will be sent in paper. So it’s not going to be something you can sit down and respond digitally to. It’s going to be imperative that people take the time to fill out the Census report. Future funding depends on it.

Alabama Living: Having grown up in Camden in Wilcox County, you’re a daughter of rural Alabama like many of the readers of Alabama Living. Can you speak to areas where state government is working to strengthen and support liv-ing and working in rural Alabama? 

Ivey: You’re right, I’m definitely from LA, and that’s lower Alabama, and proud of it. In job creation, for example, some in-vestments and job creations are occurring even in our rural areas. For example, in Bibb County – Mercedes Benz has announced an expansion for Bibb. Dallas County is being strengthened by International Paper’s changing over their process to make a different product and putting in new equipment down in Selma. And so that’s a good stabilizing thing.Then there’s another firm in Jasper – Yorozu. The bottom line is as we continue to track investments, create more jobs, we want to take it to rural areas every time it’s possible. We also need to address broadband initiative throughout the state. (See related story on Page 18.) Along those lines, we did FirstNet – First Responders Network – that all first responders can have access just to that network whenever a crisis or need arises so they can have their own channel of communications, and so that’s a start in that direction. First Responders Network, I think, is some 30 towers that will be built. The U.S. Department of Commerce put out an RFP throughout the nation, and AT&T won that RFP to be the provider. Alabama will be the 24th state to opt in. AT&T then has the responsibility to build the towers, maintain and operate for the next 25 years. That’s separate from broadband, but it’s another good thing especially for rural Alabama, as well as everybody else that are first responders. Folks in rural areas are good folks and they’re hardworking. We need to do everything we can to help them have access to better opportunities.

Improved revenues could assist budget process

by Minnie Lamberth

photo by Dionne Whetstone

When legislators gather Jan. 9 to convene for the 2018 regular session, they’ll enter the fourth year of a four-year term – or, in other words, an election year. During the last year of a quadrennium, says Senate Majority Leader Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, legislators usually “try to minimize the amount of conflict and maximize the amount of working together.”

Recognizing the influence of the election cycle, Reed highlights an area where the legislature would give paramount attention. “Number one, first and foremost, are going to be the budgets – the education budget as well as the general fund budget,” he says. The state’s budgets are always the top priority, but the process is expected to go easier this year.

Over his seven years in office, Reed says, “We have continuously struggled with both budgets because during that window of time Alabama as well as America has moved through the Great Recession. We’ve had very difficult circumstances related to having enough funding.” He notes that the state has cut right at a billion dollars out of the budgets during this period. In addition, “We have almost 5,000 fewer state employees than we had in 2008.”

This time around, however, legislators are seeing potential for stronger budgets, given improvements in revenue collection. “As a result, we are going to have a little bit of an easier time in trying to manage some of the budget issues,” Reed says.

House Majority Leader Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, echoes that sentiment. In his view, both the education trust fund, which supports public schools, higher education and related agencies, and the general fund, which supports non-education state functions, are going to be in pretty good shape.

“I’m excited about our education trust fund,” Ledbetter says. “The money’s where it needs to be with the economy improving, and that enables us to do some things we haven’t done in the past.”

During the last budget cycle, the legislature added around 150 schoolteachers in the state, and Reed hopes that addition continues. “If we have resource there where we can look at the potential of having additional teachers, especially math, science and special education, that’s going to be very important.” Reed notes that rural areas would be the focus of some of the growth in pre-K as well as increases in middle school teachers.

Compared to the education budget, the general fund budget has been more of a struggle in the past, Ledbetter says. But legislators had an opportunity to plan ahead. “Last year we set aside $93 million just to be fiscally responsible looking to the ’18 budget. Most of that was due to the one-time funding from the BP settlement.”

In 2015, Alabama officials announced a $2.3 billion settlement with BP Oil in response to the economic and environmental damage from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. A portion of those funds have been available to the general fund, including a distribution of $105 million to Medicaid for the current fiscal year.

Reed says carrying the $93 million forward took a lot of discipline but will help offset this coming budget. The Alabama Medicaid Agency will continue to receive a lot of discussion. The legislature is also expected to give attention to issues in the state’s prison system.

An increase in the number of state troopers is another topic of interest. The current budget added 30 new state troopers to Alabama highways. “I think there will be a move to do that again – to add additional state troopers in the coming budget if there’s additional resource there,” Reed says.

Having additional troopers on the road is important to rural Alabama, Reed says. “It’s not as much a concern in regards to having state police coverage in Birmingham or Huntsville as it is in a rural area like Fayette or Greene County.”

Among other issues, expanding broadband is a continuing concern for rural Alabamians. “I think that’s something that will come up in this session and certainly deserves a lot of debate,” Ledbetter says.

Broadband, Reed says, “may be just as important as roads and bridges and rivers and ports as we look at all of the elements that are associated with not only transferring goods and services but also transferring and managing data.”

 

Rural broadband Bill would encourage investment

by Allison Law

As a full-time farmer from a rural area, state Sen. Clay Scofield knows first-hand the issues with having limited internet connectivity. It’s why he’s again this year sponsoring a bill to provide tax credits for companies willing to invest in rural broadband infrastructure.

“We don’t have access to higher speed internet, and it affects our ability to do business and be connected with markets around the world,” Scofield says.

It’s not just an economic development issue, though that is an important component. “We’re putting our students at a serious disadvantage if they don’t have Internet in their homes,” he says. And students can’t take online classes at colleges and universities without adequate internet.

And the uses for telemedicine continue to grow. With today’s technology, “we can connect someone in Greene County or Geneva County to specialists at UAB,” he says. Telemedicine also allows for high-risk patient monitoring and for remote yet real-time diagnoses in such specialties as wound care, neurology and stroke.

The biggest portion of the bill will provide a tax credit of up to 10 percent of the total investment in rural and underserved Alabama. That will be capped at $20 million per year, for a limit of 10 years. Scofield says the state would also abate some sales and use taxes and ad valorem taxes as well.

If the state maxes out at $20 million a year, that would mean that providers are investing $200 million a year in rural Alabama to get that $20 million tax credit. That has a potentially huge return on investment: How many times are those dollars turned over in the rural areas, in terms of wages for people who build the infrastructure and for the materials to do so?

After 10 years, the abatement goes away, Scofield says, so the state can begin to collect on that new infrastructure. “So it’s a good deal for them, and a good deal for us.”

The bill addresses the biggest reason why there isn’t high-speed Internet in many areas of rural Alabama: the prohibitive cost. For years, it hasn’t been cost-effective for big Internet companies to extend their services to rural areas; Scofield’s bill aims to address that issue head-on.

During the 2017 session, SB253 passed the Senate but got bogged down in the House. Scofield has been working with his colleagues to ensure support in 2018.

“We have a lot of support for it, and it has bipartisan support,” he says.

Before the session starts, legislators will get the results of an initiative to map the internet connectivity in Alabama. Part of the problem, Scofield says, is that it’s hard to offer incentives to companies to invest when there isn’t an up-to-date map that reflects the coverage statewide.

Some maps, which are based on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data, aren’t really accurate, Scofield says, because if one person within a census block is served, then all the people in that block are considered served, which isn’t the case. “That’s why getting a map is critical, so we can determine what we are really looking at.”

The Alabama Rural Electric Association, which publishes Alabama Living magazine, as well as the Alabama Farmers Federation support this legislation. Contact your legislators and let them know that you want them to support Scofield’s rural broadband bill.

Best of Alabama 2018

by Allison Law

Once again, we asked our readers to vote for their favorite places and things about our great state in our magazine’s Best of Alabama contest, for which we ran ballots in the August, September and October issues. We asked you to vote on your favorites – everything from seafood restaurants to small towns to the best articles you’ve read in Alabama Living. It’s likely no surprise that many of the winners are beach-related. Your favorite seafood restaurant was the Original Oyster House, with locations in Spanish Fort and Gulf Shores; your favorite souvenir was seashells, sand dollars or sand from our sugar white beaches. And your favorite day trip? Gulf Shores. But there were winners elsewhere in the state, too. For best burger, you liked the Jefferson Country Store (featured in our Worth the Drive section in 2016), and for best hiking place, you picked Oak Mountain State Park outside of Birmingham. There were some rather curious answers, too. For best burger, more than one of you responded with Burger King (we were really hoping for an Alabama-based restaurant). And for best living history experience, someone responded with “in college dorm room Troy State.” (He or she obviously had a very interesting collegiate career!) But perhaps the funniest responses were to the best Alabama souvenir question. One reader suggested a “redneck tan,” and another responded with “a full stomach from Peach Park.” (Peach Park, incidentally, was voted best ice cream in our 2017 contest!) Read on to learn more about our winners this year, and see if you agree with the winners.

Best seafood restaurant: Original Oyster House, with locations in Gulf Shores and Spanish Fort (on the Causeway)

The Original Oyster House Restaurant has been serving fresh seafood (in addition to a variety of steaks, chicken, salads and pasta dishes) in a casual, family atmosphere for more than 30 years. The first restaurant opened in 1983 in Gulf Shores with 60 seats and 10 employees; after multiple expansions, it now seats 300 and employs 130 people. The second location, on the Mobile Bay Causeway, opened in 1985 and has also expanded over the years to include a gift shop, boat dock, 300 seats, conference room and full-service banquet room. The causeway location is at 3733 Battleship Parkway/Highway 90 in Spanish Fort; call 251-626-2188. The Gulf Shores location on the boardwalk is at 701 Highway 59; call 251-948-2445. Visit them online at originaloysterhouse.com

Best Alabama-made burger: Jefferson Country Store, Marengo County

The Jefferson Country Store, located in the unincorporated Jefferson community, opened in 1957 and has been the heart of the area ever since. Besides selling the expected glass-bottle Cokes and Moon-Pies, the store has a small restaurant that offers such Southern house-made foods as pimento cheese, chicken salad and Brunswick stew. Regulars know to ask about daily specials and the “secret menu.” When a writer for Alabama Living visited the store in 2016, that secret menu item was the Firecracker Burger, a hefty beef patty topped with sliced red hots (sausages) and embellished with a thick slab of hoop cheese and jalapeno slices. Besides its kickin’ burgers, the store also offers specialty items, like souse and rag bologna from Alabama’s Zeigler meats, hoop cheese and ribbon cane syrup. And there are locally-sourced products like fresh vegetables and honey. Visit the store at 26120 Alabama Highway 28, Jefferson, Alabama. Call 334-289-0040 and find them on Facebook.

Best recipe from “The Best of Alabama Living” cookbook: Pecan Pie 

It’s hard to go wrong with a Southern classic like Pecan Pie. A recipe submitted by Memory Bush of South Alabama EC for the November 2014 issue of Alabama Living was selected for “The Best of Alabama Living” cookbook, published in 2016. Want the recipe, or any of the other 300 other delicious recipes in the book? It can be yours for $19.95, including shipping! Visit bestofalabamacookbook.com to place your order.

 

Best game to hunt/fish/trap in Alabama: Deer

White-tailed deer are the No. 1 game animal hunted in Alabama, according to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, so it’s no surprise that deer topped our list.  Approximately 180,000 deer hunters account for more than 4 million man-days of hunting activity annually and have a significant impact on the local economy of rural Alabama.

The harvest varies from year to year but hunters typically harvest in excess of 300,000 deer annually, according to the ALDCNR.

Best hiking/biking trail: Oak Mountain State Park

Mountain biking and hiking are two of the most popular activities at this state park in Pelham, with more than 50 miles of trails. The Red Trail has something for mountain bikers of any skill level, from kids or beginners to experts. The International Mountain Bike Association added Oak Mountain to its list of “epic rides” with just about every trail condition imaginable.

Hikers enjoy the White, Blue, Yellow, Green and Lake trails, which offer a variety of difficulties and several connectors to allow for loops. Trails are well marked with colored blazes and trail markers to help rescuers find lost or injured hikers. For more on any of the trails at the park (as well as the campgrounds and cabins), visit alapark.com or call 205-620-2520. 

 

 

Best historic hotel: The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel and Spa 

This eight-story beauty, opened in 1908, sits in the heart of downtown Mobile and has hosted politicians, royalty, entertainers and sports legends. The hotel fell on hard times and was closed in 1974, but was impeccably restored in 2007. The restoration incorporates its old-world glamour with modern amenities, including a full-service day spa, modern fitness center and outdoor pool. It’s connected to the 35-story RSA Tower, Alabama’s tallest building. The hotel is located at 26 North Royal Street in Mobile; call 251-338-2000.

Best “living history” experience: USS Alabama

The USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of the commissioning of its iconic ship. The park has long been considered a worthy tourist attraction, but over the last few years it has enjoyed a shift in focus to a restored-to-original-condition museum on water, its history meticulously researched. It’s also been modernized, with interactive kiosks and newly restored artifact exhibits from two World Wars, with more on the way. The park is located at 2703 Battleship Parkway in Mobile; call 251-433-2703 or visit www.ussalabama.com  

 

Best small town for unique shopping: Fairhope

The Baldwin County town of Fairhope enjoys a picturesque setting along the cliffs and shoreline of Mobile Bay, but it has more to offer than just pretty scenery. It’s long been a resort community, but over the years artists, writers and craftsmen have found the small town to be an inspiring haven for their work. When its downtown area began to decline in the 1970s, leaders decided to revitalize the town in the image of a quaint European village. Today, its vibrant downtown is filled with unique shops and galleries, gourmet restaurants and cozy cafes. Its high quality of life makes it attractive to visitors and residents alike. 

Best day trip in Alabama: Gulf Shores

This coastal city in Baldwin County is naturally famous for its beaches, but there’s plenty more to do here. Visitors come for the fishing and golf as well as land- and water-based activities, from hiking along the Branyon Backcountry Trail to kayaking through the back bays. And there are lots of family activities, including the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo and the Historic Fort Morgan.

Best Alabama souvenir: Seashells, sand dollars, sand (anything from the beach)

As much a tradition as sunburns and swimming, shopping for souvenirs at the beach is an inexpensive and fun way to create memories from a family vacation. Our readers answered mostly sand dollars and seashells, but you could just as easily include hermit crabs, T-shirts, beach towels and keychains. Next time you’re enjoying the Alabama beaches, boost the local economy a little more with a stop at a souvenir shop.

Best article you’ve read in Alabama Living in the last year: Hardy Jackson’s column on air conditioning (or the lack thereof)

In general, when we ask readers for their favorite part of the magazine, the answer is either the recipes or the musings of Hardy Jackson, humorist and essayist for several publications. You may not know that Jackson is an eminent scholar in history at Jacksonville State University, and has authored, co-authored or co-edited 11 books on various aspects of Southern history.

His column in the August 2017 issue posed the question, “Who Remembers Life Before A/C?” Jackson surely does: “Nights so hot that at bedtime you would take ice cubes, wrap them in a wash rag and hold them to your cheek or chest in the mistaken belief that if you could get one part of your body cold, the rest of you would cool down enough to let you sleep. “What you got instead was a wet pillow or wet sheets.”

Best thing about Alabama: The people

We’re heartened by this response – the idea that what makes our state great is, naturally, its people. But perhaps not surprisingly, running a close second and third to this question were food and football.

 


Baldwin EMC member wins Best of Alabama drawing

 

Ally Mills Dorrough was born and raised in Montgomery, but she has called Baldwin County home since 2012 and is a member of Baldwin EMC. And she loves Alabama Living magazine!

Alabama Living captures the heart of Alabama, telling stories of its people and places with passion,” Dorrough says. “I enjoy discovering hidden gems about our great state, from little known restaurants to recipe inspiration to interesting events and sustainable initiatives.”

Dorrough was the randomly drawn winner in the Best of Alabama contest. We ran a ballot in the August, September and October issues, asking readers to tell us their favorite places and things about our state. All eligible entries were entered into a drawing.

Because Dorrough entered the contest online, she wins $350! (Mailed entries were eligible to win $250.)

Dorrough lives in Foley with her family – husband Dan and children Olivia, 2, and Davis, five months. They love traveling, cooking, volunteering with their church’s youth ministry and anything to do with Auburn. “War Eagle!”

They also enjoy the laid-back lifestyle and hospitality of the Alabama Gulf coast.

“Plus, since this is a tourism-driven area, there is plenty to do on and off the beach!” she says.

Intentional gardening: Finding garden flow in 2018

had such good intentions when I sat down to write this month’s column.  I was going to create the perfect list of monthly gardening chores that would set us all on the path to a fun and productive gardening year.

After days and days of trying to create a list that works for every part of the state, though, I realized that my intentions were good, but impractical. How can one short list begin to address the diversity of Alabama gardens and gardeners, not to mention the many variables of gardening in this state such as local climates, soil types and weather patterns? That would require writing a book, not a column.

So, instead, I decided to make a list of intentional gardening strategies that can help us all focus on our personal objectives and, perhaps, find flow in our gardens rather than feeling overwhelmed or frustrated.

It all begins with questions.

The first set of questions is all about establishing your gardening goals:

  • What garden style do I want – formal, informal, natural, manicured, something else?
  • Do I want my garden to be ornamental, edible or a combination of the two?
  • Do I want a low maintenance or a high maintenance garden?
  • Do I want my garden to be interesting year-round or just during certain seasons?
  • Do I want a garden that attracts birds, butterflies and other wildlife, draws the attention of passers-by or does both?
  • Then answer some questions about the resources you have to put into a garden:
  • How much space do I have to garden in and do I want to expand or reduce that space?
  • How much time and energy can I commit to my garden?
  • How much money can I spend on my garden?
  • Is my garden area typically dry or wet, sunny or shady or a combination of these?
  • Do I have good soil in my garden or can I improve that soil?

Once you’ve answered these questions, here are some strategies to help keep up with your garden’s needs:

Walk through the garden as often as possible to look for problems, for chances to pick fruits, vegetables or flowers and to determine which areas and plants need immediate and/or long-term attention, such as watering, pruning, fertilizing and new or different plants.

Concentrate on one section of the garden each time you go out there to work, and don’t get distracted by other parts of the garden. You can save those for the next garden workday.

Finally, get your hands on one or more gardening guides (available online or in many books and magazines) that will help you organize your gardening plans with an eye toward your local needs. Two extremely helpful resources for our part of the world include the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Alabama Gardener’s Calendar (visit www.aces.edu and search for gardener’s calendar) and Month-by-Month Gardening — Deep South, a book written by Nellie Neal and published by Cool Springs Press. However, there are many other resources you can use so take some time to explore the options (and, by the way, January is a great month to stay inside and do just that).

Also, tap into the knowledge of local experts at garden centers, public gardens and Alabama Cooperative Extension System offices, attend some gardening workshops and seek advice from seasoned gardeners in your community or from garden club and plant society members and Master Gardeners.

Needless to say, there are many other things that can be added to these lists of questions and strategies, and the month-by-month list accompanying this column as well, but perhaps these will kick-start your own intentional gardening approach and help you find gardening flow and joy in 2018!

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


Month-by-Month Gardening 2018

Because the exact timing of many gardening chores and opportunities varies in different parts of the state, here are some general guides for things we can all do in and for our gardens and yards each month.

January

  • Choose and order seeds, bulbs and plants for the coming year.
  • Do a soil test.
  • Plant trees and shrubs now and through the winter.
  • Start seed for winter or early spring crops indoors or in a cold frame.

February

  • Prune many trees and shrubs, though not spring-blooming species.
  • Begin grafting trees and shrubs.
  • Start seed for later spring vegetables, herbs and flowers.
  • Remove or treat winter weeds in the lawn and landscape.

March

  • Prepare garden beds for spring and summer planting.
  • Add fertilizer or other soil amendments recommended by soil test results.
  • Clean and service gardening tools, power equipment, irrigation systems, etc.
  • Start outdoor plantings of tender annual crops.

April

  • Begin moving hardy houseplants outdoors and repot any that have outgrown their containers.
  • Keep a close eye out for increasing pest, weed and disease problems.
  • Begin planting summer crops.   
  • Start regular lawn mowing and maintenance routines.

May

  •  Plant summer annual flowers
  •  Seed new lawns.
  •  Water lawns, newly planted shrubs, garden beds and potted plants as needed.
  •  Mulch newly planted shrubs.

June

  •  Take cuttings from shrubs for rooting new plants.
  •  Trim leggy limbs from shrubs to improve their shape.
  •  Remove spent blooms from most shrubs and other flowering ornamentals.
  •  Stake tall flowers and other plants to keep them from falling or blowing over.

July

  • Plant irises and spider lilies.
  • Sow seed for late summer and early fall vegetables and flowers.
  • Keep watering, mowing and weeding.
  • Plant seed for pumpkins and gourds.

August

  • Start planting fall vegetable seeds and transplants.
  • Divide clumps of perennials such as irises and daylilies.
  • Add organic matter to empty garden beds.
  • Keep planting late summer and fall annual vegetables and flowers.

September

  • Plant new trees, shrubs and wildflowers now and on through the fall.
  • Sow seed for leafy greens such as mustard, lettuce, turnips and collards.
  • Plant spring-blooming bulbs.
  • Take houseplants indoors.

October

  • Winterize and safely store lawn and garden tools and chemicals.
  • Clean out flower and vegetable beds and add organic matter to improve soil quality.
  • Keep planting new trees and shrubs.
  • Freshen mulch around shrubs and perennials.

November

  • Add fallen leaves to compost piles.
  • Start planting new roses.
  • Clean birdfeeders and baths and keep them filled for winter birds.
  • Water newly planted shrubs and trees and container plants.

December

  • Add lime to soils if needed (based on soil test recommendations).
  • Prune grape, wisteria and other ornamental or fruiting vines.
  • Plant blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and other small fruits.
  • Stop fertilizing houseplants.

WTD: 360 Grille

Culinary treats with a 360-degree view

by Allison Law


The 360 Grille, perched 20 stories up atop the tower of the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa in Florence, lures guests with its commanding views of the scenic Tennessee Valley and Wilson Dam.

The aptly-named eatery is the state’s only rotating restaurant. Food and beverage director Garien Shelby, who’s also the executive chef, first came to the 360 Grille as a patron. He brought his wife for a sunset dinner, and it was “spectacular.”

“It completely took my breath away,” he says.

The speed is generally set to allow for a 3-4 course meal in one full rotation, which is about an hour to an hour and a half. Patrons seated near the windows get the full 360-degree view in one meal, but the speed is slow enough that the rotation is neither distracting nor scary. (Interior seats are stationary.)

Its views are unparalleled, for sure. But Shelby wants people to have a culinary as well as a visual experience.

It has always been a fine dining restaurant, but made the transition to a steakhouse about a year ago. Steaks are the anchor – the Grille gets fresh beef delivered two to three times a week – but the chefs tinker with Southern staples to create other signature dishes, which are often seasonal.

“Our fish and grits is a popular dish. Our braised bison short rib is popular. We take some of the Southern flavors and incorporate them in more upscale and versatile items,” Shelby says.

The heirloom tomato salad is a play on a caprese salad, with freshly fried mozzarella, a fig balsamic reduction and a spinach pesto, instead of the regular basil pesto. “We just try to play with the classics and present them in a more elegant way, and take fun risks on certain pieces of the dish.”

The dessert menu features a baked Alaska, but made with red velvet cake and cream cheese ice cream. The s’mores are made with a graham cracker tulipe, a sour cream fudge cake, marshmallow ice cream and a toffee ganache over the top. “It has all those flavors our customers are familiar with, but with an upscale twist.” 

The Spring Vegetable Frittata, on the Sunday brunch menu, features goat cheese, scallions and fresh vegetables.

The Grille also gets fresh seafood twice a week, and sources items locally when possible. For example, the butternut squash risotto features local squash.

In the last year, the Grille began a Sunday brunch, again with a seasonal menu. Among its most popular items is the chicken and waffles, which has become almost a staple in Southern restaurants. But the Grille uses a petit New York strip coated in rice flour, quick-fried to produce a crispy meat with a flavorful sauce.

It is fine dining – entrees are generally in the $20-$40 range – but there is a children’s menu, though with an upscale flair. The steak and frites, for example, is a petit filet with Parmesan fries.

The goal is not to have an intimidating menu, Shelby says. “We take our risks. But the goal is for our customers to look at the menu and be wowed, but also to be familiar with the things they see.”

The staff is trained to be able to answer any questions and explain ingredients or techniques that may be unfamiliar to guests. “Our menu is designed to have a conversation,” he says.

 

 

 

Go Slow

by Jennifer Kornegay

Food/photography by Brooke Echols

In addition to good taste, slow cookers give us the valuable gift of time.

In the South, our culture puts a premium on slow. Our speech slides out with a drawl. We take our time and do things at a laidback pace. So, at first glance, a kitchen device with “slow” in the name seems like the perfect match for this leisurely lifestyle. But we all know that’s not reality, the lifestyle anyway. Today, even down here, most of us are daily moving at break-neck speeds, trying to cram more into every single moment by multi-tasking on many levels. And the slow cooker absolutely fits this scenario. By promising to deliver a hot, tasty meal that requires minimum effort at the end of a long, hectic day, slow cookers are just as popular now as in their heyday in the 1970s. Some sources claim that in 2011, 83 percent of American households contained and used a slow cooker. But it’s not just the convenience that we love. The way they cook – low and slow – has a lot of tasty benefits. It gives us moist tender meats (even when we use cheaper cuts), drastically reduces the risk of burning or over-cooking food, and gives the flavors in any recipe time to truly come together. They’re highly versatile. While they were originally used mainly for savory main dishes, now you can prepare pretty much anything, including desserts, in slow cookers. Plus, they use a tiny amount of energy compared to other kitchen appliances, and as another added bonus (especially for Alabama!), they won’t heat up your entire kitchen. So we’ve established a slow cooker is the busy family’s very helpful friend. But maybe we should also take a cue from the way a slow cooker works: Be open to all kinds of possibilities; take the time to really connect with those around us; and step away from the hustle and hurry sometimes. Good things very often come slowly, and they’re usually worth the wait.


Cook of the Month:

Myra Johnson, Central Alabama EC 

Author Myra Johnson has taken her love of Tallassee, Ala., history and turned it into  several popular books, including a cookbook. She’s also got a long history with slow-cookers, leaning on their reliability and convenience for decades. “I used to commute to Montgomery for work for many years, so I used my Crock-Pot all the time. It made my days so much easier,” she said. She’s got countless slow-cooker recipes, but one of her all-time favorites is her Gumbo with Chicken, Sausage & Shrimp. “I love it because it really is so simple. Just throw everything in and forget it,” she said. “It’s also versatile. You can adjust the heat level by adding hot sauce or cayenne pepper if you want it spicy.” 

Very Easy Crockpot Gumbo with Chicken, Sausage & Shrimp 

  • 1 14.5-ounce can stewed tomatoes, undrained
  • 16-ounce can tomato paste
  • 1 can okra and tomatoes, undrained
  • 1 pound skinless boneless chicken, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large sausage link, sliced
  • 1 14.5-ounce can reduced sodium chicken broth
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 3 basil leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper (I use coarse grind)
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or less to your taste)
  • 1 bag frozen medium-sized shrimp, thawed (peeled and deveined without tails)
  • 4 cups hot cooked white rice

Add tomatoes, tomato paste, okra and tomatoes, chicken, sausage, broth, bell pepper, onion, celery, Cajun seasoning, garlic and basil, black pepper and hot pepper to slow cooker. Stir gently to combine everything. Cook on low about 2 hours. Add shrimp and cook another 30 minutes until shrimp is warm. Serve over cooked rice or mix the rice in the slow cooker just before serving.


Ham Potato Bake

  • 4 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced very thin
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons margarine
  • 2 tablespoons plain flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 can cream of celery soup
  • 1 soup can water
  • 1½ cups fully cooked ham, chopped into bite-size pieces
  • 1 teaspoon prepared mustard
  • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese

Spray slow cooker with vegetable spray. Place potatoes in bottom of cooker, then add onion. In a medium-sized saucepan, soften margarine; remove from heat. Add flour, salt, pepper and mustard; mix until smooth. Combine water and celery soup, stir until blended. Add to the mix in saucepan and stir until smooth. Place pan over low heat and bring to a simmer. Remove immediately and pour over ham and potato mix in the slow cooker. Cover; turn on low setting and cook for 8-10 hours. When done and just before serving, sprinkle cheese over top of the mixture and stir until cheese is melted. Serve warm.

Peggy Key

North Alabama EC


White Chicken Chili

  • 2 cans white northern beans
  • 1 can mild Rotel
  • 2 cups diced chicken
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 package white chili seasoning

Combine all of the ingredients and cook on low for 8 hours and serve with cheddar cheese and tortilla chips.

Tina Hancock

North Alabama EC


Crock-Pot Beef Stew

  • 2 pounds stew beef
  • 5 or 6 potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 4-6 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 3-4 celery stalks
  • ½ small onion, minced
  • ½ cup boiling water with 2 beef bouillon cubes dissolved
  • 1 can tomato soup
  • 1 can golden mushroom soup

Mix all ingredients together in slow cooker and cook on low at least 8 hours.

Charles Boenig

Baldwin EMC


Crock-Pot Red Beans and Sausage

  • 4 15-ounce cans kidney beans (light or dark)
  • 2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes
  • 2 pounds Conecuh sausage (or your choice)
  • 1 package smoked turkey necks
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • Garlic powder, salt, pepper, crushed red pepper

Pour 4 cups of water into Crock-Pot, add smoked turkey necks and turn on low setting. While the turkey necks are on, chop sausage, bell peppers and onions. Let turkey necks cook for about 2 hours. Open and drain water off beans and tomatoes and add to the crockpot. Add in sausage, peppers and onion. Sprinkle in salt, pepper, garlic powder and crushed red pepper. Season to your liking. Continue to cook on low for 6-8 hours. Great with rice and Mexican cornbread.

Sharlene Parker

Baldwin EMC


Coming up in February…Spicy foods!

It’s time to spice up our recipe selection and you could be a winner! We are looking for fresh, creative recipes from readers just like you. In addition to our monthly Cook of the Month prize, beginning in January, all cooks who submit a recipe will automatically be entered into a drawing to win a gift basket full of Alabama Living merchandise. Take a look at our upcoming themes and send in your favorite recipes today!

Themes and Deadlines

March: Honey | Jan. 8

April: Bread | Feb. 8

May: Junior Cooks | Mar. 8

Submit your recipe here.

Editor’s Note: Alabama Living’s recipes are submitted by our readers. They are not kitchen-tested by a professional cook or registered dietician. If you have special dietary needs, please check with your doctor or nutritionist before preparing any recipe.