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Taste, don’t waste: Group raises awareness of less popular fish

Derek Johnson with Reel Surprise Charters shows off a porgy caught while fishing in the Gulf of Mexico south of Orange Beach, Ala. Photo by John N. Felsher

Growing up in South Louisiana, where people eat anything that doesn’t eat them first and some things that do, I tasted about every fish species found in the Gulf of Mexico or associated waters. Some I only tried once. Some I spit out about as fast as it hit my tongue.

But there’s a group based in Gulf Shores that wants people to try different species of fish, like jack crevalle. Large, hard-fighting sport fish that can challenge any fishing tackle with lightning runs and devastating strikes, jack crevalle seldom show up on dinner plates because most people believe that the bloody red flesh makes them unpalatable.

Chris Sherrill, the executive chef at Coastal restaurant (coastalgulfshores.com) in Gulf Shores, and Chandra Wright want to change that perception. They co-founded the Nuisance Underutilized Invasive Sustainable Available Noble Culinary Endeavors, or NUISANCE Group, to convince more people to eat underutilized species like jacks, bonito and others that most anglers consider “trash fish.”

“Our purpose is to raise awareness of flora and fauna that are a nuisance, underutilized or invasive, but sustainable and available through noble, culinary endeavors,” Wright says. “Sometimes, people look at us like we’re crazy when we offer them a piece of jack crevalle to eat, but we want to educate people on eating these fish and show them how to treat and prepare them. When prepared certain ways, many underutilized species can be quite tasty. Not too many years ago, most people considered redfish trash fish and didn’t eat them.”

If people eat more undesirable species like jacks, Sherrill and Wright say, that might take pressure off popular species like red snapper, grouper, redfish and speckled trout. Also, catching something different to bring home for the table could give recreational anglers, charter captains and even commercial fishermen more opportunities to keep different kinds of fish.

When they first started the group, Wright challenged Sherrill to invent a recipe that would make jack crevalle appetizing so they could serve it to a congressional staff delegation visiting the Alabama coast. A friend brought the chef a jack to prepare. When cleaning it, Chris noticed that the meat looks similar to beef, so he decided to treat it like beef. He cut the dark red bloodline out of the meat and marinated it.

“Jack crevalle has been our biggest surprise,” the chef admits. “I thought it was inedible, but the bloody red flesh looks like raw beef. If we cubed it, marinated it like steak and grilled it medium rare, it might taste like steak, I thought. We did and it came out beyond anyone’s expectations. We had to check to make sure nobody slipped in some prime rib, it was so good.”

Now, the chef experiments with many other less desirable fish. He frequently offers samples to his friends, usually without telling them the species until after they taste it. Some other underutilized species include stingrays, pinfish, scorpionfish, bearded brotula, gafftopsail catfish, porgies and others.

“I’m the guinea pig-in-chief,” Wright says. “I’m the one who gets to eat all the weird stuff Chris cooks to see how it tastes. Many less desirable fish are wasted. If people realized how good they are to eat if prepared properly, they might be more likely to keep some for the table.”

The group especially wants to promote lionfish as a delicacy. Native to the Pacific and Indian oceans, beautiful but dangerous lionfish invaded the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico a few years ago, probably as aquarium fish released into the wild. Highly prolific with no natural predators on this side of the world, lionfish multiplied and spread rapidly. Now, they displace or eat many native species.

“Lionfish are terribly voracious and prolific invasive species that eat just about anything and outcompete many native species for space and food,” Wright warns. “It’s a huge threat to native species in the Gulf of Mexico. We want to wipe them out here. They are delicious, but people need to handle them with care. They have 18 venomous spines that people need to avoid. The meat is not poisonous and is very white, flaky and delicious. People can fix it a variety of ways.”

Not everything makes the dinner table menu, despite the chef’s best efforts. For instance, he doesn’t like hardhead catfish, a well-known bait-stealing pest. I tried hardheads – once!

“I’m still on the edge with hardhead catfish,” Sherrill says. “When it’s ultra-fresh, it has some firmness to it, but it deteriorates rapidly. Another chef made some ceviche and cured hardhead catfish in lots of citrus juices to make it more firm. It’s pretty good with that, but it’s still probably my least favorite fish along with skipjack or ladyfish.”

Feel like eating something new? Some anglers bring their catches to the restaurant to ask Chef Chris to cook it for them. For more information on the NUISANCE Group, see its Facebook page at fb.com/NuisanceGroup or email info@nuisancegroup.org.

John N. Felsher lives in Semmes, Ala. Contact him through Facebook.

Understanding your energy bill can help you save

This is an image of an externally-fitted A/C heat pump. For many homes, heating and cooling require more energy than any other end use.

Q: Every month, I look over my electric bill, but a lot of it doesn’t make sense to me. Is there information included on my bill that can help me save money?

A: It’s always a good idea to understand how you’re spending your money. You look over your credit card statement carefully each month, so you should do the same with your utility bills. As you’d suspect, analyzing your bill can help you save energy and money.

If you live in an all-electric home, all of your home energy costs will be on the monthly bill from your electric cooperative. This bill will probably have one or more fixed charges that cover some of the costs your co-op incurs in delivering the power to your home.

Beyond these fixed fees, you will pay for the power you have used that month, which is sold in kilowatt-hour (kWh) units. One kWh is equal to 1,000 watts over a one-hour period.  Think of 10 100-watt lights that are used for one hour. Most electric co-ops charge the same rate for a kWh no matter when you use it, but some offer a Time-of-Use rate that is higher during peak energy hours – when the wholesale price of electricity is higher because there’s greater demand.

Some co-ops have different rates for different use tiers, so the rate could be higher or lower as monthly use increases. Electric rates can also vary by season and cost more during high-use months.

If you’re being charged more for energy use during On-Peak hours, you can often adjust the time you use certain appliances and equipment, like your dishwasher, air conditioner, clothes washer or oven to Off-Peak hours. This won’t reduce your electric use, but it can save you money if your co-op offers a Time-of-Use rate.

Most energy bills include a chart that shows your electric use over the past 12 months. If your home is electrically heated, you will see how much your use goes up in the winter. This chart can also show how much your use goes up during the summer when you’re running your air conditioner.

Your electric co-op may offer tools on their website to help you track energy use and estimate how much you use for space heating, air conditioning and water heating, which are often the three largest energy uses. Knowing how much you spend on heating or cooling can help you determine how much you might save by installing a new heat pump or other energy efficiency upgrade.

Some co-ops also offer online energy audit tools that provide ways to reduce energy costs based on a detailed set of questions about your home. If your co-op doesn’t offer an online audit tool, or if you want a different perspective, you can try the ENERGYSTAR Home Energy Yardstick at energystar.gov.

This resource can give you a good idea of your space heating and cooling use without using an online tool. Just total up your average electricity use for the months when you use the most energy and subtract the average amount you use in “shoulder months” – when you’re not cooling or heating your home. The difference is likely the amount you pay each month for heating and cooling.

If someone says switching to a new heating or cooling system could save you 20 percent, they may mean you can save 20 percent on heating or cooling costs. Some homes also have significant uses besides heating and cooling that increase their winter or summer bills, like a well pump, spa or swimming pool.

You may receive a separate monthly bill for natural gas, or for propane or heating oil, which might be delivered on an as-needed, keep-filled basis. The Home Energy Yardstick can accommodate any type of fuel you use in your home.

I hope this information can help you analyze your energy bill and give you some general ideas on how you might be able to cut your energy expenses. The best way to turn these ideas into specific actions is to conduct an energy audit of your home. Contact your electric co-op to see if they offer free energy audits or if they can recommend a local professional.

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency. For more information on understanding your utility bill, please visit: www.collaborativeefficiency.com/energytips.

Patrick Keegan writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives. Write to energytips@collaborativeefficiency.com for more information.

Chill out with frozen treats

Don’t bemoan the heat. Beat it by whipping up some delicious frozen dishes.

By Jennifer Kornegay

You can eat ice cream, popsicles and other tasty frozen treats all year long. But there’s an extra layer of pleasure when enjoying one in the heat of summer. The temperature difference alone is a little thrilling. That first touch of frigid contact on warm skin (made even hotter by our annual seasonal sweater) is a sensory jolt.

It’s a bit magical too; every lick or bite calls up the sights and sounds of childhood: The memory of an ice cream churn’s dull whir, spinning to transform a few basic ingredients into a frozen dream. (Or watching in anticipation and relief as some unlucky someone other than you hand-cranks an old contraption.) Running toward the tinkling tunes of the ice cream truck, trading allowance for something cold and colorful, eating it fast to fight the melt, slurping too quickly and suffering the dreaded brain freeze, but still keeping your smile.

Those were charmed days, and we’d all do well to not just remember the carefree attitude they represent but relax and embrace it once again. So when the temps approach triple digits, we can moan and complain with zero effect. Or we can head into the kitchen and spend a little time and effort creating our own edible AC. Be cool and choose the latter this summer, and use this month’s reader-submitted recipes to indulge in some frosty fun.

Cook of the Month: Mary Rich, North Alabama EC

Mary Beth Rich enjoys cooking for her family; it’s one way she expresses love. Her family loves that she loves cooking for them, especially her Frozen Samoa Pie, a cool treat she describes as “refreshing, rich, yummy goodness.” “It is great for family get togethers and goes really well with a cookout,” she says. “It is a big request from my family in the summer.” It’s second only to her homemade biscuits, a delight she’s now teaching her five-year-old granddaughter to make. Rich has been cooking since she was a child, and in addition to desserts and biscuits, she makes jars and jars of jellies and jams, including a few unique floral-based flavors. “I make a jelly from the blooms of Queen Anne’s Lace and one from dandelion flowers,” she said. “It tastes like honey and sunshine.”

 

Frozen Samoa Pie 

Crust:

  • 50 Nilla Wafers
  • 6 tablespoons melted butter
  • (not margarine)
  • ¼ cup sugar

Pie filling:

  • 4-ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup Cool Whip, defrosted
  • 4 cups toasted coconut, divided
  • 2 cups caramel, melted and divided
  • 1 cup mini chocolate chips
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips, melted

Make crust: In a food processor, pulse Nilla wafers until they are fine crumbs. Transfer crumbs to a bowl, then add butter and sugar and stir until combined. Grease a 9-inch pie plate and press in the crust mixture.

Make filling: In a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat cream cheese until smooth. Mix in sweetened condensed milk, vanilla and salt until fully incorporated. Fold in Cool Whip. Make middle layer: In a medium bowl, mix 2 cups toasted coconut with 1 cup caramel.

Pour half the cream cheese mixture into the pie pan and cover with coconut caramel. Smooth to the edges to make a layer. Top with the remaining cream cheese mixture, then add the remaining 2 cups toasted coconut and mini chocolate chips. Drizzle with remaining caramel and melted chocolate and freeze until firm, about 4 hours. Serve.


Oreo Ice Cream Sandwiches

Cookie ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup almond flour
  • 2 tablespoons carob powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • (melted)
  • 1 large egg white
  • 11/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 3 tablespoons milk

Ice cream ingredients:

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream

Directions for cookies:

Mix together flour, carob powder and baking power. In separate bowl, mix together butter, egg white, vanilla, honey and milk. Add dry ingredients and mix. Grease or oil a 9×13-inch pan. Pour batter into pan in an even layer. Bake at 320 degrees for about 20 min. Allow to cool, then cut into cookies. I used a spice container lid about 2 1/8-inches. Put cookies on plates, and place in freezer. Once firm, you can create the sandwiches.

Directions for ice cream:

Place all ingredients in one bowl. Use a hand mixer for 5 minutes, then place in freezer. Before it’s ready to serve, it’s usually a good idea to mix again so the fat doesn’t collect on top. When ice cream is frozen, remove from freezer to create sandwiches. The ice cream may need to be mashed with a spoon and stirred to make it softer and easy to spread.

Spread on one cookie and top with another. Repeat. Place back in freezer to firm up, if needed.

Jessica Pittman

Joe Wheeler EMC


Piña Colada Wedges

  • 18 ounce package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • ½ teaspoon rum extract
  • 3½ cups (8 ounces) whipped topping, thawed and divided
  • 18 ounce can crushed pineapple with juice
  • 2 2/3 cups coconut

Beat cream cheese, sugar and rum extract until smooth. Fold in 2 cups whipped topping, pineapple with juice and 2 cups coconut. Spread mixture in an 8-inch square pan. Spread remaining whipped topping on top. Freeze 2 hours. Garnish with coconut, cherries and pineapple.

Peggy Key

North Alabama EC


Baked Alaska

  • 2 pints ice cream (brick-style)
  • 1 pound, sponge or layer cake (1-inch thick)
  • 5 egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 2/3 cup sugar

Lay ice cream bricks side by side, measure length and width. Trim cake 1-inch larger on all sides than ice cream measurements. Place cake on a piece of foil. Center ice cream on cake. Cover; freeze until firm. At serving time, beat together egg whites, vanilla and cream of tartar to soft peaks. Gradually add in sugar beating after each tablespoon is added. Transfer cake with ice cream to a baking sheet. Spread with egg white mixture, sealing to edges of cake and baking sheet all around. Swirl to make peaks. Place oven rack in lowest position. Bake in a 500-degree oven about 3 minutes or until golden. Slice; serve immediately.

Jamie Petterson

Tallapoosa River EC


Fresh Fruit Yogurt Pops

  • 1 6-8 ounce container of vanilla Greek yogurt
  • ¼ cup of berries, your choice, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped nuts, your choice

Pour yogurt into a small mixing bowl. Add berries and gently stir. Add chopped nuts and combine. Pour mixture into a push-up pop container or other pop mold. Freeze until solid. Yield: 2 pops.

Cindy Jean

North Alabama EC


Frozen Fruit Salad

  • 1 can peach pie filling
  • 1 8-ounce can crushed pineapple, drained
  • 1 can Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup Cool Whip
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • ¼ teaspoon almond extract

Mix all and freeze in an 8-inch square pan. Leave out a few minutes before serving.

Karen Faye Fitzgerald

Joe Wheeler EMC


Coming up in August… Corn!

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

September: BBQ | July 8

October: Pumpkin | Aug. 8

November: Nuts | Sept. 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.

Hardy Jackson’s Alabama: Bicentennial Beer, a capital idea

In case you haven’t noticed, Alabama is in the midst of its Bicentennial Celebration.

And to mark this historic event, the Alabama Brewers Guild, in cooperation with the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, has enlisted breweries from across Alabama to collaborate in concocting a series of beers, each honoring one of the state’s five capitals.

The first beer in the State Capital Series was St. Stephens Stout which pays homage to Alabama’s territorial capital. Had the beer been available back then it would have sold well in a  town whose citizens were described as an “illiterate, wild and savage” bunch, a people “of depraved morals, unworthy of public confidence or private esteems.”

Fortunately, the town also attracted men like Harry Toulmin, an educated (at least literate) Scottish freethinker, who said he came to St. Stephens because it was “so far from civilization that he would be safe from Presbyterians.”  Toulmin strikes me as the sort of fellow who would enjoy sitting with friends and discussing predestination and infant damnation over a nice Chardonnay instead of the “wild and savage” beer drinkers who roamed the streets.

But St. Stephens did not have a brewery, so the thirsty had to content themselves with the rot-gut whiskey they called, with a fine feeling for words, “busthead,” or go to Huntsville.

Huntsville had one.

A far more populous and progressive place than St. Stephens, Huntsville was where the convention met in 1819 to draw up a constitution for what was by then the “state” of Alabama and where the first session of the state legislature was called to order. Huntsville was also the location of Alabama’s first brewery, which James and William Badlun opened that same year.

Although I can’t prove it, I am sure that holding the convention in a town where beer was brewed was not coincidental.  Nor can I prove, but I do believe, that ready access to beer influenced the writing of what has been judged to have been one of the most “liberal” state constitutions of the time.

So it is right and proper that the second beer brewed by Guild members is Badlun Brothers Imperial Porter, which is described as “a modern take on a traditional porter recipe.”

However, Huntsville was not meant to be the “permanent” state capital.  A committee of the territorial legislature recommended Tuscaloosa, but William Wyatt Bibb, the state’s first governor, would have none of it.  Bibb and a powerful coalition of planter interests favored a spot at the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama Rivers, where they felt they could make their fortunes in Black Belt real estate and Black Belt cotton. So Cahawba became the capital.

For six years Cahawba was the place to be, at least if government was your business.  Unfortunately for the city, if you had other business to conduct, it was more profitable to conduct it upriver, at Selma, which would eventually replace Cahawba as “The Queen City of the Black Belt,” though not as the capital.  If Selma had become the seat of government the Guild might be brewing Samuel Bogle’s Beer.  Bogle was a hotel proprietor whose “assembly room” was the social center of the town.  It was there that the city council, after doing the city’s business, reportedly “adjourned to take a drink.”

But until Selma came into its own, Cahawba flourished.  So, what would be the beer for that capital?

Birmingham’s Cahaba Brewing Company is one of the breweries collaborating on the Bicentennial project.  Taking inspiration from the mulberry trees that lined Cahawba’s streets, Cahaba brewed “Mulberry Road.”  A portion of the proceeds from its sale will go to preserving the Old Cahawba historical site.

The next beer will honor Tuscaloosa, which launched a “fake news” campaign and snatched the capital from Cahawba.  A Montgomery beer will follow and finish the series.

Now I have friends who feel that it is inappropriate to brew beer to celebrate Alabama’s Bicentennial.

I also have friends who feel that brewing beer is the perfect way to celebrate Alabama’s Bicentennial.

And as for me, I stand firmly with my friends.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University and a regular contributor to Alabama Living. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

Snapshots: Family Reunions

Moranda, LaKrisa, LaTonya, Setasha, Kiera and Aishia. SUBMITTED BY LaTona Peoples, Jackson.

Lester Reunion held in 2016 in Addison, the hometown of Hosie & Lois Lester. Alene Lester Johnson (center) is the last child of the Lesters. SUBMITTED BY Debby Boyd, Addison.

Bledsoe family reunion – Thanksgiving Day 2017. SUBMITTED BY Mike and Becky Bledsoe, Evergreen.

Some of the descendants of Charlie and Edna Burch Jernigan in Foley in 2011. SUBMITTED BY Cherry Peek, Foley.

First cousins Marjorie Elmore, Doris Henderson and Gwin Prestwood at the McGlaun family reunion in Andalusia, April 14, 2018. SUBMITTED BY Rhonda Mosley, Silverhill.

PWRC (Pauline, Wallace, Roberts, Carder) Family reunion. SUBMITTED BY Panda Carder, Harvest.

Submit Your Images! September Theme: “County Fairs” Deadline for September: July 31. Submit photos online:www.alabamaliving.coop/submit-photo/ or send color photos with a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Photos, Alabama Living, P.O. Box 244014 Montgomery, AL 36124. Rules: Alabama Living will pay $10 for photos that best match our theme of the month. Photos may also be published on our website at www.alabamaliving.coop and on our Facebook page. Alabama Living is not responsible for lost or damaged photos.

Learn to prevent, recognize heat-related illnesses

Alabama’s summer climate with its extreme temperatures and high humidity can lead to heat-related illnesses and deaths if not treated. Heat-related illnesses occur when the body’s temperature control system is overloaded. You can learn the warnings and signal help when needed.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke, sometimes called sunstroke, is the most serious heat-related illness. It occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature. The body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down.

Body temperature may rise to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided. Warning signs of heat stroke vary, but include the following:

  • An extremely high body temperature (above 103 degrees F)
  • Red, hot and dry skin (no sweating)
  • Rapid, strong pulse
  • Throbbing headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness

Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency, so have another person call 911 for medical assistance and take immediate steps to begin cooling the victim in any of the following ways:

Get the person to a shady area, cool rapidly in a tub of cool water, place in a cool shower, spray with cool water from a garden hose, splash with cool water, or, if the humidity is low, place in a cool, wet sheet and fan vigorously.

Monitor body temperature and continue cooling efforts until the person’s body temperature drops to 101 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

If emergency medical personnel are delayed, call a hospital emergency room for further instructions.

A person with heat stroke is likely to be unconscious or unresponsive, so he or she cannot safely consume any liquids. Under no circumstances should you give any alcohol to a person with heat stroke or any heat illness.

Heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat-related illness that can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids. Those most prone to heat exhaustion are the elderly, persons with high blood pressure, and those working or exercising in a hot environment.

Warning signs of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting or fainting. The skin may be cool and moist. The pulse rate will be fast and weak, and breathing will be fast and shallow. Untreated heat exhaustion may progress to heat stroke, so seek medical attention if symptoms worsen or last longer than one hour.

Stop all activity and sit quietly in a cool place, drink clear juice or a sports beverage, wait a few hours until the cramps subside and seek medical attention if cramps do not stop in one hour.

Heat cramps

Heat cramps are muscle pains or spasms – usually in the abdomen, arms or legs – that may occur in association with strenuous activity. People who sweat a lot during strenuous activity are prone to heat cramps. To relieve them, apply firm pressure on cramping muscles or gently massage them. Give sips of water every 15 minutes for one hour.

Follow these preventive measures to avoid heat illnesses:

  • Drink more fluids, and avoid beverages containing alcohol or caffeine
  • When temperatures are extreme, stay indoors, ideally in an air-conditioned place
  • Take a cool shower or bath, and reduce or eliminate strenuous activities during the hottest time of the day
  • Protect yourself from the sun with a wide-brimmed hat, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and use a sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher
  • Never leave pets or people in a parked vehicle.

For more information, visit alabamapublichealth.gov/injuryprevention

Three common ways your Social Security payment can grow after retirement

You made the choice and now you are happily retired. You filed online for your Social Security benefits. They arrive each month in the correct amount exactly as expected. But, did you ever wonder if your Social Security check could increase?

Once you begin receiving benefits, there are three common ways benefit checks can increase: a cost of living adjustment (COLA); additional work; or an adjustment at full retirement age if you received reduced benefits and exceeded the earnings limit.

The COLA is the most commonly known increase for Social Security payments. We annually announce a COLA, and there’s usually an increase in the Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit amount people receive each month. By law, federal benefit rates increase when the cost of living rises, as measured by the Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index (CPI-W). More than 66 million Americans saw a 2.0 percent increase in their Social Security and SSI benefits in 2018. For more information on the 2018 COLA, visit socialsecurity.gov/cola.     

Social Security uses your highest 35 years of earnings to figure your benefit amount when you sign up for benefits. If you work after you begin receiving benefits, your additional earnings may increase your payment. If you had fewer than 35 years of earnings when we figured your benefit, you will replace a zero earnings year with new earnings. If you had 35 years or more, we will check to see if your new year of earnings is higher than the lowest of the 35 years (after considering indexing). We check additional earnings each year you work while receiving Social Security. If an increase is due, we send a notice and pay a one-time check for the increase and your continuing payment will be higher.

Maybe you chose to receive reduced Social Security retirement benefits while continuing to work. You made the choice to take benefits early, but at a reduced rate. If you exceeded the allowable earnings limit and had some of your benefits withheld, we will adjust your benefit once you reach full retirement age. We will refigure your payment to credit you for any months you did not receive payments.  Your monthly benefit will increase based on the crediting months you receive. You can find additional information about working and your benefit at www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/EN-05-10077.pdf.

Retirement just got more interesting since you learned about potential increases to monthly payments. Social Security has been securing your today and tomorrow for more than 80 years with information and tools to help you achieve a successful retirement.

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

Spay/neuter, microchips help reduce unwanted pets

“The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.”

Mother Teresa

One year ago on a hot July afternoon, we were fertilizing the trees by the fence and the neighbors stopped by the gate to chat. We visited for over an hour. Then the sky started to get dark. We went back to pick up the sprayer by the corner of the property and heard the dreaded sound: a desperate and hungry “meeeoow.”

There was nothing else to do other than to look for the source. We went around to the road. This minuscule grey fur ball was sitting in a thorny thicket and the sky was getting nastier by the minute. And to top it all, she was Miss Shy Extraordinaire.

My wife tried to go behind her by tromping through the brushes (hard to be stealthy through briers). Pelting rain and lightning forced us to retreat back home. We came back out about an hour later, afraid we wouldn’t hear her again. Good news – she was there!

This time I crouched down on the ditch and inched forward on my belly. It took me another 30 minutes to approach her. She had the courage to remain still and I managed to catch her. Now, months later, she is the holy terror of the house and we are delighted to have her.

For weeks after rescuing her, we pondered on what would’ve happened if we could not catch her. She probably would have died a slow death by starvation and thirst or if she was lucky, quickly by a coyote. Sadly, this story is not an exception but norm.

Dogs and cats are dropped off in wanton abundance. Almost every fourth person in the clinic says their pet was just found on the road or someone dropped them off at their farm.

Obviously there are just too many pets.

Let’s make sure that we spay and neuter our pets on time. Let’s make sure they remain in a confined space and have a means of identification to find their way back home in case they get lost! Microchipping is the best option, but a simple thing like collar and a stainless steel tag with your phone number is a good, inexpensive choice.

Together, we can make a difference! Maybe in the next 10 years we can make sure that there are not a single unwanted, un-adored pet in our neighborhood.

The Alabama Veterinary Medical Association supports spay/neuter for Medicaid recipients. Check to see if your local veterinarian participates in this program.

In the last eight years, 17,616 surgeries have been performed with grant money from the spay/neuter license plate program. Please buy “spay neuter” license plates.

There may be a low cost spay/neuter clinic near you. Visit the ASPCA online for more information: www.aspca.org/pet-care/general-pet-care/low-cost-spayneuter-programs.

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.

Shining light on energy savings: With LEDs, the future of bulbs is bright

When it comes to lighting, the potential for energy efficiency is just too great to ignore. Around the home, changing bulbs can change your electric bills, and the monthly savings can add up quickly.

“Lighting efficiency upgrades have long been the poster child of energy efficiency,” says Alan Shedd, director of energy solutions for Touchstone Energy Cooperatives.

That’s because consumers regularly use dozens of bulbs in fixtures out of necessity and convenience. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, nearly 130 billion kilowatt hours of electricity are consumed by residential lighting each year, representing about 9 percent of all home energy use.

As light emitting diode (LED) design options increase, prices are coming down, and more consumers see LEDs as an alternative to carbon filament incandescent bulbs first popularized by Thomas Edison in the 1880s.

“The economics make sense,” said Shedd. “When LED lamp products were $20, it was a tough sell, now for a couple of bucks you can get a lamp that saves energy and lasts 10 times longer.”

To get an idea of your potential for energy savings, complete a home inventory. Don’t just count fixtures – count bulbs, checking wattage, and whether they are dimmable, three-way or require special bases. Also note the type of bulb now in use: incandescent, halogen, compact florescent lights or straight or circular florescent tubes.

There’s a good chance your total bulb count for the average single-family home will be between 50 and 75, including hallways, garages and storage areas.

Savings add up

In 2009, 58 percent of U.S. households had at least one energy-efficient bulb indoors. By the spring of 2016, 86 percent of all households used at least one CFL or LED bulb, and nearly 20 percent of all households had completely abandoned incandescent bulb use.

Since passage of the Energy Independence Act of 2007, electric cooperatives and public power districts have promoted energy efficiency in lighting by sharing information on potential savings.

The federal law mandating a 25 percent increase in lighting efficiency led many U.S. manufacturers to phase out incandescent bulbs of 100 watts or more.

Halogen varieties available for residential applications can produce excessive heat. That becomes more of a consideration during cooling season, when HVAC systems can get their most use.

In recent years, manufacturers have focused more research on lighting efficacy, energy efficiency and cycle longevity. That’s led to major increases in the projected hours of use and lower failure rates.

Many consumers don’t like the lighting quality offered by compact florescent light bulbs, which can also be prone to failure due to heat build-up when used in closed lighting fixtures.

While LED lighting was initially expensive and limited to warm white or a few color temperatures and designs, market acceptance and continued research have forced prices down, and led to an expanded variety of products.

Lumens not watts

Cashing in on lighting efficiency can get easier if we rethink the way we buy and use the lighting products.

Many consumers resist switching from ounces to grams, miles to kilometers or Fahrenheit to Celsius when discussing measurements and temperatures. But, when it comes to lighting, thinking lumens instead of watts makes sense, because it could save you dollars and cents.

Cool white, soft white, dimmable, decorative, three-way, decorative and color are now among the options, with LEDs taking up an increasing share of shelf space in the lighting sections of hardware, discount and home improvement stores.

“The wide range of products is the biggest challenge – used to be a lamp was a lamp – you pretty much knew what you were getting,” said Touchstone Energy’s Shedd.  “Now, the shelves are packed with a dizzying array of choices.”

According to Shedd, education, or re-education is the key. Once a consumer knows that lumens are a measurement of the amount of light given off by a bulb, they understand that the lower the lumens, the dimmer the light.

“Sure lumens can be confusing – we didn’t grow up with that,” said Touchstone Energy’s Shedd. But showing that a 1,000 lumen lamp is equivalent to a 60 Watt incandescent bulb is a short term fix.”

While replacing compact florescent light bulbs with LEDs saves less energy, consumer preferences have driven a shift away from CFLs, in part because of color and lighting quality.

“The energy savings and life expectancy of an LED is incrementally better,” said Shedd. “The early CFLs did not offer good color, they took a long time to reach full brightness, particularly in cold environments, and some failed prematurely – especially if they were used in enclosed fixtures.”

Derrill Holly 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.

Catfish industry keeps Black Belt region afloat

Towsend Kyser

Story and photos by Morgan Graham

“One of the reasons we have remained viable in the U.S. fish market is because our electrical costs in Alabama remained competitive.”

Many Black Belt farms were in financial deep water in the 1980s when low commodity prices and high input costs struck American agriculture. But the area’s unique black soil and abundant fresh water proved perfect for expansion of an emerging catfish industry.

Like all farming, raising catfish had risks. However, it offered families like Townsend Kyser’s an opportunity to continue farming.

“In the Black Belt region, we can raise catfish more efficiently than anywhere else in the country because of the people, soil and climate,” said Kyser, 41, president of the Catfish Farmers of America. “The economic impact catfish have on Alabama, and especially the Black Belt region, has kept this area afloat for many years.”

Alabama ranks second in the nation for catfish production behind Mississippi. Arkansas rounds out the top-three states.

Catfish is so important to the Black Belt, even the water tower in Kyser’s hometown of Greensboro proudly proclaims it’s the “Catfish Capital of Alabama.”

The catfish industry provides approximately 1,500 jobs for the Black Belt region, Kyser says. Those jobs include two feed mills and two processing plants. A new processing facility prepares catfish for trendy in-home meal delivery companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh.

The Kyser family farm includes Townsend, his father, Bill, and brother Ashley. They have 50 ponds (around 700 acres of water) that produce 5 million pounds of catfish annually. They also raise cattle, timber and hay.

“It is both challenging and rewarding to work with family,” Kyser laughs, “but it works for us. It feels good to know we’re working together producing food for other families. It has an extra special meaning.”

Townsend’s grandfather, the late Joseph Alison Kyser, built four catfish ponds in 1967 to raise fish. He said that’s significant because while other area farm ponds eventually were converted for catfish farming, those were the first in Alabama specifically built for commercial catfish farming — 13 years ahead of the industry boon. Those ponds piqued Bill Kyser’s interest in fish farming, eventually steering him to Auburn University where he received the college’s first undergraduate degree in fisheries.

As catfish farming grew, so did demand for the fish. More ponds were built, and it seemed like the sky was the limit, Kyser says. Fish farming was taking the place of traditional row crop and dairy farms for west Alabama Black Belt counties. The industry evolved to modern processing facilities, improved harvesting techniques, better feed and modern monitoring equipment.

“The industry peaked in the early 2000s, but quickly crashed in 2008 when input costs almost doubled overnight,” he says. “Feed prices nearly doubled, fuel prices skyrocketed, and it was costing more to grow fish than what we were selling them for. That’s also the time when foreign countries began selling more fish in America, representing it to be catfish. The imports were capitalizing on the market demand U.S. farmers had created.” 

From left, Ashley Kyser, Beverly and Bill Kyser and Townsend Kyser discuss the catfish harvest on their farm near Greensboro.

Several farms stopped producing fish or reduced their water acreage. Today, U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish production is about half what it was in the early 2000s. However, demand for the white, flaky fish is at an all-time high. Unfortunately, much of the increased demand is being met by foreign fish, Kyser says.

“Nationally, catfish production around 2004 was 600 million pounds annually. Today, we’re producing about 325 million pounds,” he says. “One of the reasons we have remained viable in the U.S. fish market is because our electrical costs in Alabama remained competitive.”

To outsiders, catfish farming might seem easy once ponds are filled with water and fish are added. But feeding, monitoring water quality and scouting for disease outbreaks are imperative to success, Kyser says.

Ponds are usually stocked in December with fingerlings, young catfish about 4 to 6 inches long. Fish are fed floating pellets that are 32 percent protein and include corn, soybean meal, vitamins and minerals.

Fish are harvested when they reach between 1 to 2 pounds using nets with holes designed to catch only fish large enough for harvest. The fish are loaded into live wells on trucks for transportation to processing plants. A typical 18-wheeler holds 25,000 pounds of catfish.

The typical growing season for catfish lasts about 18 months, with major growth months being June through September.

Kyser said Black Belt farmers have an advantage over Mississippi farmers because electricity cost significantly less.

“Electricity is the most important resource for catfish farmers during growing season,” he says. “Producers rely on electricity to run aerators, especially at night, to maintain a steady oxygen level in the ponds. Black Warrior Electric Cooperative is a big part of our community. We enjoy working closely with them.”

Alabama Farmers Federation Catfish Division Director Mitt Walker said the catfish industry plays a significant role in the state’s economy. He said about 1,500 Alabamians are directly engaged in catfish production or processing. In addition to Hale County, other top catfish-producing areas include Greene, Dallas and Perry counties.

“Alabama farmers produce 33 percent of all catfish in the U.S. annually with 120 million pounds on 85 farms,” Walker says, quoting national ag statistics. “Our state had over 17,000 water surface acres dedicated to catfish production in 2016.”

Lower electricity costs give farmers advantage

Kyser said his work with Catfish Farmers of America helps educate consumers and lawmakers about catfish production and consumption, plus focuses on lobbying in Washington, D.C. He also works with The Catfish Institute to encourage consumers to purchase fish with the U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish logo.

A member of the Alabama Farmers Federation State Catfish Committee, Kyser is a former state Federation Young Farmers committee chairman. He also served as American Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers and Ranchers chairman.

Kyser said his involvement with those organizations helped him become a better spokesman. He’s routinely interviewed by national media outlets as a representative for the catfish industry and is a regular on National Public Radio’s Marketplace hosted by Kai Ryssdal.

The focus of his interviews? It might be the weather, how imports have driven down the price of U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish or how government regulations are placing burdensome regulations on farmers. But Kyser said he never misses an opportunity to emphasize the importance of buying U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish.

“It doesn’t matter where you buy your fish, as long as you buy U.S. Farm-Raised,” Kyser says. “Eventually, you’ll be eating catfish my neighbor or I raised.”

Kyser said most catfish is consumed in restaurants, and it’s most frequently served fried. However, he encourages consumers to try different ways to eat catfish. While he, wife Kelly and their three children love fried catfish, Kyser’s personal favorites are grilled, blackened and Catfish Allison.ν

  For a variety of catfish recipes, visit uscatfish.com.

  Other websites with information on catfish and the industry:

• The Catfish Institute – uscatfish.com

• Catfish Farmers of America – catfishfarmersofamerica.com

• Alabama Catfish Producers – alfafarmers.org/programs/divisions/commodities/catfish/

• Catfish Video – youtu.be/shfK85gMpmU


Caribbean jerk catfish with black bean salad

Courtesy of USCatfish.com

Start-to-finish: 30 minutes

Serves 4

For the dressing

  • 1 small garlic clove, minced
  • 4 tablespoons lime juice and lime zest
  • 1/4 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 dashes hot sauce
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the salad

  • 1 can whole kernel corn, drained
  • 1 orange bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 avocado, halved, pitted and diced in large pieces
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro or Italian parsley, chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the fish

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Caribbean or Jamaican Jerk seasoning
  • 4 U.S. farm-raised catfish fillets
  • Spring mix lettuce blend

For the dressing, mix garlic, lime juice and zest, chili powder, cumin and hot sauce. Whisk in olive oil until blended.

For the Black Bean Salad, mix all salad ingredients together. Combine with dressing and coat evenly. Salt and pepper to taste.

For the fish, heat grill or broiler. Combine oil, vinegar and seasoning. Brush fillets with marinade. Place fillets on grill or under broiler, skin side up, and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Flip and cook 2 to 3 more minutes. Serve over spring mix lettuce blend with Black Bean Salad.