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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.

Fresh, tasty and local: Farmers markets help put a face on our food

Knight Farms of Clanton sells produce at The Shoppes at EastChase Farmers Market.

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 

Farmer John Alpin of Aplin Farms checks his tomatoes at The Shoppes at EastChase Farmers Market.

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.

Faith in their farm: Barbour County couple revitalize family farm, share knowledge with others

Russell and Jewell Bean on their farm near Eufaula.

Story and photos by Katie Jackson

It takes a lot of faith to believe that a tiny seed can become a mighty harvest. It takes even more faith to plant seeds for the future of farming. But faith, along with energy and knowledge, are things that Barbour County farmers Jewell and Russell Bean have in abundance.

The Beans, who operate Stanford and Bean Farm in Eufaula, began their farming journey in 2008 when the two left their urban careers in Georgia to return to their parents’ 106-year-old 88-acre farm, where Jewell’s father and grandfather had farmed the land.

The Beans always planned to one day come back home to Alabama (Russell is from Dothan; Jewell grew up in Eufaula), but “one day” arrived earlier than they expected after Jewell’s father became ill.

Russell and Jewell moved home from the Lake Oconee/Lake Sinclair area to help care for her father. They also began figuring out ways to revitalize the family farm.

Though they had plenty of land and both had done a little farm work in their younger days, Jewell and Russell didn’t feel they had the know-how to make the land truly productive. They did, however, feel a spiritual beckoning to become stewards of that land and make Jewell the third generation of Stanfords to work the farm.

They decided to volunteer in the area to gain experience, including with Barbara and Roy Shipman, who run The Cottage House farm and community center in Ariton. The Beans also began attending farm meetings and workshops and were soon invited to join a two-year agricultural leadership class coordinated by Southern University and A&M College in Louisiana.

Through that leadership program, the Beans traveled across the nation to learn about farming and farm resources. In that process they discovered the rich cache of assistance available through such U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies as the Cooperative Extension System, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Services Agency.

“These resources are the best-kept secret in agriculture,” Russell says. “They offer a lot of knowledge-based information, plus assistance through cost-share programs and grants for small farmers.”

Through cost-share programs and the help of USDA and experts at land-grant universities, the Beans obtained a well, fencing, drip irrigation, tunnel houses and the like, as well as advice, such as guidance on erosion control and pasture development.

As they built their farming operation, they also built relationships — which led them to yet another “calling.”

Sharing the knowledge 

After careful research, the Beans decided to raise meat goats, the demand for which has been growing in recent years.

“Farming isn’t easy,” Russell says. “A farm can be a never-ending job and money pit, so you have to watch what you are doing. You have to learn to be flexible and multitask. There are some things that are out of your control, so you have to learn to handle the things you can control and be prepared for emergencies when possible.

“When you think about these things, it makes you wonder why in the world anyone would ever want to farm,” Russell says. “But in this career, you really see the fruits of your labor. And you can make money, while building something to pass on to your children.”

“It’s like preaching,” Jewell says. “You better be sure that God has called you to do this.”

The Beans did feel called to it and, while they made their share of mistakes, they never lost faith. They learned from those mistakes and forged on to create an award-winning, sustainable, organic farming operation.

Among their numerous honors, the Beans received the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service’s national Lloyd Wright Small Farm of the Year award in 2016.

They are also “called” to share their hard-earned knowledge with other farmers, which they do by serving as resource specialists with Tuskegee University. In that role, they work with other emerging farmers of all ages and backgrounds to provide peer-to-peer trainings developed with their mentor professor, Victor Khan, at Tuskegee University.

“We want to empower, inform and educate,” Jewell says. “That’s what we did for ourselves first, and now we do it for others because we want others to get the right knowledge to make the right decisions.”

“Our personal motto is ‘dream big, think big, but start small,’” Russell says. That’s the message they impart when they are traveling the state and country to teach, or when hosting the hundreds of people who come to their farm from across the state, region and country for farm training.

Jewell Bean learned about hard work and community commitment from her parents, Roy and Rosa Stanford, pictured here.

Expanding the calling

The Beans work as farmers and as educators, and they embrace everyone who visits their farm. They not only feed their guests with knowledge and food, they also send them away with produce. In fact, the Beans don’t market their farm goods, but instead share the fruits of their labor with visitors and with churches and food banks in the area. Anything that doesn’t walk away from the farm is fed to their animals.

“Nothing goes to waste here,” Jewell says.

The Beans are in the process of expanding this “calling” by renovating facilities to house farmers, students and professors who, they hope, will work together on the farm for more extended periods of time. They are also working with Auburn University medicinal plant guru Tia Gonzales to install a medicinal plant demonstration and production garden, which has become another passion for the Beans.

They always welcome volunteers and donations for the farm and are currently looking for a manager who can live and work on the farm, allowing the Beans more time to travel and spread their faith and knowledge.

“Our family motto is ‘Never give up. Always give back,’” Jewell says. “My parents brought us up that way. That’s why this farm is so blessed. It’s blessed by the blood, sweat and tears that my family invested in it, but also by the seeds of faith they planted here and in us.

“It’s a God thing,” she says.

To learn more about the Beans or to volunteer or make contributions, email jewellstanfordbean@gmail.com or russell@beanconsultants.com or call 334-687-2532.

Farming for life

Jimmy Parnell has been president of the Alabama Farmers Federation and CEO of Alfa Insurance since 2012. He is a fifth-generation farmer who grew up on his family’s Chilton County farm where they raised cattle and grew timber. He is a graduate of Auburn University. He and his family were named Outstanding Young Farm Family of Alabama in 1999. He is a longtime friend of our rural electric cooperatives, and took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for our food and agriculture issue. — Lenore Vickrey

You’ve been in the farming business all your life. How did growing up on a cattle farm help you in your position as president of the Alabama Farmers Federation and as CEO of Alfa Insurance?

It taught me work ethic. Farming also taught me how to think and deal with a lot of factors on the farm. Challenges come at different times and different speeds. You have to be able to think through problems and make decisions.

The values you grow up with on the farm are very valuable — family values, Christian values — in my mind, they kind of go together. I also believe farming, business and life is about relationships. We all depend on others and notice it especially during a crisis.

On the farm, I also learned to work with people, employ people and motivate them. You learn to understand people’s abilities and areas for growth.

What is your fondest memory of living and growing up on the family farm? 

I don’t have a single fondest memory. It was just life in general. Anytime you’re on the farm, you have the downs — your best cow dies or your best bull breaks his leg. But then you have the good things — like a new calf. The highlight of my childhood was time spent with my grandmother (Verna Lou Parnell). She spent a lot of time with me. She loved to farm and taught me how to do so many things.

You first thought you’d like to be a veterinarian but changed your plans at a critical time for the farming industry in the 1980s. What caused you to change your decision?

My sixth chemistry class was a buzz saw. It made me take a step back and re-evaluate. The main thing, though, was I just decided my real desire was to farm and run the family business. That’s where I thought I was needed at the time, and I would tell you I’m confident I made the right decision. You don’t always know when you’re going through those decisions as a young person, but you can look back later and see whether it was right or wrong.

In my lifetime, the ‘80s were the darkest time for agriculture. It was tough. It really started late ‘70s but the early ‘80s were the worst of it. I don’t know of anyone I was in agricultural economics with at Auburn University who went back to the farm except me.

Our family was a little different because we were diversified. Forestry, perhaps, wasn’t as impacted as row crop farming. What I realized when I got back to the farm was what looked bad was actually an opportunity. I was able to buy land at a really good price, which laid the groundwork for our family’s future.

Given your current job, how involved are you able to be with your family farm these days? Do you miss that?

 I do miss the farm. I love the farm. That’s where I go to get my stress relief. Me and my wife Robin raised our children, James Robert and Anna Grace, on the farm, and there’s no place I’d rather be. On weekends and when I’m off, I want to be working cows or doing something on the farm. I’m still involved in decision making but not as much on a daily basis. My brothers (Joseph and Jeff) are seeing after the timber business and James Robert manages the cattle farm. It’s a growth opportunity because they are learning different aspects of the business and trying new ideas.

What are the main challenges facing the farming industry today and looking down the road?

The biggest thing right now is the lower commodity prices and higher expenses. We went through a few years when commodity prices were higher and technology was coming of age. Implementing technology made work simpler, but raised input costs.

The other challenges are acceptance of products we deliver today by people who are not involved in agriculture and lack an understanding of how food is produced. We have to feed the world, but we somehow have to explain to the world that what we are producing is a good product. We’ve lost that connectivity to the world.

The regulatory environment is getting better over the last year or so, but it’s still very burdensome. It really boils down to needing a better knowledge base among the public. If the electorate has a better understanding of agriculture, they will elect people who have a more balanced approach to regulation. 

American agriculture produces about 30 percent more product than we can consume in the U.S., so we have to continue working on the ability to market our products to the world. We also hear the world is going to need more food in the next 20 years. It seems like these should work together. If we can figure out how to grow the food and the rest of the world can figure out how to pay for it, there is great opportunity for farm families.

A cut above — and below: Propagate plants to add to your garden

To make a cutting from a healthy plant, use sharp shears to make a cut below a node, or where a leaf meets the stem. Photos by Katie Jackson

Our list of summer gardening chore lists can be long this time of year, but there’s something else to add to those lists — making more plants.

As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, plant propagation is an easy and affordable way to add plants to your garden. It’s something you can do year-round depending on the type of plant you want to reproduce, and it can be done by rooting new plants from stems, leaves and roots or by collecting seed of existing plants.

If you’ve never tried it, you may want to educate yourself on the techniques through local workshops and experts, online videos and articles and through books from your local library. One book, American Horticultural Society Plant Propagation: The Fully Illustrated Plant-by-Plant Manual of Practical Techniques, is a good option, but there are many others to choose from, so find one that fits your needs.

While you’re studying the process, go ahead and get hands-on experience this summer, which is an ideal time to replicate many woody plants including shrubs (gardenias, camellias, viburnum, holly and azaleas are good candidates), trees such as evergreen conifers and some magnolias, vines, groundcovers and herbs. Many houseplants can also be rooted this time of year in a potting medium (and some, such as African violets, geraniums, philodendrons and coleus, can be easily rooted in water).

There are three basic types of cuttings you can take during various seasons. In the spring, softwood cuttings can be taken from new growth on plants and tend to root quickly, allowing you to create new material to plant in the same year. Semi-hardwood (sometimes called semi-ripe) cuttings can be taken in the summer when plants are actively growing; these take a little longer to root but benefit from warm summer temperatures. Hardwood cuttings can be taken in the fall and winter from dormant plants and produce new material for planting in the coming spring.

Insert the cutting into a small container filled with rooting mixture and keep it watered to promote root growth.

The technique for all of these cutting types is much the same, so here are steps to get you started.

  • Using a sharp gardening knife or clippers, cut six- to eight-inch pieces from the tip-end of a new plant shoot. Choose healthy, pest-free shoots that do not contain blooms or buds. Make the cut below a node (where the leaves meet the stem). As you work, place the cuttings in a plastic bag moistened with a little bit of water and keep these in a cool spot until you’re ready to prepare them. It’s best to take cuttings in the morning and plant them within 12 hours.
  • Prepare each cutting by snipping off the top of the stem to leave two to four leaves above a node. Trim off the base of the cutting just below the node and remove the lower leaves.
  • To promote faster growth, you can dip the end in a rooting hormone, though this is not required. If you do use it, gently shake off any excess product before inserting the cutting into a container filled with a sterile, well-draining rooting mixture (a 1:1 combination of peat moss and sand, perlite or vermiculite works well). Do not add fertilizer to the mix.
  • Place the containers in a spot with bright, indirect sunlight and keep the cuttings watered or misted so they remain moist, but the potting medium isn’t soggy. A heating pad placed beneath the pots will speed up the rooting process, too.

Within a month you should see root growth and, depending on the plant species, semi-hardwood cuttings should be ready to replant into a larger pot or into the landscape by this fall. You can keep potted rootings in a protected spot through the winter for spring planting, too.

If you produce more plants than you can use, share or swap them with your gardening friends and family members.

Alabama tourism increased by $1 billion in 2017
 

Governor Kay Ivey announced new state tourism economic figures reflecting the economic growth and job creation of the state’s tourism industry, based on a 2017 report produced by the Alabama Tourism Department on Tuesday May 22, 2018, in Birmingham, Ala. The Alabama travel industry grew by $1 billion in 2017 to a record of $14.3 billion in expenditures, and increased jobs by 7,399 to some 186,906 employees.

By the Alabama Tourism Department

The Alabama travel industry grew by $1 billion in 2017 to a record of $14.3 billion in expenditures, and increased jobs by 7,399 to some 186,906 employees, Gov. Kay Ivey announced recently.

She noted that the industry grew by 7 percent and attracted an additional 810,000 visitors to top 26 million guests for the first time.

“Every part of the state saw dramatic growth, from the mountains of the Tennessee Valley to the beaches along the Gulf Coast,” the governor says. “Most communities generated more revenue and gained jobs through meetings, conventions, sporting events, visits to museums and other tourist attractions.

“The larger counties, which have invested in sporting venues, have seen an increase in the number of youth teams arriving from outside the immediate area for tournaments,” she says.

The industry notched its highest growth in 2017 since the Gulf Coast oil spill in 2010 when tourists spent $9 billion, says state tourism director Lee Sentell.

Despite a wet July, Baldwin County added 82,238 guests for a total of 6.4 million guests who spent a record $4.4 billion. Jefferson County’s hospitality industry grew by a record 9.8 percent and 148,498 tourists. About 3.3 million total visitors helped Jefferson County cross the $2 billion mark in tourist spending for the first time.

In Madison County, an increase of 85,728 visitors yielded a total of 3.1 million guests who spent $1.3 billion for a 9.8 percent increase. In Mobile County, tourism grew by 8 percent. An additional 178,770 visitors meant a total of 3.4 million guests who spent $1.2 billon.

Montgomery County, which ranked fifth, added 8,940 guests for a 3.3 percent increase in tourist spending. The city had just under two million visitors who spent $841 million, according to a study by Montgomery economist Dr. Keivan Deravi.

The tourism industry generates millions of dollars for state and local government. The hospitality industry was responsible for $627.5 million in state taxes and an additional $251.6 million in local revenue for a total of $879 million, an increase of 5 percent over the previous year, the report said.

Some $70 million was generated in state lodgings taxes, of which 75 percent benefits the State General Fund.

Deravi says that without those taxes, each household in Alabama would have had to pay $467 in additional taxes to maintain current service levels.

Sentell credited Intermark Group, the ad agency for the state tourism department, for creative marketing initiatives and advertisements. He also expressed appreciation to the Retirement Systems of Alabama executive Dr. David Bronner for marketing support through commercials on Raycom Media television stations. Raycom has provided free air time valued at millions of dollars a year for state tourism commercials for more than 20 years.

Sentell noted that several of the major counties on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail achieved exceptional growth above the state’s average gain. Jefferson County, with courses at RTJ Ross Bridge and RTJ Oxmoor Valley, notched a 9.8 percent increase. Mobile County, with RTJ Magnolia Grove, increased by 7.9 percent and Madison County, home to RJT Hampton Cove, achieved a record growth of 9.8 percent.

“The Alabama Trail continues to outperform the nation’s other golf destinations,” Sentell says.

“The support from Raycom gives our state an amazing advantage over our surrounding states. It is an economic investment in our state’s economy that pays great dividends,” he says.

He also said that the continuing success of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail increases the economic impact of tourism throughout the state