A total eclipse of the sun will be visible across all North America on Monday, Aug. 21, weather permitting. The entire continent will experience a partial eclipse lasting two to three hours. Anyone within a 70-mile wide path stretching through 14 states from Oregon to South Carolina will experience a total eclipse. In Alabama, the eclipse will be partial.
If you travel to a state where the eclipse will be total (the closest are Tennessee, northeast Georgia and South Carolina), the moon will completely block the sun’s face for about two minutes — day will turn into night, making visible the otherwise hidden solar corona, the sun’s outer atmosphere. Bright stars and planets will become visible. Birds will fly to their nighttime roosts, and nocturnal insects such as cicadas and crickets will buzz and chirp.
The little town of Woodville in Jackson County might be the last place you’d expect to find a restaurant that serves pizza made with love by a family from Chicago.
Joe’s Pizza is a small building with only a few places for sitting, both inside and outside, but it is big on cranking out delicious food to nearby residents who crowd the place for a nice take-home meal, and tourists accessing nearby kayaking, fishing and caving spots in this scenic region of northeast Alabama.
Manager Mary Thompson is hard at work, running the cash register, taking orders, making the food and talking with customers. In the back, Thompson’s parents, Alvaro and Diane Ramos, make the orders and operate the ovens. Due to the limited space, the majority of customers place their order to go either at the cash register or over the phone.
Although Thompson and her siblings were born and raised in the Windy City, their family has roots in the Paint Rock Valley. Her mother was born and raised in New Hope in nearby Madison County and her uncle lives in Woodville.
A mother’s dream
After spending many years in Chicago, Thompson and her immediate family moved to Woodville in 2000 to be closer to her mom’s family and hometown.
Her mom had a dream to open her own restaurant. Her years in Chicago – one of the nation’s holy cities for pizza – exposed her to a variety of pizza restaurants. She also wanted to work with family. The restaurant business may be in the blood; her brother, Thompson’s uncle, owned a restaurant of his own at the time.
In 2003, Thompson’s brother, Jose Vigenor, made mom’s dream come true by buying an old restaurant that served the community for many years. Today, Vigenor is the part owner of Joe’s Pizza. Many of Thompson’s family members, along with non-family members, have kept Joe’s Pizza going over the years.
Although there are challenges to working closely with family, Thompson would not have it any other way. “I wouldn’t work with anyone else,” she says. “We get a flow going.”
The pizza choices are simple at Joe’s – the only options are either adding toppings to a cheese pizza or ordering their legendary supreme pizza, which includes sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, green olives, black olives and anchovies. As the sign outside points out, the dough is made from scratch daily. The combination of fresh dough and ingredients makes Joe’s supreme pizza their best-selling item.
Another best-seller is the muffuletta. This giant sandwich includes a blend of sliced pastrami, ham, salami, pepperoni, Swiss cheese and olives. The juices from the meats and the tanginess of the olives melt together in the oven, bringing a bit of the Gulf Coast to the Cumberland Plateau.
Thompson’s mother decided to add the New Orleans staple to the menu after taking a trip to the city. “She tried one and she loved it, so she wanted to put it on the menu,” says Thompson, who takes pride in her muffulettas going toe to toe with those in larger cities.
Wings and catfish, too
Not in the mood for pizza or a sandwich? Joe’s also has homemade chicken wings, lasagna and spaghetti. Of course, no restaurant based in the South would be complete without southern fried catfish. Thompson says many are surprised when they see catfish on their menu, but it is a case of appealing to the local clientele. “It’s a Southern favorite, so we like to cater to our customers,” Thompson says.
Joe’s Pizza has gained many regulars over the years, thanks to great customer service and the friendly atmosphere. “I love meeting new people and getting to know their stories,” Thompson says. “It’s not just about cooking.”
Thompson points out that running a pizza restaurant in a small town like Woodville allows Joe’s to offer a quality product in an area served by few restaurants, and that the same process would be harder to replicate back in Chicago. “People (in Chicago) want what’s convenient,” Thompson says.
Many who travel through this region often pass by Joe’s Pizza before giving the place a try. “They (the customers) keep saying ‘we want to stop’,” says Thompson. “It’s kind of a hole-in-the-wall.”
But the number of cars that fill the gravel parking lot for lunch and dinner are proof enough that Joe’s Pizza is a place worth stopping by and eating like one of the “locals.”
The other day was the anniversary of the birth or death or something-or-other of Willis Carrier.
And who, pray tell, was Willis Carrier?
Why the inventor of air conditioning, that’s who.
Down here in Dixie we should celebrate. Our states should declare a holiday. We should have a big cookout – and eat inside.
Because we have air conditioning.
Think about it.
Without Willis Carrier and his invention, our cities would be villages, our villages would be hovels, our people would be lazy, lethargic, languid much of the year. Factories would be sweat-shops (literally) and the rate of heat-induced assaults and murders would skyrocket.
We owe a lot to Willis Carrier.
For my part, I thank Willis Carrier for a good night’s sleep.
Those of us of a certain age can recall summers down south.
As children, we spent days in the sun and shade, barefoot and (for the boys) shirtless, getting that brownish-red pre-cancerous glow that sends us to the dermatologist today. There were creeks and ponds for swimming, hoses for water fights, and all those things we look back on with rose-tinted tenacity, convincing ourselves that the good old days were really good.
In this nostalgia, we often forget that when night fell, we were inside where the air was hot and heavy, where hardly a breeze stirred, where even a fan (if you had one) brought little relief.
Nights so hot that at bedtime you would take ice cubes, wrap them in a wash rag, and hold them to your cheek or chest in the mistaken belief that if you could get one part of your body cold the rest of you would cool down enough to let you sleep.
What you got instead was a wet pillow or wet sheets.
My first air conditioning experience was at the movies, which became our summer retreat from the heat. Then stores took it up. Then churches. Some congregations had to overcome the belief that heat was part of God’s Plan and should be endured, not overcome. Sitting hot through a sermon was a test of faith.
But in time, congregations apparently concluded that air conditioning was also part of that same Plan and went along with it.
Houses were the last to join the movement, but when they did, the window unit became a status symbol not unlike the TV antenna. If you had both, you had arrived.
The change air conditioning wrought was most evident in Southern cities, where instead of windows to raise and draw in a breeze, new buildings included immovable glass that reflected light and heat away from what went on in the cool inside. It is hard to imagine what Birmingham would look like today, much less Mobile, if there was no air conditioning.
But air conditioning has altered more than architecture. It has changed the rhythm of what has been called the “Southern way of life.” Folks stay sealed in their climate controlled cocoons, rather than sit on the porch or in the back yard in sweaty splendor talking with neighbors and family.
It has been suggested that air conditioning has helped bring about the Americanization of Dixie. Surely it has.
Yet one wonders if air conditioning has made modern Southerners more like other Americans, or made them less like Southerners who came before?
On the other hand, we sleep better on hot summer nights.
Salads are sound choices for the season’s profusion of produce
Salads of all stripes are ideal meals for this time of year. For one, they are wonderful ways to make the most of the best foods that summers in the South offer us: sweet, crunchy corn; cool, juicy watermelon; crisp peppers; refreshing cucumber; the bright perfumes of fresh herbs like basil and mint; plus, plump, scarlet tomatoes and pop-in-your-mouth peas.
Salads are also pretty simple to throw together (and simple to eat), keeping the easy feel of a lazy summer day intact. Many involve little to no cooking, so you won’t add a lot of heat to your house and tax your AC even further.
Even though those with additions like bacon, mayo and cheese are definitely not diet food, they’re still “lighter” – at least in feel – than a lot of other options. And salads should no longer be seen as only a side dish; some can hold their own in the center of the plate and shine as a main meal, especially if you embellish them with some extra protein like grilled chicken or shrimp.
Finally, they’re incredibly versatile. You can take any one of this month’s reader-submitted recipes for summer salads and put your own spin on it by omitting or adding ingredients without fear of failure. Anything goes!
Cook of the month
Donna James, Cullman EC
Donna James’ Cornbread Salad combines several of summer’s darlings in one substantial dish. She got the recipe from her daughter, who got it from a friend, who got it from her mother, and she shares it every time she gets a request, which is often. “It has been passed around a lot,” she says.
She loves its popularity at parties and potlucks, but she also loves how simple it truly is. “There are no fancy ingredients. You probably have most of this in your pantry or fridge,” she says. “And, you can really change it up any way you like to suit what you and your family enjoy.”
Donna prefers red pepper to the green the recipe calls for, and if you don’t like pepper, period, she says, “leave it out.” You can also “lighten up” the recipe by subbing in low-fat cheese, low-cal dressing and less bacon.
1-2 tomatoes, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
1 15-ounce can whole kernel corn, drained
1 15-ounce can chili beans, drained
1 bottle Hidden Valley Ranch dressing
2 cups shredded cheese
4-5 strips of crumbled bacon or one 4.5-ounce package of real bacon bits
Dash of granulated garlic or garlic salt
Make a medium-sized pan of cornbread in your favorite cast iron skillet. Allow to cool for a few minutes. In a 13x9x2-inch rectangular casserole dish, layer one-half of the cornbread, tomatoes, onion, green bell pepper, corn, chili beans, cheese, ranch dressing, and a dash of granulated garlic or garlic salt. Repeat a second layer with remaining ingredients and top with crumbled bacon. This recipe is best chilled overnight, but may be served after chilling a couple of hours.
Spinach Salad with Honey Dressing
1 11-ounce can mandarin oranges, drained
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup toasted cashews, pecans or sunflower seeds
1/2 cup mayonnaise
Brown mustard, to taste
Honey, to taste
Milk, until creamy
To make the Honey Dressing, start with ½ cup mayonnaise. Stir in 1 teaspoon of brown mustard and honey to your preference. Stir in milk until creamy. Toss with spinach, mandarin oranges, raisins and nuts or seeds just before serving.
Tallapoosa River EC
2 11-ounce cans shoe peg corn
2 10-ounce cans original Rotel tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
3 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and chopped (cutting out the seeds makes the salad less watery)
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
2 tablespoons white vinegar
Squirt of mustard (yellow, Dijon, or spicy)
Mix together all ingredients in bowl with sealable lid. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Salad tastes better if made the day before serving.
Frozen Cranberry Banana Salad
1 20-ounce can crushed pineapple
5 medium firm bananas, halved lengthwise and sliced
1 16-ounce can whole berry cranberry sauce
½ cup sugar
½ cup chopped pecans
1 12-ounce carton frozen whipped topping, thawed
Drain and save pineapple juice in a medium bowl, set juice aside. Slice bananas and add to juice to coat. In a large bowl, combine cranberry sauce and sugar. Mix well. Remove bananas; discard juice and add bananas to cranberry mixture. Stir in pecans, pineapple and cool whip (do not beat). Pour into a 13×9-inch glass dish. Freeze until solid. Cut into squares and serve frozen. Yields 12-16 servings.
1 can green beans, drained
1 can yellow wax beans, drained
1 pound carrots, thinly sliced and blanched
2 small purple onions, thinly sliced
1 bell pepper (any color), sliced
1 cup white vinegar
½ cup canola oil
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup sugar
Pepper, to taste
Layer vegetables in a bowl with a tight fitting lid. Pour dressing over vegetables and marinate overnight. Great with steaks, hamburgers or ribs.
Simple Summer Salad
2 cups fresh strawberries, halved
2 cups fresh blueberries
½ cup crushed pineapple
1 cup plain yogurt
1-2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 tablespoon frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed
Dash of nutmeg
Chill until ready to serve. Combine and serve immediately.
Pea River EC
Watermelon Mint Salad
4 cups watermelon, seeded and cubed into bite-sized chunks
3 cups seedless cucumber, cubed smaller than the watermelon
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 bunch fresh mint, chopped
Salt and pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
In a large bowl, gently mix watermelon and cucumber. Carefully add feta and mint to the mix. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and a splash of vinegar. Toss gently together and serve cold. Double the recipe for a crowd.
Grilled Vegetable Salad with Fresh Basil Vinaigrette
½ cup chopped fresh basil
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup olive oil
2 medium zucchini, sliced ¼-inch thick
2 medium yellow squash, sliced ¼-inch thick
1 Vidalia onion, sliced ¼-inch thick
1 large eggplant cut lengthwise ¼-inch thick
In a blender, combine basil, lemon juice and zest, salt and pepper. Blend until smooth. With blender running, slowly add oil. Set vinaigrette aside. Lightly grease a grill pan over medium heat. Grill vegetables in batches 4-5 minutes per side or until tender. Serve vegetables warm with basil vinaigrette.
Fried Okra Salad
1½ pounds breaded frozen (or fresh) okra
2 large tomatoes, chopped
½ green bell pepper, diced
1 bunch green onions, diced
6 slices of bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled
1 can shoe peg corn, drained
1 cucumber, chopped
½ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup distilled white vinegar
Fry okra in oil according to package directions and drain on paper towels. In a medium bowl, combine okra, tomatoes, bell pepper, green onions, bacon, shoe peg corn and cucumber. In a small saucepan combine oil, sugar and vinegar. Cook over medium heat, stirring often until sugar dissolves. Pour over okra mixture and toss gently. Serve.
Watermelon and Blueberry Salad
1 tablespoon honey
3/4 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh mint
2 cups watermelon, seeded and chopped
1 cup fresh blueberries
Combine honey, lemon juice and mint. Toss with watermelon and blueberries.
Ellis Reed, age 8
Tallapoosa River EC
Recipe Themes and Deadlines:
October. Pies Aug. 8
November. Sweet potatoes Sept. 8
December. Edible gifts Oct. 8
Please send us your original recipes, developed by you or family members, and not ones copied from a book or magazine. You may adapt a recipe from another source by changing as little as the amount of one ingredient. Cook of the Month winners will receive $50, and may win “Cook of the Month” only once per calendar year.
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.
It pays to keep a careful eye on your earnings record
By Kylle’ McKinney
Whether you’re ready to retire, just joining the workforce, or somewhere in between, regularly reviewing your Social Security earnings record could make a big difference when it’s time to collect your retirement benefits.
Just think, in some situations, if an employer did not properly report just one year of your work earnings to us, your future benefit payments from Social Security could be close to $100 per month less than they should be. Over the course of a lifetime, that could cost you tens of thousands of dollars in retirement or other benefits to which you are entitled.
Social Security prevents many mistakes from ever appearing on your earnings record. On average, we process about 236 million W-2 wage reports from employers, representing more than $5 trillion in earnings. More than 98 percent of these wages are successfully posted with little problem.
But it’s ultimately the responsibility of your employers to provide accurate earnings information to Social Security so you get credit for the contributions you’ve made through payroll taxes. We rely on you to inform us of any errors or omissions. You’re the only person who can look at your lifetime earnings record and verify that it’s complete and correct.
So, what’s the easiest and most efficient way to validate your earnings record?
Sooner is definitely better when it comes to identifying and reporting problems with your earnings record. As time passes, you may no longer have past tax documents and some employers may no longer be in business or able to provide past payroll information.
If it turns out everything in your earnings record is correct, you can use the information and our online calculators at www.socialsecurity.gov/planners/benefitcalculators.html to plan for your retirement and prepare for the unexpected, such as becoming disabled or leaving behind survivors. We use your top 35 years of earnings when we calculate your benefit amounts. You can learn more about how your benefit amount is calculated at www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10070.pdf.
We’re with you throughout life’s journey, from starting your first job to receiving your well-earned first retirement payment. Learn more about the services we provide online at www.socialsecurity.gov/onlineservices.
The lack of primary care physician service in rural Alabama is well documented. Fifty-two of Alabama’s 54 rural counties are currently classified by the Health Resources and Services Administration as having a shortage of such physician service.
When a county or sub-county area is classified as a shortage area for the provision of primary care, this means that there are not enough primary care physicians providing service for the area’s population to meet the minimal needs, much less optimal needs. It is estimated that Alabama needs an additional approximately 150 primary care physicians, placed where they are needed the most, to satisfy our minimal needs or approximately 450 to meet our optimal needs.
Add to this current shortage the fact that we are experiencing the “Aging of Alabama.” The Alabama Rural Health Association conducted a study in 2009 through which it was conservatively estimated that there could be the demand for an additional 1,785,000 office visits to primary care physicians each year by 2025. This increase is mainly due to the aging of our residents and the fact that the presence of chronic diseases increases with age.
One solution to reduce the shortage involves the use of nurse practitioners (and other advanced practice providers) so they can practice to the full extent of their education and training. I have visited every medical clinic in 51 of our 54 rural counties to learn more about local health care issues. I have seen physicians and nurse practitioners working together, giving each other needed time off from a demanding schedule, expanding clinical hours for patients who need to be seen outside of the traditional workday, and expanding days of clinical operation to include weekends in many rural locations.
Alabama is still considered to be one of the more restrictive states for the practice of nurse practitioners. Additionally, reimbursement for nurse practitioners remains at some of the lowest levels – as low as 70 percent of the reimbursement that a physician receives for the same service.
Alabama has many rural areas that lack the population to attract full-time physician services. The need for local health care is great in these areas and could be provided by nurse practitioners (and other advanced practice providers), especially if some practice requirements were relaxed. One barrier to expanding this service is the current requirements for having collaborative practice agreements with physicians working with nurse practitioners.
All nurse practitioners are required to work with a collaborating physician. The physician must be in the practice location with the nurse practitioner, including patient records review, for a minimum of 10 percent of the nurse practitioner’s practice time. This requirement is relaxed to include quarterly contact after the nurse practitioner has been practicing for two years.
Most nurse practitioners and collaborating physicians report that they enjoy and their patients benefit from their affiliation. However, the 10 percent direct supervision time requirement prevents many rural physicians from collaborating with nurse practitioners because of this demand on their own practice time. Also, one physician can only work with four full-time nurse practitioners. This rule especially impacts on greater utilization of nurse practitioners in our rural areas because of the smaller number of physicians practicing in rural areas.
With the expansion of telemedicine in Alabama, perhaps other ways can be found to increase the provision of primary care services by nurse practitioners (and other advanced practice providers) in rural areas, including in rural hospital emergency departments. Alabama’s health care needs are greater than those in most other states. Alabama needs to become a leader in more fully utilizing our limited health care provider resources.
Dale Quinney is executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, 1414 Elba Highway, Troy, 36081.
Whether grilled or fried, wings or strips, there’s no doubt that Alabamians cherish America’s most popular entrée — chicken.
Meeting that demand is no small feat, and thousands of Alabama farm families raise poultry. Some farmers grow pullets, or young hens, to produce eggs for broiler, or meat-type, operations. There are also a small number of table egg producers in the state who produce eggs for grocery stores and restaurants. However, most Alabama farm families grow broilers, pushing the state to its number 2 ranking in U.S. broiler production.
One of these families, Chris and Monica Carroll of Ozark, has been raising broilers for 17 years. While Chris is a sixth-generation cattle farmer, poultry was a new endeavor for his family, who are members of Pea River Electric Cooperative.
“We built four broiler houses when our daughter Brittany was born in 2000,” Chris says. “I wanted Monica to come home to the farm and spend time with our kids.”
Monica was no stranger to agriculture. Her interest began when her sister brought home an animal science book in college.
“The more I learned about agriculture the more I became interested,” she says. “I asked myself why wouldn’t I want to be involved in ag? It’s an industry that affects us every single day. That moment marked a new beginning for me.”
Monica graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science from Auburn University in 1996. At Auburn, she met and married Chris, a ’95 animal science graduate. While Chris was on the farm, Monica worked for the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service.
“One day Chris started giving me hay-raking lessons, and next thing I knew he was asking me to come home and farm,” Monica says. “He joked that I was a harder worker than anyone he ever hired!”
The addition of poultry houses proved successful for the Carrolls’ farm.
A $15.1 billion impact on the economy
“Diversification in agriculture is important,” Chris says. “One year crop or cattle prices may drop or weather conditions may cause losses. While the overhead costs were high, the steady income poultry provides has been great for our family and our business.”
Not only has poultry been positive for farmers, it has become Alabama’s No. 1 agricultural industry. Poultry has a $15.1 billion impact on the state’s economy and employs more than 86,000 people, according to the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association (AP&EA).
The Carrolls and other chicken farmers who grow broilers partner with one of 11 broiler companies in Alabama. The commercial poultry industry is vertically integrated – farmers grow birds on a contract basis with a poultry company. The company supplies the chicks to the farm, and the farmer is responsible for the feed and care of the birds for approximately six or seven weeks. Farmers are paid for the weight gained by the flock, which serves as an incentive to provide maximum care, according to the National Chicken Council.
“Alabamians should feel confident in purchasing poultry products because of the ideal conditions in which we raise chickens,” said Ray Hilburn, AP&EA associate director.
Chris said farmers keep the birds’ climate regulated while providing feed and clean water.
“When the chickens first come to us, the florescent lights in the houses are extremely bright and the temperature is around 90 degrees,” Chris says.
As the chickens get older, the lights are dimmed and the temperature is reduced to provide ideal growing conditions for the birds.
Keeping up with thousands of chickens at once is demanding, but technology has made the growing process smoother.
Even with automated fans, heaters, water and feed lines, the farmers’ care and observation skills play an important role.
New technologies and some old-fashioned tricks have allowed the Carrolls to reduce their environmental impact across the entire farm.
Peanut hulls are readily available in the booming peanut-producing Wiregrass area, and the Carrolls recycle this material as bedding for their poultry houses. After each flock, the Carrolls place clean, dry peanut hulls on the floors, and apply the used hulls and manure as a natural fertilizer for their row crops.
A safe, affordable food product is top priority
The Carrolls focus on reducing their environmental footprint by using recycled motor oil to heat the houses.
“We collect used motor oil from a local trucking company, the Dale County school bus barn and an oil-change shop in town. We burn the used oil through a clean-burn heater so the fumes never go into the chicken houses,” Chris says. “Overall, we are leaving an extremely small footprint on the environment with our houses.”
Using these methods to create a safe, affordable food product is the Carrolls’ No. 1 priority.
“Everyone who works in our chicken house has to take a test from the poultry company regarding proper chicken care and production,” Monica says. “I don’t mind taking these tests because I want to produce the safest food possible. This is the food I feed my family. We would not grow a product that we wouldn’t eat ourselves.”
By the year 2050, farmers will need to produce enough food to feed 9 billion people, according to world food experts. Hilburn said poultry could play a large role in solving this challenge.
“There are some people around the world who live on nothing but beans and rice,” Hilburn says. “The demand for poultry will continue to increase as the middle class around the world grows and the population rises. People need a safe, inexpensive protein to consume.”
Chris echoed these sentiments.
“Poultry is a less expensive protein source than beef or pork,” Chris says. “Poultry is a good fit for Alabama’s climate, and I believe we will play a significant role in feeding the world through this industry.”
Although feeding the world seems overwhelming, the future for the poultry industry in Alabama is bright. At the beginning of the year, a 50,000-square-foot feed mill was opened near the Ozark area. This $55 million investment created 80 new jobs at the plant and 165 new poultry houses will be built as a result.
The Carrolls’ son, Blake, is a rising ninth-grader at Ariton High School. He plans to become a full-time farmer after attending college.
“I know kids in Blake’s generation are unsure if they can make a living in farming,” Monica says. “I truly believe they can if they use creative ways to cut input costs like we have. The population is multiplying, and we need young folks to consider production agriculture to help meet the demand for safe, affordable food.”
In addition to full-time farming, the Carrolls are involved with the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Auburn University College of Agriculture’s Alumni Association and advocating for agriculture at local schools. Chris also serves as the Dale County District 1 Commissioner and the Dale County Farmers Federation President.
Farmers see increased interest in natural growing methods
By M.J. Ellington
An Elmore County farmer said he wanted a theological reason to explain his career choice, so he got a master’s degree from Duke Divinity School so he could explain his decision.
“I felt called to farm and I needed to have a theological basis for my decision,” Charles Walters said. The son of cattle farmers in Linden, Walters grew up hearing his parents talk about the challenges of his career choice.
Walters bought a former brick manufacturer’s worn-out clay field near the Alabama River. Years of clay and soil removal by the brick company had left the property lacking in nutrients to support healthy plant and animal life.
Four years ago, Walters began rebuilding the land with truckloads of ground pecan shell compost, humus and manure to make the soil healthy. Now Walters grows produce and raises cattle and chickens to sell on the 28-acre organic River Oaks Farm, now a certified organic operation.
Richard Dean observed small farmers’ ancient growing practices while he and his wife, Jodi, were teachers in China. Now Dean and his business partner, Tyson Rogers, own five-acre Gold Branch Farm near Deatsville, a member of Central Alabama EC. They grow lettuce and other leafy produce, vegetables and fruit trees with natural growing methods and no artificial chemicals.
Dean said Alabama farmland is often thin as a result of intense heat and many years of farming. It normally takes about seven years with natural growing methods for the artificial chemicals to be filtered out of the soil. “Compost is our number No. 1 thing to help build healthy soil that retains nutrients and moisture that often washes away from soil that is unhealthy,” he says.
In North Alabama, soil scientist Karen Wynne agrees. She puts organic farming methods she teaches to practice in the food her family grows on 25-acre Rosita’s Farm near Hartselle, a member of Joe Wheeler EMC. Wynne also owns Crotovina, a company that provides technical assistance, planning and development support to small farms across the Southeast.
At all three operations, the farmers emphasize building the soil naturally, practicing minimal tilling and planting fill crops that nourish the soil and retard weed growth in months between growing seasons. Their methods are tools that even people with tiny backyard gardens can use to have healthy soil without artificial chemicals.
Kirk Iverson, an Auburn-based soil scientist who works with Auburn University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on sustainable farming projects, said Alabama’s hot weather makes farming a challenge.
“The state’s intense heat can break down the organic matter that is the key to healthy soil,” Iverson says. “The key things to make our soil healthy are organic matter and good farming practices. It’s also important to test the soil to know any nutrients you may need to add.”
Both Iverson and Wynne said it’s better to do minimal tilling instead of stripping away all spent crops or weeds from previous growing seasons, and to mulch or plant cover crops. Minimal tilling helps vegetation decompose naturally between growing seasons while fill crops hold moisture and nutrients and reduce erosion, they said.
Wynne says soil is “the earth’s natural carbon dioxide filtration system, it feeds us and it can help mitigate climate change. We need to look at long-term soil sustainability.”
In town, Wynne says property owners can have healthier soil by setting the lawn mower to cut the grass a little higher, and planting low-growing plants that will help keep nutrients in the soil.
The farmers from Gold Branch and River Oaks sell what they grow at local farmers markets, helping to meet a growing consumer demand for food grown locally.
U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show that the number of farmers markets nationally increased 93.3 percent between 2006 and 2014. Agriculture and Industries Commissioner John McMillan said in Alabama, farmers markets increased from 17 statewide in 1999 to 164 today.
As interest in farmers market shopping has increased, so have the number of small, natural growing farms. In a state where large commercial farms became the norm in the past 20 years, small family-owned operations seemed at risk of dying out. But the consumer push to eat locally grown and organic foods has helped increased interest in the industry in Alabama.
Iverson, Wynne and Walters are on the governing board of the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network. Founded in 2001, ASAN is a resource for more than 2,000 farms, ranches, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and households interested in sustainable agriculture.
Northwest Alabama’s Life Data Labs helps horses around the world
By Jennifer Crossley Howard
On first stepping into the manufacturing plant at Life Data Labs, the clean, earthy aroma of teatree oil and alfalfa remind you of a natural foods store. But this place is actually one of the most sought-after animal nutrition and healthcare product businesses in the world.
The majority of its clients are concentrated in the United States and the United Kingdom, and the bestselling products are made in Cherokee, Ala., population: 1,050.
Along this three-mile stretch on U.S. 72 in western Colbert County sit the manufacturing and office headquarters of Life Data Labs, the efforts of a local veterinarian who took a chance on an idea.
In the 1980s, Dr. Frank Gravlee decided to give up animal medicine to study a supplement that nourishes and strengthens horse hooves. Called Farrier’s Formula, it is the business’ top selling product and is sold in more than 40 countries. Its name is an ode to specialists who care for horse hooves.
The heart of Gravlee’s business philosophy harkens back to the one he started his journey for: the horse.
“Dr. Gravlee has always said if you help a horse, he’ll help you back,” says Darryl Spencer, chief financial officer of Life Data Labs.
Gravlee’s business acumen follows a similar notion. Its marriage of local business and forward-thinking practices, such as solar energy that drives production and vacuum-sealed products to preserve shelf life, are what distinguish Life Data Labs.
A yard full of solar panels sit out back, but today it is cloudy. Spencer said determining how to store energy to use on such days is on the list of things to do.
“On sunny days, we make more energy than we can use,” he said.
The Northeast and California are the business’ biggest U.S. markets. Clients include breeders, rodeo trainers in Texas and quarter horse owners in the Shoals who ride the trails.
The brand’s logo that adorns most of its slick packaging — an engraved drawing of a stepping horse — fits the business’ nod to old-school values and dedication to the future. It would look at home in the yellowed pages of an animal anatomy book.
But for all its global reach, some of the most loyal customers of Life Data live down the road in and around northwest Alabama. The Robbins family that operates the Bluewater Creek Polo Club in Killen uses it on their horses, as does Bob Baffert, a thoroughbred trainer in California, whose horses have won Kentucky Derbies and Triple Crowns.
As a story of risk typically goes, critics first underestimated Gravlee when he debuted Farrier’s Formula.
“When he first developed this formula, he called it Skin and Coat,” Spencer says. “Tack stores wouldn’t sell it, so he went it to the state farrier organization.”
Changing the name to Farrier’s Formula helped by appealing to a hardworking trade, Spencer says. Farriers shoe horses every six weeks, and found Gravlee’s formula worked and liked that it was made in state.
A horse’s livelihood depends on its hooves. Properly tending to six-inch hooves that support a thousand-pound animal makes the difference between a healthy horse and one prone to illness.
“If you don’t have strong, healthy hooves, your horse is going to get down very quickly,” Spencer says.
Successful formula expands
The success of the original Farrier’s Formula led to the debut of Farrier’s Formula Double Strength Plus Joint in November.
Much of Gravlee’s research was done on site and at nearby Rosetrail Stables, a 12-acre horse farm where he studied and cared for animals from birth to maturity. His son, Scott, also a veterinarian, does most of the research now.
In Alabama, and the rest of the country, Life Data Labs sells through farriers, veterinary offices and tack and feed stores such as the Colbert Farmers Cooperative in Tuscumbia.
The Shoals boasts a thriving equine community, including a rescue home in rural Florence, says Brandi Robbins, an employee at the co-op. Horse care makes up 90 percent of business. Her brother is a farrier who’s a fan of Life Data.
“It’s one of the few foot supplements we carry because it’s local,” Robbins says. “Everybody likes local stuff, and this is a good product.”
Life Data Labs follows a streamlined business plan and employs 15 workers.
Though machinery in such factories has replaced millions of jobs in recent decades, Dr. Gravlee’s philosophy finds a balance between maintaining jobs while looking to the future.
“If we get to the point we need to hire more people, we think, is there anything we can do to make our equipment more efficient, because you can pay people more to run a machine than supervise other people,” Spencer says.
This local business is one that intends to stay stateside, specifically in Alabama. Warehouses in Canada and the United Kingdom could grow, but production will remain in the Yellowhammer State.
“I anticipate all manufacturing to continue here, forever,” Spencer says. “You can’t outsource quality. If we have any plans to expand, we will do it here.”