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Social security: How the retirement rules work for you

Retirement doesn’t have the same meaning for everyone. Some people plan to retire and never work again. Some people plan for second careers in occupations that wouldn’t have adequately supported their families, but they do the work for pure enjoyment. Some people, whether by design or desire, choose to work part-time or seasonally to supplement their retirement income.

Retirees (or survivors) who choose to receive Social Security benefits before they reach full retirement age (FRA) and continue to work have an earnings limit. In 2017, the annual earnings limit was $16,920 for those under FRA the entire calendar year. In 2018, it is $17,040. If you earn over the limit, we deduct $1 from your Social Security monthly benefit payment for every $2 you earn above the annual limit.

In the calendar year you reach FRA, which you can check out at, you have a higher earnings limit. Additionally, we will only count earnings for the months prior to FRA. In 2017, the limit was $44,880. In 2018, it is $45,360. In the year of FRA attainment, Social Security deducts $1 in benefits for every $3 you earn above the limit.

There is a special rule that usually only applies in your first year of receiving retirement benefits. If you earn more than the annual earnings limit, you may still receive a full Social Security payment for each month you earn less than a monthly limit. In 2018, the monthly limit is $1,420 for those who are below FRA the entire calendar year. The 2018 monthly limit increases to $3,780 in the year of FRA attainment.

Once you reach FRA, you no longer have an earnings limit, and we may recalculate your benefit to credit you for any months we withheld your benefits due to excess earnings. This is because your monthly benefit amount is calculated based on a reduction for each month you receive it before your FRA. So, if you originally filed for benefits 12 months before your FRA, but earned over the limit and had two months of Social Security benefits withheld, we will adjust your ongoing monthly benefit amount to reflect that you received 10 months of benefits before your FRA, and not 12.

Most people understand that if they work while receiving benefits before FRA, their benefit may be reduced. What most people do not consider in their retirement planning is that we recalculate your Social Security monthly benefit at FRA to credit you for Social Security benefit payments withheld due to earnings over the limit. Explaining the earnings limit is another way that Social Security helps secure your today and tomorrow.

Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at

Rural health: Drones offer exciting promise in rural Alabama

A drone delivers medical supplies to the annual Remote Area Medical (RAM) in Wise County, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Tim Cox

Rapidly emerging new technologies offer a reason for excitement in caring for the health of Alabama’s rural areas.  Alabama faces a great challenge to provide adequate and quality health care for one of the country’s most unhealthy populations.  The use of drones (also called unmanned aircraft systems UAS) is one such promising technology that we need to be prepared to embrace and develop plans for using.

Military and smart phone technologies have played major roles in the rapid development of drone technology and capability.  Having the ability to inspect from above and move in straight lines offer many advantages that surface bound travel does not have.  This technology continues to advance at a rapid pace with drones getting faster, being able to carry heavier cargos, and travel greater distances without the cost of gasoline.  The futuristic city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is even considering the use of passenger-carrying drones that are manufactured in China.

Zipline, a Silicon Valley-based company, has been transporting medical supplies and life-saving blood to and bringing back specimens for laboratory testing from dozens of remote hospitals in Rwanda since October 2016.  Lighter air traffic allowed governmental restrictions to be much less restrictive in Rwanda than in the U.S.  Zipline has announced plans to work with state governments across the country to launch its medical drone delivery in the U.S.

This will not be the first such use of drones in the U.S.  Since July 2015, The Health Wagon and Remote Area Medical have partnered to provide medication delivery in the Appalachian area of Wise County in far southwest Virginia.

Drones are already being used for purposes in addition to health care in the U.S.  There is much promise for agricultural applications, including crop inspection and treatment.  Package delivery, search and rescue activities, aerial photography, parking lot and other security monitoring, damage surveying, and firefighting are only a few other examples.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Birmingham office, two waivers allowing the use of drones in Alabama have been approved.  These waivers allow for drones to be used for weddings, parties, other events, boating and water sports, video production, construction, construction inspection, roof inspection, agriculture, surveying, mapping, and other such applications.  No health-related services are being provided.

Safety and legal concerns appear to be the major obstacles.  Safety issues involve birds and areas with heavy airplane traffic.  There are a number of legal issues, including that of personal privacy.

Alabama’s leadership and other stakeholders involved in the future use of drones in providing health-related activity are encouraged to start preparing for the use of this promising innovation.

Dale Quinney is executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, 1414 Elba Highway, Troy, 36081.

Alabama snapshots: Gone fishin’

Jeff and Laiklind fishing in Cullman. SUBMITTED BY Janice Casey, Cullman.

SUBMITTED BY Michelle Burnham, Brewton.

Earl Reed “Gramps” and Karl Taylorson just shy of Gramps’ 96th birthday. SUBMITTED BY Emily Taylorson, Seale.

3-year-old John Curtis trout fishing with his daddy, David, below Smith Lake Dam. SUBMITTED BY Brenda Landers, Cullman.

Iris’ first fish, caught at Little River in Dekalb County. SUBMITTED BY Mike Elkins, Gurley.

Rusty and (baby) Rhett fishing at a pond in Burnt Corn. SUBMITTED BY Rusty Salter, Daphne.

Avery Menefee fishing at sunset. SUBMITTED BY Heather Menefee, Pine Level.

Mason Hodges caught “the big one” in his PawPaw’s pond and now it’s mounted on his bedroom wall. SUBMITTED BY Tim Tuggle, Danville.

Submit Your Images! August Theme: “First day of school” Deadline for August: June 30. Submit photos online: 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 and on our Facebook page. Alabama Living is not responsible for lost or damaged photos.

Restoring the roar on Lake Guntersville

Photo by Chris Denslow

By John N. Felsher

After more than 30 years of absence, boat races will return to the largest lake in Alabama when the Guntersville Lake Hydrofest comes to the northeastern part of the state on June 22-24.

“Lake Guntersville has a long history of boat racing with many world records set on these waters,” says Katy Norton, the president of the Marshall County Convention and Visitors Bureau in the town of Guntersville. “Races have been held on the lake since the lake formed in 1939. We had annual boat racing events all the way through 1986. Because boat racing had such a history on the lake, we felt it would be a great time to bring the races back during the state bicentennial celebration.”

After the qualifying events on June 22, two types of craft will race across the waters for the next two days. Sometimes called “NASCAR on the Water,” H1 Unlimited hydroplanes propelled by turbine engines producing more than 3,000 horsepower can hit speeds exceeding 220 miles per hour as they race around a two-mile oval course. These powerful boats can throw “roostertails,” or streams of water that can reach 60 feet high and a football field long.

“This is the first year that we’ve brought the boat races back to Lake Guntersville since 1986 and this will be the first time we’ve had the H1 Unlimited Hydroplanes here since 1969,” Norton says. “We’re really glad to see this type of event come back to Lake Guntersville.”

The famed Miss Budweiser, the boat that won the 1969 races, will be on static display. Normally, people who want to see this historic craft must travel to a museum in Seattle, Wash., but for three days, people can climb aboard it on the shores of Lake Guntersville and take photos of themselves at the controls.

Guntersville Lake Hydrofest will kick off another season of H1 Unlimited hydroplane racing in the country. Drivers only race these craft in five cities. Besides Guntersville, the smallest venue on the circuit this year, the boats will race in Detroit, San Diego, Seattle, the Tri-Cities area of Washington state and Madison, Ind.

“We’re the smallest community by far that’s going to host the races this year, but that’s a testament to the quality of the lake and the history we have here with boat racing,” Norton says. “It’s our goal to make this an annual event and bring back boat racing to the lake as part of our summer activities.”

Drivers in smaller hydroplanes will also race against each other in front of the crowds gathered along Sunset Drive on the lake shoreline in the town of Guntersville. These “Grand Prix World” hydroplanes measure about 24 feet long and 12 feet wide. With 1,300-horsepower engines, they can hit speeds topping 170 miles per hour.

When not watching the boats zoom across the waves, people can participate in many other activities on shore. Wakeboarders will give demonstrations on the lake. Vendors will offer food and refreshments. Children can enjoy visiting a special area and activities set aside just for them. Besides Miss Budweiser, people can also see static displays of various boats among other events and activities on tap for the three days of celebration.

“People don’t want to miss the opening ceremonies, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, June 23,” Norton says. “The National Guard will do a water jump, parachuting into the water. We’ll also have some flyovers.”

At 7 p.m. that Saturday evening, a country music concert will be held at the Lurleen B. Wallace pavilion. Rising star Suzi Oravec will open, followed by the headliner, A Thousand Horses, a band known for its hit song “Smoke.”

Norton said she expects to see more than 20,000 people come to hear the roaring engines and enjoy the other festivities in a town normally with a population less than half that size. Some people might come a few days early to fish the famed bass lake that spreads across 69,100 acres and stretches 75 miles along the old Tennessee River channel. Others may simply relax before the big event or partake in some other recreational activities available in the area. For area information, see

“We expect people to come from all over Alabama, across the Southeast and from many other states,” Norton says. “We’ve had calls from people coming from as far away as California and Washington. Some people will come a few days early to enjoy the lake and the area before the races begin and stay through the weekend. This should be a major economic boon to the town of Guntersville and the surrounding area.”

For schedules, event maps, ticket information and other details, see or the event page on Facebook. People can also call the Marshall County CVB at 256-582-7015.

Photo by Chris Denslow

Making visitors feel welcome in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’

Grand Bay staffer Becky Clark hands a visitor a copy of Alabama Living. Copies of the magazine are sent to each center every month.
1 Ardmore Welcome Center, I-65, Elkmont
2 Dekalb Welcome Center, I-59, Valley Head
3 Cleburne Welcome Center, I-20 E, Heflin
4 Lanett Welcome Center, I-85 S, Lanett
5 Houston Welcome Center, US 231 S, Cottonwood
6 Baldwin Welcome Center, I-10, Seminole
7 Grand Bay Welcome Center, I-10 E, Grand Bay
8 Sumter Welcome Center, I-59, Cuba

“Welcome to Alabama!”

If you’ve walked through the doors of one of Alabama’s eight State Welcome Centers, those words no doubt would have greeted you.

“We don’t know if they’re from Alabama,” says Trisa Collier, center administrator, but every employee makes sure each visitor is welcomed warmly and enthusiastically. “Some will say, ‘I’m from Alabama,’ or ‘I was born in Alabama and I’m back to visit.’” Others will have come from as far away as Germany, Canada or Mexico. They may not speak English well, if it all. No matter. The welcome centers are there to help.

Last year, a record 1.3 million people visited the centers, on their way to Alabama and points north, south, east and west.

The centers are owned and maintained by the Alabama Department of Transportation, and the lobbies are staffed by the Department of Tourism. The number of tourism representatives at each center varies from five to seven, depending on the traffic.

“Grand Bay has seven because their center is so big,” says Collier. “It was built to be a staging area for storms so they could accommodate more people.” The center, on I-10 East at the southernmost tip of Mobile County, was rebuilt and expanded in 2016 and displays original art, including carvings of beach scenes in the brick exterior walls and a large fiberglass oyster painted by Mobile artist Lucy Gafford featuring sites around Alabama.

A welcome wave from Cleburne Welcome Center staff, from left, Lucy Bachus, Courtney Nelson, Kathy Freeman, Tabetha Akins and Lora Walker.

“Our oyster is called ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’” says Grand Bay tourist promotion representative Emily White. The oyster is part of the Oyster Trail, an educational scavenger hunt through coastal Alabama to support the Mobile Bay Oyster Gardening Program.

Each center is stocked with brochures about sites throughout the state, divided by geographic regions. And representatives, wearing their trademark “Sweet Home Alabama” shirts, are equipped to answer questions about destinations, both in their area and beyond.

“We want them to feel that this is the best place they’ve been to, when they come to our centers,” says Collier. “You know the old adage, ‘people may not remember what you say but they’ll always remember how you made them feel’? That’s what I tell my staff.”

Before employees are hired, they must first be certified through the state Personnel Department, Collier says, and she sits in on all interviews. “We’re looking for people with customer service experience, who have worked directly with the public,” she says. After hiring, it’s “mostly on the job training” she adds. “Then after they start, we do familiarization tours where we take them to different parts of the state, because if you’ve been there, it’s easier to tell others about it.”

Each year the employees have a retreat at a tourist destination, such as the OWA Amusement Park in Foley in 2017. They’ve also been to Dothan, Huntsville, Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Eufaula, Birmingham, Montgomery and other cities.

“We get a lot of international visitors,” says Gerlena Hall, manager at the Sumter Welcome Center in Cuba, off I-59 in west Alabama. Many of them want to know about the civil rights movement and the sites associated with it.

“We get a lot of traffic from Louisiana and Texas during summer breaks,” says White, with most heading for the beaches in Alabama, Florida or to Disney World.

International visitors, meanwhile, usually aren’t beachgoers but are looking for historic sites. Some are visiting all the state capitals.

Visitors to the Ardmore Welcome Center enjoy having their photo made in this lobby display, as demonstrated by staffers Jessica Jackson, Bernice Hobson and Asheley Harris.

Visitors have questions, they have answers

Sometimes visitors ask unusual questions, depending on where they are from. “A lot of people from the north ask, ‘What is Mardi Gras?’” says White, who is only too happy to explain the annual celebration.

Becky Clark, another employee at Grand Bay, was once asked, “Where is Greenbow, Alabama?” referring to the town where Forrest Gump lived in the movie of the same name. She explained it wasn’t a real town, but that Bayou La Batre is a real town not far from the welcome center, where they could see scenes and shrimp boats from the movie. “They were very excited to buy some fresh shrimp right off the boat!” White says.

At the Cleburne Welcome Center off I-20 East in Heflin, manager Kathy Freeman says they are often asked for restaurant recommendations. “They don’t want chain restaurants, but something local,” she says. “If I’ve eaten there, I’ll tell them about it. We want them to stay in Alabama and leave their money here.”

The Welcome Centers have had their share of famous visitors and even animals. Some years ago, the Budweiser Clydesdale horses, likely on their way to an event in Birmingham, stopped at the Cleburne center for a break. Comedian Jerry Clower, musician Bret Michaels and Penny Marshall of “Laverne & Shirley” fame have visited the Sumter center.

Every center has had its share of visitors with health emergencies. “Medical emergencies happen infrequently,” but staff have a plan in place, says Collier. They can call 911 and an oxygen machine is available if needed.

Some of the most popular items the welcome centers provide to visitors are copies of Alabama Living. Two hundred copies are shipped to each center every month. “Travelers want recipes and we show them the recipes in the magazine and all the other good information,” says Freeman. “They love Alabama Living.”

Selling Alabama to international travelers

Andy Facer, Alabama’s representative for the UK and Ireland travel market, checks out a NASA astronaut suit at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.

By Minnie Lamberth

Andy Facer was born and raised in the United Kingdom and lives in Cambridgeshire, yet he works full-time to promote trips to Alabama. He’s the state’s tourism representative for the UK and Ireland travel market.

Alabama has a lot of benefits to sell, Facer notes. “The Alabama people are some of the friendliest I have met and always keen to share their own unique stories and experiences,” he said. “During my tour of the state last year, I was wowed by how different each area is and the diversity. You can get a totally different experience in a few hours traveling by road.” 

Facer began representing Alabama in January 2017 as a contractor through Global Travel Marketing. “We work very closely with our partners in the UK travel trade,” Facer says. “We embark on multiple joint marketing activities throughout the year, highlighting the diversity that Alabama offers – from the amazing beaches on the Gulf Coast, our civil rights history, wonderful recording studios in the Shoals and our unique space experiences in Huntsville. This is all enhanced by training sessions with their selling teams.”

Janin Nachtweh, based in Berlin, promotes Alabama in Austria and Switzerland as well as Germany. When she began as a contract representative in January 2016, Alabama hadn’t had a representative focused on this market for about 15 years. “The knowledge of Alabama was nearly zero,” Nachtweh says. Since then, she has been reaching out to tour operators, attending travel trade shows and working with the media to sell the state’s story. Currently 24 tour operators include Alabama in their offerings.

“Alabama is always a big surprise,” Nachtweh says. Tour operators may have heard of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., but they don’t realize that the civil rights movement started in Montgomery. They may be familiar with the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his involvement in the American space program, but they don’t realize his relationship to Huntsville and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. They are familiar with famous musicians who have recorded at Muscle Shoals, but they don’t know about the renowned production studios there. Nachtweh’s marketing activities help tour operators learn about the state’s opportunities.

The Alabama Tourism Department also has a contract with Ying “Springna” Zhao to promote Alabama to travelers in China. According to Deputy Director Grey Brennan, “China is one of the fastest growing international tourism markets – growth is exceedingly high.” Though based in Montgomery, Zhao is a native of China and is able to talk with decision makers who aren’t comfortable speaking in English. “Springna bridges that gap,” Brennan says.

Alabama shares a number of representatives to reach additional international markets. For example, Travel South USA, a coalition of 12 southern states, is one of the oldest regional organizations promoting tourism in America. “We band together to promote the South as an international destination to visitors,” Brennan says. “Through Travel South there are six countries that have representatives that promote Alabama and other states. These representatives as a whole will talk to tour companies to try to put Alabama destinations in their offerings.”

Berlin-based Janin Nachtweh, on a recent visit to Alabama, visits the Sumter Welcome Center. She promotes travel to Alabama in Austria, Switzerland and Germany.

As part of a southern trip, many travelers will key in on such destinations as Nashville or New Orleans or other areas that surround Alabama. By partnering with other states, Alabama attractions get included in the tour. “So when visitors come to do these southern vacations, they also come to Alabama,” Brennan says.

Alabama’s growth as an international destination is important to the state’s tourism efforts. Tourism is, after all, an economic engine, and international visitors tend to spend more dollars in their travel in the U.S. than domestic visitors do. “It’s wise to attract those visitors,” Brennan says.

“People from other countries go on vacation more often than Americans. America is a key place for them to go,” he adds. Often, a first trip to the United States may be to a major destination spot, such as New York City. “The South is that next experience, and Alabama is a key part of the South.”

Alabama’s tourism opportunities cover a variety of categories – including history, golf, museums and the outdoors. Yet international travelers won’t realize that these opportunities exist without coordinated promotional strategies. “Very few people stumble on this information magically on their own,” Brennan says. “To be a tourist destination is a lot of work behind the scenes.”

Reaching out: Army veteran teaches long-range, precision shooting

James Eagleman, (left) Director of Training for the Barbour Creek Shooting Academy, gives some instruction to Colton Simpson (right) before Colton fires the rifle at a target a thousand yards downrange. Photo by John N. Felsher

You’re going to shoot this rifle at a target a thousand yards away today and hit it,” proclaims James Eagleman, the director of training at the Barbour Creek Shooting Academy just outside Eufaula.

More used to shooting shotguns at ranges less than 40 yards, I looked out the window of the shooting house incredulously. I couldn’t even see the target more than a half-mile away, but I would trust James with my life. We served together in Korea in the 1990s.

I knew him as Corporal Eagleman, but he retired from the Army as a master sergeant after serving 26 years on active duty, much of it as a sniper or sniper instructor. When I sat down in the shooting house at the range, the “corporal” was most definitely in charge of his former commander. With a little instruction, I did hit the target a thousand yards away, although James did most of the calculations and setup. I just pulled the trigger.

“Barbour Creek Shooting Academy is a long-distance shooting facility,” says Mark Simpson, the owner. “We train clients how to hunt and shoot animals ethically at long range. We are one of the few ranges where people can shoot rifles out to a thousand yards or more and certainly one of the few that offer all the amenities that we do.”

Simpson ran car dealerships for 38 years before selling the dealership as he planned to retire. He bought a 1,000-acre plot of land on Lake Eufaula and started building a long-range rifle shooting facility for personal reasons.

“I started building this facility for my friends and family,” Simpson recalls. “I had been shooting long distance for more than a decade, but I got my advanced training from James. One day, I talked James into coming down to see it. When he got here, he says, ‘We have to make this into a shooting academy.’”

The academy opened in 2017. Most students stay at a lodge on the property that can comfortably sleep up to six people. Guests can also stay at an A-frame cottage on the Chattahoochee River, which flows into Lake Eufaula, or in the town of Eufaula. Some people stay at the nearby Lakepoint Resort State Park. People who stay on the property receive all meals included in the price.

The academy offers two shooting courses, a basic and an advanced course. Each course lasts two days. People could stay all week, taking the courses back to back or take one course now and return at a later date to take the second one. 

James Eagleman, the director of training at the Barbour Creek Shooting Academy, and Mark Simpson, owner of the academy, congratulate Madeleine Hackett on the shot she made. The academy teaches long-range rifle shooting.
Photo courtesy of Barbour Creek Shooting Academy

“The course is partially based on what I taught in a U.S. Army advanced sniper course,” Eagleman says. “Our focus is not just on shooting, but on long-range hunting. In the civilian world, people don’t need to know how to be a sniper, but hunters need to know things like shot placement, bullet selection, terminal performance and other things to make a quick, ethical kill on a game animal. Level 2 is more of a wind reading and advanced hunting course. We go into a lot of hunting-type shooting positions and what to do if the equipment fails in the field.”

Clients can bring their own firearms, but while under instruction, they must use guns and ammunition provided by the academy. After completing the courses, the clients can practice with their own rifles. Simpson lets some graduates put what they learned into practice by hunting hogs on the property. In Alabama, people can shoot feral hogs all year long without limit on private property.

“When we started the academy, one of the first things we discovered was that most people who come here with their own guns find out quickly that they probably have the wrong equipment,” Eagleman explains. “In Level 1, we stress proper equipment selection. All of our school guns are 6.5mm Creedmoor hunting rifles, which are phenomenal guns for long-range shooting. In addition, all of our guns have suppressors on them so we can sit in our air-conditioned shooting house and talk without putting headphones on.”

Mark and James also build their own high-end custom hunting rifles. They also developed and sell their own brand of 6.5mm and 7mm ammunition.

“The guns we sell, BC-1400s, are designed for long-range hunting with minimal recoil so people can make ethical shots at long range,” Eagleman says. “These rifles weigh less than 10 pounds with a scope and are capable of killing game out to 1,400 yards. We test each one by shooting it for accuracy out to a thousand yards. If the rifle doesn’t meet our requirements, we don’t sell it.”

All vets and first responders who enroll in the classes receive a 15 percent discount. Wounded warriors can take the instruction for free, but must pay for their food and lodging. For more information, see or call 334-845-0000.

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

Can solar work for my home?

Solar installers work high off the ground, on steep roofs and must drive fasteners through the roofing. This is a job that requires specialized training. Source: MariaGodfrida,

By Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessan

Q: I’m hearing a lot about solar power as an efficient option for homes today. Can you tell me some of the basics about solar energy and whether it’s something I should pursue?

A: Solar can provide energy for your home in three ways:

Passive solar is a way to capture the sun’s heat directly, often through south-facing windows and dark-colored stone floors that can store heat.

Solar water heating systems typically have panels on a roof that collect solar energy and a pump that circulates heated water for storage in a water tank.

Photovoltaic (PV) systems also collect solar energy through a panel, but the PV panels actually convert the energy into electricity.

I suspect you are referencing PV systems, which have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. PV technology has improved, costs have dropped and financing offers are abundant.

PV panels are usually installed on a roof in an array. The panels generate direct current (DC) power, which is then channeled through an inverter that feeds electricity into the home, back to the electric grid or to a battery system where it is stored for future use.

Several factors go into calculating how cost-effective it would be to install a solar power system for your home. Once you’ve done your research, you can use the PVWatts Calculator (at  to estimate how much production and value a PV system on your home could yield.

An easier path is to find a qualified solar contractor to provide an estimate for a PV system. Look for contractors that are certified with the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). Your local electric co-op may also have a list of recommended solar contractors.

When you call contractors, they will typically ask several questions to determine if your home is a good candidate for solar. If it is, they will likely be able to provide an estimate. In order to complete an estimate, the contractor will need to determine the size of the system, which will depend on several factors, including:

  • Your current and anticipated electricity needs
  • Roof area, orientation and pitch (15 to 40 degrees is ideal)
  • The amount of sunlight your home receives per year
  • The amount of shade, dust, snow and/or other factors that can block sunlight

If your roof will need replacing in the next few years, you’ll want to do that before installing solar panels, so be sure to include that expense when calculating the overall cost.

There may be federal, state and utility tax credits and rebates available to offset the price of the equipment and installation. You can find links to these resources on my website at

If the estimate you receive includes all the factors we’ve mentioned in this article, it should give you a fairly accurate idea of your return on investment. It’s also a good idea to get multiple estimates if you can, and to review the estimate with your electric co-op to ensure the electric rate and metering arrangements are correct.

Before you make a final decision, consider the following questions:

• How does the investment in a PV system compare to upgrading the energy efficiency of your home? Efficiency upgrades can sometimes yield more bang for your buck and make your home more comfortable. A home energy audit can help you answer this question.

• Is there a better way to invest in solar energy? Many co-ops offer community solar programs, which can produce solar electricity at a lower cost than residential systems.

Investment in solar systems or energy efficiency upgrades to your home can help increase the resale value. Recent reports show that the presence of a PV system can raise a home’s resale value to an average of $15,000.

I hope these tips help you determine if a PV system is right for your home. Remember, your local electric co-op can be a great resource, so reach out to them if you have any additional questions.

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency. For more information on solar energy for your home, please visit:

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 for more information.

Recipes to treasure

Heirloom recipes are valuable because they’ve been “kitchen tested and eater approved” hundreds of times over. Any recipe that gets made repeatedly and gets passed down is undoubtedly a method that works and that results in something delicious.

BY Jennifer Kornegay  | Food/Photography by Brooke Echols

Handing down favorite recipes is a worthwhile pursuit that’s about sharing something more than good food.

When we talk about family heirlooms, we’re often referring to jewelry, fine china or maybe granddad’s coin collection. But an heirloom, as Merriam-Webster defines it, is anything that is “something of special value handed down from one generation to another.” And that “value” isn’t necessarily monetary. What are warm sentiments worth? How about a bite that brings back a flood of fond memories? Can you assign an accurate appraisal for the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes from preparing and serving that dish everyone has always loved (and getting it just right)?

     These feelings and experiences are priceless and are yours for the taking when you save, use and share heirloom recipes. Holding onto recipe cards covered in your grandmother’s scrawling script or keeping your mom’s dog-eared cookbooks with notes in the margins and splatter stains on the edges is historic preservation at its purest.

     And you’re not just protecting remnants of the past, you’re reviving them. Our most basic needs often connect us in the deepest ways, and food builds bridges that transcend time and space. Every time you prep the ingredients and follow the steps outlined in an old recipe, you open an opportunity to remember and revisit family members who’ve done the same before. These are connections that surpass the tenuous relations many of us now have in the hundreds via social media “friends.”

     The next step is passing them along. It’s a way to reach out to current and even generations yet to come and hand them a heaping helping of yourself and of the heritage that has shaped who you are.

     If you don’t have an heirloom recipe collection, it’s never too late to start one. And you don’t have to dip only into your own gene pool. Borrow some of these oldies but goodies submitted by our readers and start your tradition today.

Cook of the Month: Gail Clark Sheppard, Arab EC

     Gail Clark Sheppard has been enjoying a simple yet super-sweet cake her grandmother used to make all of her life, and she believes her grandmother enjoyed it most of hers. “She may have come up with it herself, but I think she may have gotten it from her mother,” she said. “I know it has been in my family for more than 100 years.” The molasses cake was an easy yet satisfying treat that Sheppard’s grandmother often whipped up to feed her energetic grandkids. “She’d slice it up and put it in an eight-pound lard bucket and bring it out to us while we were playing,” she said. “And then she’d tell us not to bother her for a while!” That version was particularly special since its principal ingredient was also homemade. “My grandad and my dad farmed sugar cane, so they made their own molasses, and my grandma used that of course. Sometimes, she used it in place of sugar in other recipes too,” Sheppard said. The memories of fun family times now add their sweetness to the skillet anytime Sheppard bakes the humble cake. “I can remember how wonderful it tasted then, when she’d bring it out still warm to us as kids,” she said. “I love it to this day.”

Grandma’s Molasses Cake 

  • 1 1/3 cups molasses
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • ½ cup butter
  • 1½ cups flour
  • ¼-½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 eggs

Mix all ingredients together. Pour into a greased and floured 10-inch iron skillet. Bake at 350 degrees until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Grandma Clark’s Dumplings

  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 4 cups flour
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • ¼ cup shortening

Mix milk and shortening with flour. Stir to make soft dough. Turn out onto floured surface. Knead dough a few times until stiff. Divide dough in half. Roll one half at a time until it is about the thickness of piecrust. Cut into strips about an inch wide and two inches long. Drop pieces one at a time into boiling broth.

Grandma dropped her dumplings into the broth at the side of the pot, while holding the ones already cooking back with a spoon. She did not stir the dumplings while they cooked. They cooked uncovered until she got all the dough in the pot. Then she covered them and cooked them about 15 minutes. This recipe makes a large pot of dumplings.

Gail Clark Sheppard

Arab EC

Jam Cake

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda or baking powder
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup butter (no substitutes!)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup jam (any kind, but preferably homemade blackberry with the seeds in and nothing used but sugar and berries to make the jam)
  • 1 cup dates, chopped
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup nuts, chopped (cook’s preference)
  • 1 apple, grated

Sift flour, salt, and baking soda or powder together, reserving 1/4 cup of the flour to mix with the nuts, dates and raisins. Cream together the sugar and butter. Add eggs one at a time and mix well after each addition. Combine buttermilk and jam. Add alternately with combined dry ingredients to the creamed mixture. Flour the fruit and nuts and stir them into the batter. Stir in the grated apple. Bake in 3 greased, 9-inch cake pans in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes or until cake tests done. Turn out onto racks to cool before frosting. NOTE: If a spicier cake is desired, sift 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon allspice, and 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves with the flour, salt and baking powder.

Brown Sugar Icing:

  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar, packed
  • ¼ cup milk
  • 2 cups sifted confectioners sugar
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla

In a deep, large kettle melt the butter over high heat until it just starts to boil.

Add the brown sugar. Bring to a boil and lower heat to medium and continue to boil for 2 minutes. Don’t boil longer than two minutes and stir constantly while it is boiling. Add the milk and splash of vanilla and return to a boil, stirring constantly.

As soon as it begins to boil, remove from heat and cool to lukewarm. Gradually add confectioners’ sugar. Stir with a wooden spoon until thick and spreadable.

Mary Rich

North Alabama EC

Mama’s Nanner Pudding

  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 egg
  • 11/2 cups milk
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Bananas, sliced
  • Vanilla wafers

Mix sugar, flour and egg. Stir in milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring often until thick. Remove from heat, add vanilla and butter, then stir. Pour over layered bananas and vanilla wafers in 8×8-inch casserole dish.

Libby Bailey

Cullman EC

Alabama’s Corn Chowder

  • 5 medium potatoes, diced
  • 1 pound Zeigler bacon
  • 2 16-ounce cans cream or kernel corn (add juice if you use kernel)
  • 1 large can evaporated milk
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • ¾ cup pre-cooked Zeigler ham, finely chopped
  • 1 stick butter
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Cook potatoes until almost done in a large boiler then set aside. Leave enough water to cover potatoes, about two cups. Fry bacon and remove to drain but reserve grease. Sauté ham and onion in bacon grease. Crumble and add bacon, ham and onions to potatoes. Add corn, milk and butter. Salt and pepper as desired. If chowder is too thin, add two heaping tablespoons flour to 1½ cups of water. This will help the chowder thicken. Simmer 15-20 minutes. Saltine crackers go great with the chowder.

Wyenette Ware Renfroe

Baldwin EMC

Granny Pritchett’s Tea Cakes

  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup butter, softened
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3½ cups all purpose flour

Mix ingredients in the order listed. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. Can be rolled out and cut into shapes.

Amelia Pritchett

Pea River EC

Fattingand II (Lena Olson’s Fried Cookies)

  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1 egg
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 6 teaspoons cream
  • 1/8 teaspoon crushed whole cardamom
  • 1¾ cups flour (enough to roll cookies out)

Beat egg well, add sugar and remaining ingredients. Roll out the cookie dough, cut into diamond shapes and fry in deep fat at 370 degrees for 2-3 minutes or until golden brown. Dust with powdered sugar.

Gloria Pratt

Baldwin EMC

Coming up in July… Frozen Treats!

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

Themes and Deadlines

August: Corn | June 8

September: BBQ | July 8

October: Pumpkin | Aug. 8

Submit your recipe here.

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

Gardening hacks: Ways to make gardening easy, economical and eco-friendly

Recycle or up cycle in the garden. Here is a pair of boots hanging from iron rebar. Boots contain plants of wild strawberrys.

Gardening hacks — or creative ways to save time and money in the garden — can be fun and often effective shortcuts for many gardening chores. If used correctly, garden hacks can also help us create more eco-friendly gardens, especially if we concentrate on the three Rs of sustainability: recycling, reusing and repurposing.


Many items that we might throw in the trash or send to our local recycling center can be useful tools in the garden. Here are a few ways to turn trash into garden treasure.

Yogurt cups and other small plastic cartons make great seed-starting containers. Emptied milk, water, soda and juice containers can be used as plant covers, plant collars and as mini greenhouses or terrariums. Those with handles are perfect for use as watering and dusting devices or as scoops for potting soil and birdseed.

Old newspapers and cardboard can be laid in garden beds to control weeds and retain moisture in the soil.

Empty wine bottles can be filled with water, then pushed upside down into a pot to slowly irrigate container plants. They are also a great source for garden art and ornamentation — think bottle trees or a garden bed bordered with upturned bottles.


Lots of things can be reused in the garden — old boots can become planters and old pallets can become tool racks — but there are few things as valuable to a garden as kitchen waste. Yes, it makes great compost, but here are a few other uses for it, too.

Eggshell halves make cute, biodegradable seed-starting containers and can be crushed and sprinkled around plants to keep away slugs and add calcium to the soil.

Banana peels, which are high in potassium and other plant nutrients, can be added to compost or chopped or dried and added to garden soil as a slow-release fertilizer. They can also help ward off aphids.

Used coffee grounds can be sprinkled around plants to tamp down fungal diseases, provide a slow-release source of nitrogen to plants and improve soil texture. (A word of caution: coffee is acidic, so used grounds are not recommended for plants that require more alkaline conditions.)


Many of the household products we use every day in the home are also useful in the garden to control pests, add nutrients to the soil and in other ways.  Here are a few examples. 

Baking soda can help fight fungal problems on flowers and shrubs and can help sweeten the taste of tomatoes.

Concoctions of vinegar, baking soda, dish soaps, vegetable oils and other products can be used in place of stronger chemicals to remove and thwart a variety of pests.

Mixtures made of ingredients such as hot peppers, garlic and water can be misted on to plants to deter aphids, and jar caps filled with beer can trap and kill slugs, snails and some flying insects.

These are just a few of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of gardening hacks that make gardening easier, cheaper, sustainable and more fun. Additional details for these and other ideas are available in gardening publications, online and through local garden experts (one great book of ideas is 101 Organic Gardening Hacks: Eco-friendly Solutions to Improve Any Garden by Shawna Coronado). Do a little poking around to find ones that suit your needs.

A word of caution, though: not all hacks are effective or safe, so if you have questions or concerns, seek advice from your local Cooperative Extension or Master Gardener organizations or other professional gardening sources, especially before applying any potentially toxic or unsafe products to your garden.

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