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Alabama Snapshots: Front Porches

Joyce Peterson and great-grandson Luke Peterson, looking for “big trucks”. SUBMITTED BY Debbie Peterson, Robertsdale.

Katie-bell (the dog). SUBMITTED BY Cindy Walton, Vinemont.

Family Christmas 2009. SUBMITTED BY Anthony Paradise, Scottsboro.

Stunning style by the bay. SUBMITTED BY Jeff Hosterman, Fairhope.

SUBMITTED BY Mildred West Hutcheson, Old Nauvoo.

The I.D. Killough home, built in 1904. SUBMITTED BY Annie Killough, Greenville.

Submit Your Images! May Theme: “Graduates” Deadline for May: March 31

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.

Plant Detectives

Students learn about state’s diverse ecosystems

Students in Emily Smith’s science classes at Pisgah High School visit Graham Farms in Jackson County to collect plant samples, which they will send to HudsonAlpha for DNA sequencing. The classes are participating in the Bicentennial barcoding project, which gives them hands-on experience with an innovative curriculum. Photos courtesy of Emily Smith

As you enter the state from Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, road signs welcome you to Alabama the Beautiful. The highway turns bumpier from some states and smoother from others, but the same deep, green pine forests usher travelers onto paths that lead to species as diverse and complicated and beautiful as Alabama herself.

Thanks to a unique project, high school students are getting the chance to learn more about our state’s biodiversity – all the different kinds of living organisms in Alabama. Biodiversity generally includes plants, animals and fungi, but this particular project is focusing on plants, and will allow students to become like plant detectives – giving them valuable insight into Alabama’s unique ecosystems.

Learning about barcoding

The nonprofit biotech institute HudsonAlpha, based in Huntsville, is teaming with 29 public high schools and community partners to catalog barcodes of Alabama’s flora. Barcoding uses a very short genetic sequence from part of the plant’s genome – its genetic material – to help distinguish plants that may look similar to the untrained eye.

Think of barcoding as the way a supermarket scanner distinguishes two similar products.

This innovative project will allow students to study plants unique to their counties.

Students, most of whom have little opportunity to use advanced technology to study plants, will get a tremendous educational benefit. They’re learning how to collect specimens, enter information into databases, photograph and use GPS to record locations of species, and organize samples and their numbers.

Collected samples will be sent to HudsonAlpha for DNA extraction and preparation of samples for sequencing. Using a DNA analysis program, students will examine the DNA sequences and look for a match to existing barcodes.

If a sequence is not a part of the barcode of life database, students will have the opportunity to submit the sample for validation and register a new entry in the database.

The project is a vanguard for one of its scale and funding from Vulcan Materials and others made it possible, says Jennifer Whitney Carden, public outreach lead for HudsonAlpha. Schools were chosen for their geographic diversity and teacher interest from those who applied.

The project is in conjunction with the Alabama Bicentennial celebration. Jay Lamar, executive director of the Bicentennial Commission, says it’s a wonderful way to open an avenue of participation that would not have existed otherwise. “This is a project that will take place during the bicentennial, but have a life far beyond it,” Lamar says.

A ‘jewel’ of biodiversity

Participating in this project provides Alabama educators an opportunity to introduce students to cutting-edge genetic technologies and the growing field of informatics (a discipline that focuses on the study of information processing); highlight Alabama’s natural resources; and teach the importance of preserving Alabama’s unique ecosystems.

The technologies

and supporting concepts align with objectives in the Alabama Science Course of Study for the units on ecosystems, heredity and unity/diversity, and the activities cross-reference with topics from geography, earth science and early American history.

The Bicentennial Barcode project began in the spring of 2017 and will run through early fall 2019. Students in high school biology and environmental classes will gather approximately 1,775 samples over the course of the project.

Emily Smith’s ninth-grade biology class at Pisgah High School, a member of Sand Mountain EC, is participating. She’s excited for her students to have an interactive curriculum and access to expensive equipment that would be normally out of their reach.

The class partnered with Graham Farms and explored their diverse 400-acre farm in order to collect samples that they will send to HudsonAlpha for extraction and analysis. When the sequences are returned, students will utilize a database to compare them to existing barcodes; for example, students may discover whether a particular species of oak has been cataloged.

“They’re going to get a chance to look at DNA samples, which is very rare,” Smith says. “Alabama hasn’t been that well studied as far as biodiversity and we have a lot of biodiversity. So we’re going to be able to compare the same plant grown in south Alabama as north Alabama to see if they match.”

The diversity of Graham Farms and Jackson County allowed Smith’s students to sample data from a mountain range, swampland and grassy areas. Smith, a longtime fan of biodiversity, learned a lot about her state.

“I was really intrigued with the honey locust tree,” she says. “I knew about the leaves, but I didn’t know they grew a crown of thorns off every branch and their seed pods look like green beans.”

That such a species of the flower exists here, and in a few other southern states, is another example of what makes Alabama’s biodiversity distinguished.

“Alabama is a jewel,” Carden says, and notes that the state ranks fifth among states in biodiversity. We’re the most diverse state east of the Mississippi River. “We live in a unique and gorgeous state.”

Southern storyteller

‘Sean of the South’ celebrates the good, the broken, the angels among us

Sean Dietrich, better known as “Sean of the South,” uses his daily columns to celebrate the South’s everyday heroes and treasured traditions. Photo by Sean Murphy

By Allison Law

After the potluck dinner in the fellowship hall and the speech in the sanctuary, Sean Dietrich greets his fans in the vestibule of this church in southeast Alabama. Those who came to hear him are eager to give him a hug, snap a photo and tell him what his writings have meant to them. He’s one of them, and his words touch their hearts, they tell him. He considers those mighty compliments.

He’s in his element. He’d stay all night and chat with them, if they’d stick around that long.

Dietrich is better known as “Sean of the South,” the name of his blog and part of the title of four of his books. His stories touch on hope, goodness, redemption and kindness. Many relate an appreciation for the slower, sweeter pace of Southern life in the towns and farming communities his readers call home.

The columns that seem to resonate the most are the ones that celebrate the everyday heroes, who perform miracles big and small with no thought of reward; the ones that relate the heartbreaking stories of the angels who walk among us; and the ones that highlight the sometimes split-second decisions and seemingly small events in our lives, which lead us on journeys we could never have imagined.

Finding direction

Dietrich’s dad was a steelworker, and the family moved around – Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee, North Carolina. But as a teenager, home became the Florida panhandle, where he and his wife Jamie live today.

But he says he identifies more with the people in Alabama than Florida. Jamie is from Brewton, and when they married more than 15 years ago everybody in the town welcomed him into the fold. The logo for his blog includes a drawing of the state of Alabama, and the blog name itself is a play on the old Alabama tune, “Song of the South.”

Growing up was tough. After his father’s suicide when he was 12, he quit school to help support his mom and younger sister. He loved music, a talent he started nurturing early on. He plays piano, guitar and accordion, and plays in several bands today.

But he dreamed of being a writer. He would play music at night, often spending weekends at places in the Panhandle where he could camp on the cheap while playing a gig. During his down time, he started writing a novel. “I finished my novel, and I thought, this is fun. I’m gonna do this, I’m going to write a column. I’d always wanted to be a columnist.”

He suffered through some rejections, but they redirected his life and his work. He wanted to be a humorist, and there are elements of humor in some of his columns. But his style evolved into telling more of his story, which got a good response, and then the stories of others he met along the way.

Becoming a storyteller

And he meets lots of folks. He’s naturally talkative, but is able to draw people out; they feel safe with him. “My mother is a lot like this – somebody will buddy up to her, telling her their story. I thought it was annoying when I was child, because she would sit there and listen, and ask them questions to keep them going, and I hated it.”

One night, he and Jamie went out for their anniversary, and a fellow at the bar sidled up to him and shared an incredible story of loss. He and Jamie talked to the man for about an hour.

“I realized that night, I’m just like my mother. Put me in a bar, and they’re going to find me. I’m grateful for that now. I’m learning to listen more than I ever have before in my life, just because of what I do. I want to say that I notice things that were there all along, that I didn’t notice before.”

Dietrich signs a book for a fan at one of his speaking engagements in October in Dothan.
Photo by Allison Law

If he got his natural magnetism from his mom, he got his love of storytelling from his dad.  “My father was a storyteller – I grew to love those stories. (One day) he told me I might be a storyteller too. A storyteller is someone who does not judge, who just observes.”

‘Where the people are’

The columns and books have paved an unexpected but welcome career path for Dietrich. He’s become a much-requested public speaker all over the South. He loves the chance to interact with people – to hug necks, to hear memories, and bring a little light into lives of those who could use some.

They tell him the details of their lives – sad, hopeful, sometimes humorous, always heartfelt – and he’s eager to hear them.

“If (someone) were to follow me around for a week, they’d say, you look like you’ve hit rock bottom. You’re speaking at the rest home, or you’re speaking at the high school. This is not glamorous stuff. These are small towns. But I love it. That’s where the people are, you know?”

Life partners

Sean and Jamie are very close; his favorite column, he says, is the one called “Baker.” Jamie had a medical scare and the two were on their way back home from UAB. They stopped at the Gator Cafe in Baker, Fla., after the doctor called with good news. “It was one of the best days of my life,” he recalls, “and writing about it was a special experience. I wrote it in about 10 minutes, and hardly even edited it.”

Jamie quit working as a private chef to travel with him and handle his scheduling. The two seem genuinely happy to spend their time together, often on the road, meeting strangers who instantly become family.

“I feel like these are the best years of our life, until next year,” Sean says. For many years, he says he was plagued by self-doubt and a lack of confidence. He credits Jamie with having faith in his talent.

Jamie is equally happy to witness his growth and success. “I certainly feel blessed to be on this journey. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but it’s fun, and we’re enjoying it. We’re meeting so many real people, so many incredible people.”

Sean Dietrich has started recording podcasts under the “Sean of the South” title Each podcast is a collection of his stories recorded in front of live audiences with Southern regional music thrown in. New episodes are released on Saturdays, and are free on iTunes and at

Garden clubs continue history of service, friendship

On March 6, 1847, a group of women and men living near Union Springs, Ala., held a meeting that forever changed Alabama’s gardening history — and the gardening history of the whole nation.

It was on that day that the Chunnenuggee Ridge Horticultural Society, the first such society in Alabama and one of the first of its kind in the United States, was formed. The organization’s primary goal was to preserve and protect the beauty of their community’s landscape and, as their early minutes stated: “…we claim not for  (the Society) the cultivation of flowers only, we aim at usefulness and utility.”

“Usefulness and utility” remain the tenets of its modern-day successor, the Chunnenuggee Public Garden Club, and also of the many gardening clubs and societies that have been created in the 170-plus years since.

Tricia Mitchell is the current president of The Garden Club of Alabama, Inc., the umbrella organization for Alabama’s more than 100 active garden clubs. She says members of these groups are committed to beautifying and protecting natural and cultural resources in their communities while also educating and honoring their fellow citizens. In the process, those members reap amazing benefits themselves.

Garden clubs, Mitchell says, educate their members about a wide range of horticultural subjects, from gardening best practices to landscape and flower designing. But their educations don’t stop there. Club members also learn about, and teach the public about, vital environmental issues, such as protecting pollinators and watersheds.

Mitchell knows firsthand how educational garden club membership can be. “I grew up in an era where people farmed and canned and I loved gardening,” she says.

When she joined her local Decatur Garden Club, she embraced the chance to learn more about the breadth of gardening. But in the process, she discovered that there was so much more to love about being in a garden club. “It’s as much about fun, fellowship, friendship, unity and support as it is about plants,” she says.

Members include men, children

While garden clubs are usually thought of as women’s clubs, their memberships (in Alabama there are more than 2,000 people who belong to a garden club) include many men as well as children. In fact, children, who can join junior garden club organizations and be involved in an array of garden club-sponsored activities, are a priority for the GCA and its member clubs.

“Teaching our young people is so crucial,” Mitchell says. “We want to invest in them so they can be the next generation of gardeners.”

Garden clubs also invest in future professionals. The GCA sponsors six endowed scholarships at Auburn University for students majoring in horticulture, forestry and landscape design, and a number of local clubs also fund their own college scholarships.

Supporting military veterans and their families is also a primary focus of garden clubs, a focus that began in the 1940s and continues today as the clubs support Blue Star and Gold Star programs and memorials. (In 1951, Alabama garden club members held an “Every Light a Prayer for Peace” ceremony to pay tribute to those serving in the military as the Korean Conflict was raging. That service is now held annually and is practiced throughout the country.)

In addition, the GCA has been active in establishing garden spaces, such as the Garden of Memory on the Auburn University campus that honors veterans of both World Wars and the Korean Conflict and the Helen Keller Fragrance Garden at the Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind.

Today, garden clubs continue to help with a wide range of community projects ranging from beautification and memorial projects to supporting state parks and preserving land, heritage sites and endangered species. They also take care of others. One Alabama club sponsors a program to teach female prison inmates how to grow and preserve food, and several clubs run community gardens to help feed the hungry.

But perhaps the best benefit of being in a garden club is the chance to develop lasting relationships. “Garden club members will probably be some of your best friends forever,” Mitchell says. “I guess that’s because we have a lot of things in common.”

To become involved in this 170-year-old tradition, visit the GCA website at There you can find contact information for garden clubs in your area or learn how to start one of your own. You can also sign up to attend the GCA’s state convention April 8-10 in Tuscaloosa.

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

Turkey time!

Strong year-class could make for a better turkey season

Despite severe cold this past winter, Alabama sportsmen should enjoy a good turkey season this spring, especially in the central and northeastern part of the state.

“The cold shouldn’t have much of an impact on the turkey population,” says Brandon Bobo, a National Wild Turkey Federation biologist in Oxford, Ala. “Gobbling is mostly based upon photoperiod, or the amount of daylight. In Alabama, gobbling typically peaks in the last week of March and first week of April. Then, gobbling might trail off in mid-April, but pick up a bit in late April.”

Since 2014, state biologists have asked Alabama turkey hunters to participate in the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey. While hunting, participants keep track of turkey sightings, gobbling and other data and report their observations to wildlife managers. At the end of the season, the Alabama NWTF will draw a name from all the program participants and reward that person with a new shotgun.

Program participants will also receive the annual turkey report published by the state. Anyone can view the report at During the 2017 spring season, hunters across much of Alabama reported seeing many “jakes,” or young gobblers, a good sign for this upcoming season.

“From the results of our Avid Turkey Hunter Survey, we had an increase in the number of jakes observed in 2017,” says Steve Barnett, the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries top wild turkey biologist. “It was the highest since we began the survey in 2014. Those jakes spotted in the spring of 2017 will be the two-year-old gobblers people will be hunting this year.”

For most of Alabama, turkey season runs from March 15 through April 30. In Zone 2, the season begins on March 31 and concludes on April 30. In Zone 3, sportsmen can only hunt from April 21 to April 25. The state also offers special youth and disabled sportsmen hunts before the regular seasons begin. For specific hunting zone boundaries and additional information, see

“Overall, the forecast looks pretty good throughout the state,” Barnett says. “Northeastern Alabama is probably the best place in the state to hunt turkeys, followed by the west-central part. Northwest Alabama probably has the fewest turkeys compared to the rest of the state. The entire Southeastern United States is experiencing a decline in turkey recruitment. That’s probably most prevalent in northern Alabama.”

Season dates and other regulations may differ on some public properties, so always check the laws before hunting. In particular, six of the best wildlife management areas will open later than most of the state. These include Barbour, Choccolocco, Oakmulgee, Lowndes, Perdido River and Skyline.

“Choccolocco is always a good area,” Bobo says. “I hunt there frequently and have heard hundreds of gobbles on some mornings, but it’s a hard place to hunt. Barbour has a lot of turkeys and intensive management. The NWTF has done a lot of habitat work in Oakmulgee and the Talladega National Forest. Skyline is also pretty good.”

Working with the NWTF and Auburn University, the state captured and released more than 200 wild turkeys during the past four years. Researchers fitted them with tracking devices and released the birds on Barbour, Oakmulgee and Skyline WMAs. The devices give biologists information on gobbling activity, nesting, survival rates, reproduction and other factors, which could help determine future season dates and bag limits.

“We are following a structured decision-making process to guide turkey management in Alabama,” Barnett says. “In that process, we have developed a prediction model to look at survival, reproduction and harvest rates. We needed updated research in Alabama to get us better numbers on these elements. This experiment will test our prediction model to demonstrate if a delayed opening date will help improve turkey reproduction and total turkey numbers over time.”

Sportsmen hunting these areas might spot turkeys wearing leg bands or something resembling miniature backpacks. Hunters can legally shoot these gobblers during the season if they choose.

“We don’t want hunters to be biased toward not killing gobblers with tracking devices,” Barnett says. “Part of the information we need is harvest rates. If hunters shoot a turkey with a device or leg band, we request that they report those harvests to us as soon as possible.”

Although numbers may have dipped a little in recent years, Alabama still holds more wild turkeys than any other Southeastern state and thousands more than the 10,000 birds estimated to live in Alabama about a century ago. These magnificent birds now gobble in all counties across the Cotton State, even where no turkeys lived just a few decades ago. Now, Alabama sportsmen enjoy long seasons and very liberal bag limits of one gobbler per day and five per season.

For more information on the National Wild Turkey Federation, see For more information on how to participate the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey, contact Barnett at his office in Spanish Fort by calling 251-625-5474 or email

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

Glenn Wheeler calls turkeys while hunting in rugged country. The mountainous northeastern part of Alabama traditionally offers sportsmen the best turkey hunting. Photo BY JOHN FELSHER

Right-of-way management benefits wildlife, promotes plant diversity

The data surrounding Cooperative Energy’s new vegetation management strategies shows an increase in populations of quail, wild turkey, white-tailed deer and other species.
Source: Cooperative Energy

By Derrill E. Holly

In Mississippi, it’s a tortoise. In New England, it’s a hare. Those are just two species symbolizing the successes electric cooperatives are achieving with vegetation management strategies designed to reduce right-of-way maintenance costs while improving wildlife habitat.

“Instead of 12 feet of open space immediately under our poles, we have opened up our entire 100 feet of right of way,” said Wesley Graham, a transmission field biologist at Cooperative Energy.

The Hattiesburg, Mississippi-based generation and transmission (G&T) cooperative used the catastrophic system damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to completely rethink its approach to right-of-way management, and the results are paying off. 

“In five years, we’ve seen evidence that gopher tortoises are nesting or moving boundary-to-boundary,” said Graham. He has collected reams of data on nest activity indicating an increase in population for the species which remains on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list.

Before Katrina ripped down much of the co-op’s transmission system, vegetation management meant mowing the entire 1,800 miles of transmission corridors on a four-year rotation and side trimming boundary vegetation over a 15 to 20-year cycle.

Graham now uses herbicides specifically formulated to control woody vegetation within the 100-foot-wide utility easements. Crews walking the right of way are able to treat half the system within an annual control cycle.

“There’s evidence that the change has increased populations of quail, wild turkey, white-tailed deer and squirrels,” said Graham. “It’s a win for the co-op, it’s a win for the landowners and it’s a win for the environment.”

Like many electric cooperatives, Cooperative Energy is reducing its reliance upon pruning, cutting and mowing as primary methods of right-of-way vegetation management, and turning to resource management techniques to save money and energy.

Many G&Ts are working with the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state natural resources and environmental agencies. Cooperative Energy’s current vegetation management plan was also reviewed by environmental interest groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation. 

“We’ve worked to develop a program that’s beneficial to all involved, and that includes wildlife,” said Graham. “We’re trying to create ecosystems that support biologic diversity.”

Instead of using turf grasses, like Bermuda or Bahia, Cooperative Energy has stripped away invasive or overly dominant vegetation, enabling native grasses to recover, said Graham.

Graham and other G&T vegetation management experts now suggest that transmission right of way be viewed as natural corridors for wildlife because many easements have been in place for more than 50 years. Effective management can help make them ecological assets.

Starting small for big benefits

“Utility easements create opportunities to establish or expand habitat,” said Mace Vaughan, co-director of pollinator conservation and agricultural biodiversity for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “When you bring wildflower and plant diversity into those areas, you can make them more productive.” That means healthy new growth can be “feathered in,” featuring shorter or slower growing trees and other plants, protecting more mature forests from high winds that might topple trees into rights of way.

“No one wants trees growing up into or falling onto power lines, so we’re offering solutions that can help promote and maintain diverse ecosystems,” said Vaughan. “Encouraging growth of smaller stature shrubs helps create sunny, open meadows that support pollinators and other wildlife.”

Foresters and botanists have identified varieties of slow-growing or medium-height mature trees, flowering or fruiting shrubs, forbs, grasses and wildflowers suitable for naturalized landscaping.

When they are established along or near a utility transmission right of way, they can offer a welcoming stop for insects and animals moving along easement edges between parkland and larger, undeveloped areas.

Helping Mother Nature

Small populations of the New England cottontail, sometimes called the gray hare, have been identified from eastern New York to southeastern Maine. The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) is involved in a three-year conservation plan for the species on behalf of USDA’s Working Lands for Wildlife Program. Several utilities in the region are supporting the project in northeastern New York and six nearby states.

A major utility transmission corridor in Maine has been planted with shrubby habitat that could attract rabbits and there is evidence they are moving along the right of way and establishing new active colonies.

The challenge is finding ways to mimic nature, while controlling growth to occupy available space. Wildlife friendly habitats can be compatible with most urban and suburban homes, leaving ample room for outdoor recreation and entertaining.ν

Derrill Holly writes on cooperative issues 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.

Hiring the right contractor

By Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen

Q: We want to make renovations to our home that will improve aesthetics and overall energy efficiency. How can we make sure we hire a contractor who will do a good job and stay within our budget?

A: Great question! Renovations can be the perfect time to improve your home’s energy efficiency. To make sure you get those energy savings, it’s important to do some planning right from the beginning.

The first step is to educate yourself so you can be in control of your project. Helpful, easy-to-understand energy efficiency information is available for virtually any area of your home and any renovation project. Just be sure to use reputable sources, like, or your local electric co-op.

You’ll need that knowledge so you can judge the solutions each potential contractor proposes. Some products or methods that are sold as effective energy efficiency solutions may not work as well as they claim, or may be too expensive relative to the energy savings they provide.

It’s important to talk to your local building department to find out if your project requires a permit and inspections. Some contractors may suggest doing the work without a permit, but unpermitted work can cause problems if you need to file an insurance claim down the road or when you get ready to sell your home.

You can also use your newfound knowledge to ask the right questions of potential contractors. Ask about the product to be installed, the energy savings it should yield and whether it will improve comfort. Because energy efficiency installations and construction are specialized, most measures are unlikely to be installed correctly unless the installer has experience and hopefully some appropriate training or certification.

Finding a contractor can be a challenge, especially in rural areas. To find them, use your online search engine to “find a contractor in your area.”  If you’re in a sparsely-populated area, the right contractor may be located an hour or two away. Your electric co-op may be able to provide a list of approved contractors in your area. You can also check with a local energy auditor for contractor names.

You may decide you’d like to hire a small specialty contractor or a larger general contractor. Either way, it’s crucial to hire someone with a contractor’s license, a local business license and three types of insurance: liability, personal injury and workers’ compensation. Check references to verify the contractor has a solid history of cost-control, timeliness, good communication and excellent results, including significant energy savings. You might learn that your lowest bidder has a tendency to increase the price after the job has begun.

As you choose between contractors, quality should be an even more important consideration than price. Poor-quality energy efficiency work will not deliver maximum savings.

Once you have settled on a contractor, be sure to get a written contract. It should include “as built” details and specifications that include energy performance ratings you have researched ahead of time, such as:

• the name of the individual doing the installation

• the specific R value if you’re insulating

• the make, model, the AFUE (annual fuel use efficiency) and COP (coefficient of performance) ratings if you’re replacing a furnace (and ask that an efficiency test be conducted before and after the work)

• the make, model and EER (energy efficient ratio) rating if you are replacing the air conditioner. (Some contractors are able to check for duct leakage in the supply and return ductwork with a duct blaster if you’re doing any furnace or AC work.)

• whether the contractor must pay for the necessary building permits.

Finally, be cautious about pre-paying. Keep the upfront payment as low as possible, set benchmarks the contractor must meet to receive the next payment and make sure a reasonable amount of the payment is not due until the project is completed, passes building inspections and you are fully satisfied. If you don’t feel qualified to approve the project, you could even require testing or inspection by an independent energy auditor.

Then, enjoy your new energy efficient space!

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.

Honey Do

Honey Don’t Because honey can contain spores of clostridium botulinum, a bacteria that can make babies dangerously ill, raw honey should never be fed to children under 12 months old. Anyone with an immunodeficiency should also avoid raw honey. The mature digestive systems of healthy older children and adults can handle exposure to this bacteria, making raw honey safe for most.


Packed with health benefits and boasting a better sweet than regular sugar, honey is one of Mother Nature’s greatest gifts and should stay on your cooking “to do” list.

Honey’s sweet. We all know that. But it’s got plenty more going for it too. In fact, its very sweetness is more — more than the one-dimensional saccharine flavor of refined sugar. Its distinct taste is layered, complex, and it’s different depending on which bees made it and which flower nectar they were sippin’ on. The flavor of honey can vary greatly even from one neighborhood to the next, so just imagine the diversity in honey harvested all around our state.

From spreading it on white bread opposite peanut butter for a sandwich that surpasses your average PB&J, stirring a spoonful into hot tea or making a sticky-sweet glaze for grilled meats, honey is as versatile as it is delicious.

It’s also packed with nutrients our bodies need like vitamins B1, B2, C, B6, B5 and B3; minerals; enzymes; and antioxidants. It has anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties too. This, combined with its taste and countless kitchen uses, gives it high culinary value.

But not all honey is equal. Only raw honey is the real liquid gold. The next time you need some, take a closer look at what you’re buying. The honey you see in the grocery store may not always be 100-percent honey; some of it includes other ingredients. Plus, some honey has been pasteurized, which destroys most of its health-benefitting substances. On the flipside, raw honey is un-pasteurized and un-processed and retains all of its inherent good stuff. Raw honey has been proven to aid in digestion, strengthen your immune system, balance blood sugar and soothe a sore throat, too.

And while raw honey is great, local raw honey is even better since it contains pollen that is specific to where you live — and breathe. Some folks claim this helps lessen the effects of seasonal allergies. Plus, you’re supporting area farms and beekeepers, so it’s a win-win.

If all of this info makes you want to increase your honey consumption, you’re in luck! We got a great list of honey recipes from our readers this month.

Cook of the Month:

Victoria Motyka, Baldwin EMC

Victoria Motyka has been baking Ukrainian Honey Cake for decades. She wanted to make something sweet for her honey (her husband) whose parents came to America from Ukraine. “When we first got married, I wanted to be able to cook some dishes that he liked growing up, so I got a few recipes from his mom, and this cake is something she made often,” Motyka said. She quickly learned why the moist, spiced dessert stayed on her mother-in-law’s rotation. “It tastes great, and it’s easy to make,” she said. “It’s not a layer cake, you don’t ice it. It’s kinda their version of a brownie or a snack cake.” It has a lot of flavors, yet the honey still comes through. Motyka particularly likes the raisins, and her family likes it all. “They love it. My grown daughter now makes it herself.”

Ukrainian Honey Cake

  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
  • ½ cup golden raisins
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon (or to taste)
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg (or to taste)

Dissolve the baking soda in the sour cream and set aside. Cream the butter and brown sugar; add honey and mix well. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing between additions. Mix in the sour cream with baking soda, add the flour a little at a time, mixing slowly, then add the cinnamon and nutmeg (can be adjusted to taste) with one last mix and then fold in the walnuts and raisins. Grease a 9×12-inch baking pan and dust with flour, pour in the mixture and bake in a 325 degree oven for 50 minutes or so. It will be very dark in color when done, so be cautious not to take it out too soon. It is an unfrosted cake but a light dusting of powdered sugar can be used. Note that the walnuts are finely chopped, so be sure to warn anyone who might have a nut allergy.

Cast Iron Skillet Honey Lime Chicken 

  • 1 ½pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder

  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • ½ cup honey
  • Juice of one lime
  • Zest of one lime
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 garlic clove, minced

In a medium-sized skillet over medium heat add olive oil. In a small bowl combine cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper. Rub on chicken and place in skillet. Cook for 3-4 minutes on each side or until chicken is no longer pink and 165 degrees internal temperature. Remove chicken and set aside on plate. Add honey, lime juice and zest, soy sauce and garlic. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and reduce heat and whisk until it starts to thicken. About 2 minutes. Add the chicken back to the skillet and coat in the sauce. Garnish with lime wedges.

Mary Rich

North Alabama EC

Salted Honey Taffy

  • 1 pound real honey (about 11/2 cups)
  • Salt, to taste

Bring honey to a boil in an uncovered medium saucepan over medium heat (about 5 to 7 minutes). Continue to boil until honey registers 280 degrees on a candy thermometer (about 10 to 12 minutes). Line a pan with parchment paper and coat lightly with cooking spray. When the honey reaches temperature, pour it onto your prepared pan and allow to cool on the counter for 20-25 minutes. Spray your hands with nonstick spray and break off about a third of the cooled honey. Begin to pull and stretch the honey, continually folding it and working more air into the taffy. As you continue to pull and incorporate air into the taffy, it will start to firm up and become lighter in color. Keep doing this for about five minutes, or until taffy has lightened in color from dark amber to tan. When taffy is tan and firmed up, roll it into several long thin snakes and place these back on your parchment paper lined pan. Sprinkle with salt. Refrigerate pan for 10 minutes then use a knife coated in cooking spray to cut each taffy roll into one inch long pieces. Roll up each piece of taffy in wax paper, twisting the ends to close.

Sierra Joachim

South Alabama EC

Heavenly Honey Cake

  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup warm coffee
  • 3/4 cup fresh orange juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-inch angel food cake pan or bundt cake pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices. Make a well in the center to add the oil, honey, white and brown sugars, eggs, vanilla, coffee and orange juice. Using an electric mixer on slow speed, combine the ingredients well to make a thick batter. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Place the cake pan on a baking sheet and bake for 60 to 70 minutes. Let the cake stand for 15 minutes before removing it from the pan, then invert it onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Robin O’Sullivan

Wiregrass EC

Russian Dressing

  • ¼ cup honey
  • ½ cup catsup
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon celery seed
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder

Whisk all ingredients together. Chill and use on favorite garden salad.

Judy Self

Black Warrior EMC

Honey Graham Apple Bars


  • 1 package honey graham crackers, crushed
  • 1 1/4 cups quick oats
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup coconut oil
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1 apple, chopped


  • 8-ounces cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • Vanilla, to taste
  • Crumb Topping:
  • Honey graham crackers
  • Melted butter (just enough to make a nice crumble)
  • Cinnamon
  • Walnuts

Directions for Bars:

In a bowl, mix 1 cup graham cracker crumbs, quick oats, flour and cinnamon. In a separate bowl mix coconut oil and honey. Then add the vanilla and egg. Combine with graham cracker mixture. Add the chopped apple and chopped walnuts (reserving some walnuts for the topping). Pour into an oiled 11×6-inch pan and bake at 320 degrees.

Directions for Frosting:

Blend together the cream cheese, honey and vanilla. Frost the bars when they are done baking.

Directions for Crumb Topping:

Combine the leftover graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, cinnamon and the reserved walnuts. Sprinkle on top of the frosting.

Caleb Pittman

Joe Wheeler EMC

Honey-Balsamic-Hitachi Wings

  • 1 /2 cup honey
  • 1 cup balsamic salad dressing
  • 1/2 cup Siracha sauce
  • 2 dozen wings (drumsticks and wings)

Mix together honey, balsamic and Siracha. Put drumsticks and wings in a Ziploc bag. Shake bag to ensure wings are coated. Store in refrigerator 3 days. Shake bag periodically. To cook in the oven: Bake at 350 degrees for about 50 minutes. To cook on a gas grill: Heat two burners on high. Once the grill is hot, turn one burner off and turn the other burner to low. Place wings on no-heat side, cooking for 1 hour. Turn heat up to crisp wings. They can also be cooked in a smoker at 200 degrees for three and a half hours. Crisp under house broiler, if needed. Mix up extra sauce for dipping.

Bill Stone

Baldwin EMC

Honey Jalapeno Salmon

  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 large jalapeno, sliced
  • 2 6-ounce salmon fillets, skin removed
  • Oil
  • Salt and black pepper

Combine honey, lemon juice and jalapeno slices in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer over very low heat for 10 minutes. Rinse salmon and pat dry. Brush lightly with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill or broil for about 5 minutes each side, brushing with honey glaze. When cooked, drizzle with remaining glaze.

Julia Gibson

Tallapoosa River EC

Coming up in April…Bread!

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

May: Junior Cooks | Mar. 8

June: Heirloom Recipes | April 8

July: Frozen Treats | May. 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.

Was that a turtle I heard?



For, lo, the winter is past,

The rain is over and gone;

The Flowers appear on the earth;

The Time of the singing of birds is come,

And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land

Song of Solomon, 2:11-12

OK, I know it’s a turtledove and the dove got lost in translation, but I’m a King James Version guy. It sounds better. (Besides, as my Sunday school teacher, Miss Kling Dacy, told us after she read the verse, “If God wanted to give turtles a voice, he could.”  So there.)

But I’m not here to write about turtles, or doves, or Miss Kling (though one day I probably will). I’m here to write about spring in the South.

I love Southern springs — especially early spring, when those first flowers push up to remind us of things past. Ride around town and see paper narcissus and jonquils scattered about in vacant lots where once there were homes and people. Venture into the countryside and catch the outline of a long-gone house defined by daffodils where, years ago, a farm wife put out bulbs to add a bit of beauty to her life. Wisteria fills the air with perfume. And forsythia (or “switch bushes” as they were called in families where the parents knew nothing of Dr. Spock or “positive encouragement,” except to say that “if you do that again I’m positive I’m gonna cut one of them and lay some encouragement on you.”)

But don’t get too used to it. February thaws often lead to March freezes.  “Thunder in February, frost in April,” my Mother used to say.

Spring in the South can also make a liar out of you, as it did me once, long ago. It had been one of those wonderful late February days, bulbs were blooming, buds were budding, the earth was squishy under your feet, and the air was full of damp delights. And my friend Jim was in Iowa.

Now Jim was from Georgia, so I figured it was my Christian duty to call him up, remind him of how things were down here, needle him a little, so I did.

His wife came on the phone.

“Let me speak to Jim.”

“He can’t come right now. Our gutters froze over, one has already come down, and he is up on a ladder trying to save the others. And it’s 10 degrees. Can I have him call you back?”

Now I could have told her “No, just tell him that it is over 60 here, birds are singing, and kids are already playing baseball.” Or I could have said, “Sure, tell him to call when he gets down.” And when he did I could have described, in detail, the dandy day he missed by being up there.

But friends don’t do that to friends. In cases like this, friends lie. Which was what I did. “No,” I replied, “just tell him that we are in the middle of an ice storm and I wanted to see if things were as bad in the North.”

There was no reason to remind Jim what a Southern spring was like. Anyone who has lived through one remembers, and can’t wait for another. And a few years later Jim took a job in Mississippi – which he knew was the right decision, he told me, when the feeling returned to his fingers and toes.

And he is in the South still, just like me. And I bet, right now, he is listening out for that turtle.

Just like me.

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

Five facts you might not know about Social Security

Most people know at least something about Social Security. For decades, Social Security has been providing valuable information and tools to help you build financial security. Here’s your opportunity to find out a little more, with some lesser-known facts about Social Security.
1. Social Security pays benefits to children.
Social Security pays benefits to unmarried children whose parents are deceased, disabled, or retired. See Benefits for Children at for the specific requirements.
2. Social Security can pay benefits to parents.
Most people know that when a worker dies, we can pay benefits to surviving spouses and children. What you may not know is that under certain circumstances, we can pay benefits to a surviving parent. Read our Fact Sheet Parent’s Benefits, available at, for the details.
3. Widows’ and widowers’ payments can continue if remarriage occurs after age 60.
Remarriage ends survivor’s benefits when it occurs before age 60, but benefits can continue for marriages after age 60.
4. If a spouse draws reduced retirement benefits before starting spouse’s benefits (his or her spouse is younger), the spouse will not receive 50 percent of the worker’s benefit amount.
Your full spouse’s benefit could be up to 50 percent of your spouse’s full retirement age amount if you are full retirement age when you take it. If you qualify for your own retirement benefit and a spouse’s benefit, we always pay your own benefit first. (For example, you are eligible for $400 from your own retirement and $150 as a spouse for a total of $550.) The reduction rates for retirement and spouses benefits are different. If your spouse is younger, you cannot receive benefits unless he or she is receiving benefits (except for divorced spouses). If you took your reduced retirement first while waiting for your spouse to reach retirement age, when you add spouse’s benefits later, your own retirement portion remains reduced which causes the total retirement and spouses benefit together to total less than 50 percent of the worker’s amount. You can find out more at
5. If your spouse’s retirement benefit is higher than your retirement benefit, and he or she chooses to take reduced benefits and dies first, you will never receive more in benefits than the spouse received.
If the deceased worker started receiving retirement benefits before their full retirement age, the maximum survivors benefit is limited to what the worker would receive if they were still alive. See for a chart.

Social Security helps secure your financial future by providing the facts you need to make life’s important decisions.

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