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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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
50 Nilla Wafers
6 tablespoons melted butter
¼ cup sugar
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
3/4 cup almond flour
2 tablespoons carob powder
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
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.
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.
North Alabama EC
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 atown 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 email@example.com.
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.
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, 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
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 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 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
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.
“The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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
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.
By Jennifer Kornegay / All photos courtesy of the Alabama Farmers Market Authority
For many of us, the convenience of the closest grocery story is just too much to resist. Even in Alabama – where agriculture is still a flourishing industry, making a variety of fresh produce available – for decades, we’ve chosen to buy and consume fruits and veggies trucked in from other states, including places on the other side of the country.
But that’s been steadily changing over the last 20 years, according to Don Wambles, director of the Alabama Farmers Market Authority. “In 1999, we had 17 farmers markets in the state, with about 235 farmers involved,” he says. “This year, when all are open, we will be in the 170 to 175 range of markets, with almost 1,000 farmers selling in those markets.”
That means more folks are purchasing local food and by doing so, making a huge positive impact on the economy, racking up between $25-$30 million in sales annually. “That’s a lot of watermelons,” Wambles says.
And these figures only include farmers markets, not farm and produce stands.
Wambles attributes this huge uptick to two factors. One is the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, a federal assistance plan that provides vouchers to elderly in need that allow them to access products from farmers markets. “That really took off in 2004, and because of it, we had markets open in areas previously without one,” Wambles says. “We’ve got the fourth largest program of this type in the country, dollar-wise.”
The second has been a surge of interest in what we’re eating and where it came from among Alabamians of all ages and walks of life. “While the senior program was growing, so was awareness of the importance of local food systems. People started asking questions,” Wambles says. “They wanted to put a face on their food, and there’s no better way to do that than to shop a farmers market.”
It seems our foods’ origin stories are gaining a value that’s equal to their taste. The growing number of customers created enough demand to open even more new markets and to keep existing ones booming.
The program for seniors planted the necessary seeds, but the tide has turned in recent years. “Now, 85 to 90 percent of our sales are from everyday people,” Wambles says. “The seniors with vouchers represent a very small percentage of the business done at markets.”
Taking it to the tents
Today, farmers market numbers in our state total 10 times what they were in the late 1990s, and many in this newer crop of markets are built on a different model, one that the Farmers Market Authority introduced and encouraged after Wambles traveled to California to examine that state’s successful markets.
“I noticed that out of more than 300, only two were held in permanent structures. The others were tent markets,” he says. He learned that for most markets, buying property in a good location and constructing a building was cost prohibitive.
But, if they found a parking lot or park that would let them set up temporary tents a day or two a week, they could afford it. And then they had money left over to spend on advertising and promoting the market. “I thought that made great sense,” Wambles says.
He came home, and the Authority worked to get The Market at Pepper Place going in 2000; it’s primarily a tent market held in a formerly industrial section of Birmingham in paved lots around the old Dr. Pepper syrup plant. It was a hit.
The offerings from area farmers drew crowds, but the sea of bright white tents and the feeling it was an “event” also created an engaging, festive atmosphere that added much to the market’s appeal.
“I don’t know if that is as easily replicated in a permanent structure,” Wambles says. He explained why. “If you ride by a permanent market structure seven days a week, and people are only there selling two to three days a week, it is mostly empty, so you stop noticing it,” he says. “With tents, they stand out; they come and go, so you don’t get visually accustomed to it. The change draws your eye, and when it’s up and running, seeing all the people milling around, chatting, that draws you in.”
Another plus: Tent markets can be sized to fit the needs and preferences of almost any community anywhere. “They’re very flexible and scalable,” Wambles says.
There are several permanent markets in Alabama, and they represent some of the state’s most enduring – spots like Montgomery’s Curb Market and the oldest running market, the Alabama Farmer’s Market in Birmingham, founded in 1921 and operating in its current location since 1956.
Supporting local people
But no matter how they’re set up, it’s obvious that the popularity of farmers markets has been and still is on the rise. That’s great news for market newbies like Eric Bern. The chef turned farmer left the heat of commercial kitchens for sunny days in his China Grove, Ala., fields in 2013 and founded his Bearded Pickle Company in 2016.
He sells most of his fresh produce to restaurants, but turns some of it into lip-puckering pickles, fiery hot sauce, spicy-sweet strawberry jelly, caramelized onion-fig jam with bacon and more. He sells these treats at The Shoppes at EastChase Farmers Market in Montgomery every summer and fall, where he sees thousands of people each week.
He offered his take on why they keep coming. “All of the produce at any farmers market is just so, so fresh,” he says. “It was probably picked yesterday or even that very morning. And most products there, like mine, are small-batch and homemade with a lot of care and love.”
And while the flavorful foods for sale are certainly major draws, the allure doesn’t stop there. “You’re supporting local people and keeping money in your community,” Bern says. “You get to meet the farmer. You can ask questions about his growing methods, get tips for your home garden, and sometimes, you can sample before you buy.”
Wambles believes the overall experience attracts many market shoppers. “You can build a relationship with a food provider where you learn their challenges,” he says. “That gives you a true appreciation of the labor that goes into feeding you. It’s social too. You chat with other folks. It’s fun for kids, so a great family activity and a way to get children interested in eating healthy and trying new things.”
The sense of community is as rewarding for many of the farmers as it is the shoppers. “I love talking to the customers,” Bern says. “I get to meet new people every time, but I also love repeat clients telling me how great my product is, or even offering some constructive criticism.”
He enjoys time with his fellow farmers too. “I like hearing their stories, how they got started,” he said. “We can swap advice.”
The multiple, immediate benefits of thriving local farmers markets for both farmers and consumers are clear, but they are also crucial components of a sustainable local food system. If we don’t support our farmers now, who’ll grow our food – and how will they grow it – in the future?
Farmers markets or produce stands? What’s the difference?
When Don Wambles, director of Alabama’s Farmers Market Authority, talks about farmers markets, he’s using this definition: A public place where several farmers gather several times a week to sell their goods.
Farm stands (a spot where one farmer sells only his produce) and produce stands (permanent spots that sell a variety of produce and are usually open year round) are different.
There are approximately 250 farm stands in the state, a number that has grown alongside the growth in farmers markets (and is not included in Wambles’ market numbers).
And produce stands are scattered all over too, places like Durbin Farms in Clanton and SweetCreek in Pike Road. While they’re not under the “official” farmers market umbrella, they pursue many of the same goals and offer many of the same advantages.
“We love those places, too,” Wambles says. “And we try to help them connect with local farmers so they can always have fresh, seasonal, local produce to sell.”
Find your farmers market
Visit fma.alabama.gov to find a full list of farmers markets across the state listed by county. And remember: Many Alabama farmers markets are hawking far more than fruits and veggies. Look for homemade jellies, relishes and baked goods, raw honey, organic meats, handmade soaps and more.