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Farming for life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is an electric vehicle right for you?

The economics of electric vehicles are affected by geography, climate and how your electricity is generated

By Paul Wesslund

Should your next car be an electric vehicle? The answer could depend on where you live.

Electric vehicles account for just 1.2 percent of the U.S. vehicle market, but sales are booming, growing 25 percent last year. And they’re getting better and cheaper as researchers improve the batteries that power them. Here’s a guide to help you decide if an electric car is for you—or if you just want to be smarter about one of the next big things in energy.

The first thing to realize about electric cars is they can drive more than enough miles for you on a single charge, even if you live out in the wide-open countryside.

Location issue #1: the distance myth

Try keeping track of your actual daily use, advises Brian Sloboda, a program and product manager at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“If you’re an insurance salesman, you’re logging a lot of miles, so an electric car’s not going to be for you,” he says, noting that a typical range for an electric car today is over 100 miles, and ranges of 150 to 250 miles are becoming common. “But if you look at how many miles you drive in a day, for most people in the United States, even in rural areas, that number is under 40 miles per day. So if your car has a range of 120 miles, that’s a lot of wiggle room.”

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the average American drives 25 miles a day, and for rural areas, that average is 34 miles a day.

Sloboda says another reason it’s worth thinking realistically about your daily mileage comes from the most likely way an electric car would be refueled. When an electric car is done driving for the day, you can plug it in to recharge overnight. Essentially, you’re topping off the gas tank while you sleep, giving you a fully-charged battery every morning.

There are three ways to charge an electric car:

Level 1—The simplest charging technique is to plug the car into a standard home outlet. That will charge the battery at a rate that will add from two to five miles to its range each hour. That’s pretty slow, but Sloboda notes the battery might start the charging session already partly charged, depending on how far it’s driven that day.

Level 2—Faster charging will require a professional installer to upgrade the home’s voltage for a unit that will add between 10 and 25 miles of range for each hour of charging—a rate that would fully charge the battery overnight. Sloboda says installing a Level 2 charger in a house or garage would run $500 to $800 for the equipment, plus at least that much for the labor. Timers can also be used to charge the vehicle in the middle of the night when electric consumption is typically lower.

Level 3—DC fast charge requires specialized equipment more suited to public charging stations, and will bring a car battery up to 80 percent of capacity in 30 minutes. Sloboda warns this high-speed technique should only be used for special long-distance driving, since it can degrade the battery over time. That’s also why DC chargers shouldn’t be used to bring the battery up to 100 percent.

Location issue #2: off-peak electric rates

What you pay to charge your electric car could also depend on where you live, says Sloboda. He advises checking to see whether your local electric co-op offers a lower rate to charge an electric vehicle overnight, when the utility has a lower demand for electricity.

“It’s different depending on where you are in the country,” says Sloboda. Some local co-ops have fairly stable electric demand throughout a typical day, so they may not offer a special electric vehicle rate. He adds, “There are ares of the country where the on-peak, off-peak difference in price is extreme,” so that it might make financial sense for the utility to offer an overnight charging rate.

Another factor affecting the economics of an electric car is, of course, the cost of the vehicle.

“These cars are really in the luxury and performance car categories,” says Sloboda. As electric cars improve, projections put their cost coming down to match conventional vehicles by about the year 2025. But today, the average electric car costs close to $40,000, compared with less than $30,000 for an internal combustion engine.

Location issues #3 and #4: environment and geography

For many people, one of the biggest selling points for electric cars is their effect on the environment, and that can also depend on where you live.

The sources of electricity for a local utility vary across the country—some areas depend heavily on coal-fired power plants, others use larger shares of solar or wind energy. One major environmental group analyzed all those local electric utility fuel mixes, and determined that for most of the country, electric vehicles have much less of an effect on the environment than conventional vehicles. That study by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that in the middle part of the country, driving an electric vehicle has the equivalent environmental benefits of driving a gasoline-powered car that gets 41-50 miles per gallon. For much of the rest of the country, it’s like driving a car that gets well over 50 miles per gallon.

“Seventy-five percent of people now live in places where driving on electricity is cleaner than a 50 MPG gasoline car,” says the report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Other local factors that will affect an electric car’s performance include climate and geography, says Sloboda. The range of the vehicle will be affected by whether you regularly drive up and down mountains, or make a lot of use of the heater or air conditioner.

Sloboda concedes that electric vehicles are not for everybody—yet. One limit to their growth is that no major carmaker offers an especially popular choice, a pickup truck.

Sloboda says there’s no technological barrier to making an electric pickup. He even suggests possible advantages: a heavy battery in the bottom would lower the center of gravity for better handling, and at a remote worksite the battery could run power tools.

“Within the next 24 months I believe there will be a credible pickup truck on the market,” says Sloboda. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56 percent of the nation’s landscape.

Fact-checking my parents

Bob Coppedge, right, “interviews” his newborn son, Clay, for the Birmingham Post-Herald while proud mama Nancy looks on.

By Clay Coppedge

My parents and I were going through boxes of old family photographs several years ago when we came across a large glossy photo that a photographer for the Birmingham Post-Herald took either the day I was born, or maybe the day after, of me and my parents in the hospital room.

My dad was a reporter for the paper and in the picture he’s “interviewing” me, his face covered by a surgical mask, but he has his reporter’s notebook and pencil poised to take down any quotes I might want to share with his readers. I’m next to my mom, taking in the proceedings with that curious wide-eyed gaze so common to infants.  According to sources close to the situation – my parents – I didn’t have much to say.

But I later found out that my parents weren’t always the most reliable sources about such matters.

When I was a kid, maybe 10 years old, my otherwise reliable parents told me the picture ran in the paper to recognize me as “the first baby born during National Baby Week.” I was a baby among babies, they said, my arrival celebrated in the hometown paper as if I were heir to a kingdom. None of the other squalling baby boomers of the day could say they were the first baby born during National Baby Week!

And neither could I, as it turned out.

“It was a natural photo-op,” dad told me when I first asked about the picture many years ago. “I was handsome, your mother was – and is – beautiful. And you were just cute as you could be –  right up until the moment I bent over to get a good look at you and you peed in my face!”

So when I saw the picture many years later and retold the story I grew up with about how dad was “interviewing” me because I was the first baby born during National Baby Week, friends said it was a good story and congratulated me for making up such an entertaining but a ridiculous narrative. By this time I’d followed my dad’s footsteps into the newspaper business, leading him to suggest I should try my hand at fiction.

Mom wasn’t any more supportive. “You were born on a Wednesday,” she pointed out. “If National Baby Week started on Sunday, that means no babies were born for three days until you came along.”

“Besides,” dad added, piling on now, “I don’t think there’s such a thing as National Baby Week.”

So I fact-checked my parents and confirmed that there was, once upon a time, a National Baby Week. The idea came from the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in either 1914 or 1915 as “a campaign to press on the public the need for improved child-rearing, education, etc.” But National Baby Week was celebrated the first week of July, not the third week of April.

So my parents were right – they lied to me.

At some point, National Baby Week ceased to be a thing. I found a 1984 J.C. Penney TV commercial on YouTube that championed the importance of saving 20 percent during National Baby Week on “baby things, including diapers, toddler tops, shorts and dresses, night wear, underwear and sleepers, strollers and car seats.” Savings were even greater on Penney’s “best-selling baby furniture.”

But if I wasn’t the first baby born during National Baby Week – and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t – why was “Reporter Becomes Father” a story at all, much less one that warranted an accompanying photo?

“Slow news day,” dad explained. “We just ran the picture and a cutline. Sorry to break it to you like this, but to the newspaper your birth was just filler material.”

Not that I don’t hold any grudges my parents, even though I’ve fact checked them on other statements, like my mom’s belief that if your left palm itches it means you’re about to come into some money. (False.) An itchy foot means you will soon “walk on new ground.” (Also false.) An itchy back foretold “either a whippin’ or a huggin’.” Actually, that one turned out to be true, because mom always hugged me whenever I complained of an itchy back.

Besides, I’m not without fault in this regard. My daughter and I were watching a Michael Jackson video one time when she was a little girl, and his “moon walk” dazzled her to no end. I thought she knew I was kidding when I said, “Yeah, I sure had a hard time teaching him how to do that.” But she took it as further evidence of her father’s wonderfulness. Her friends at school did some fact-checking of their own and reported back to her that I was full of it. Just kidding, I said, but she held it against me for at least a few weeks.

But I’m through fact-checking my parents because the one true thing they always told me was how much they loved me, even if I wasn’t the first baby born during National Baby Week, and that one never needed any verification.

Former Alabama resident Clay Coppedge is a Texas-based writer and author of four books and a memoir.

Beyond the Polka: Accordion aficionados keep squeezebox’s legacy alive

Frank Caravella, president of the Alabama Accordionists’ Association, played in Las Vegas clubs and ballrooms in the accordion’s heyday. Photo by Danny Weston

By Aaron Tanner

Once a popular and even glamorous instrument, the accordion fell out of favor over the years, as rock ’n’ roll came to dominate the musical landscape. But some Alabama musicians are working to promote the once noble squeezebox by introducing its versatile sounds to some who’ve never heard one performed live.

Members of the Alabama Accordionists’ Association gather not just to play, but to promote the “orchestra in a box,” so named because of its portability and ability to play a wide range of notes. Such versatility makes it useful as a solo instrument as well as part of an orchestra. “It is a perfect instrument,” says Craig Funderburg, who is in charge of organizing concerts sponsored by the organization.

Every genre of music features the accordion, from Latin and Big Band to Zydeco. The instrument is also prevalent in many countries other than the United States, such as China and Italy, where a majority of the world’s accordions are manufactured.

And the accordion has experienced a bit of a comeback in today’s popular music. Several current acts, such as Arcade Fire and The Lumineers, feature the accordion, perhaps because of its retro style and sound that makes it stand out from string-based instruments.

Alabama Accordion Club from AREA on Vimeo.

Association President Frank Caravella remembers the heyday of the accordion, when he played at some of the most popular parties at Las Vegas clubs and ballrooms. One of his favorites was the Polish-American Club, where the lively atmosphere allowed him to entertain the audience while they mingled throughout the evening. “Great fun and good money for the venue,” Caravella says.

The rise in the popularity of rock music, coupled with the relative affordability of guitars, took a toll on the beloved accordion – by the 1960s and ’70s, fewer students were interested in learning it.

“Some people have never heard an accordion,” Funderburg says. “Most people in the United States have never been educated about the accordion and what makes it the most perfectly designed musical instrument.”

But association members are working to educate young people by visiting schools across the state. Caravella gave concerts at a couple of elementary schools in Morgan County this past November, showing the youngsters how an accordion works. Both students and teachers enjoyed his performance.

“Most of the children and adults have never heard an accordion live – in concert,” Caravella says. “So when we show up for a performance or class, it is something new and different.”

The organization also hosts concerts for the general public. Last year’s concert featuring Canadian accordionist Michael Bridge was so popular with audiences who saw the first show that some stayed for his second performance that same evening. “You just don’t hear these types of concerts very often,” Caravella says.

A new generation

Though many association members are older, they are influencing some younger folks to play the instrument. Current UAB student Terence Penn was inspired by one of the organization’s concerts to learn the instrument as a way of getting back into music after taking a hiatus to focus on his studies.

“I thought it was a neat opportunity to learn a relatively uncommon instrument that utilizes my background in piano and music theory,” says Penn, who is currently taking lessons from one of the association’s members.

As a kid, Kyle Owen of Madison was encouraged by Funderburg, along with his own self-motivation, to pursue learning the accordion after deciding to move beyond the toy version his mom bought him. “I didn’t want to just make noise on the toy accordion, I wanted to make real music,” Owen says.

There are different reasons why people choose to play the accordion over a more familiar instrument, such as a piano or a saxophone. For Owen, he plays to stand apart as a musician. “Being unique is what defines me.”

Caravella continues performing for the joy it brings him. “Any musician worth his salt plays his instrument for the love of the music,” he says.

For Mike Hymes of Trussville, playing the accordion is a way of honoring the memory of his mother, who was part of a traveling band in the Caribbean with her cousin. “They were quite the entertainers back then,” says Hymes, who inherited his mom’s 1940s-era accordion.

As the accordion slowly regains popularity thanks to the newer digital models that can produce sounds electronically, Caravella is optimistic that future generations will decide to play the same instrument he started learning over half a century ago.

The Alabama Accordionists’ Association has members of all ages and skill levels. To learn more about the group and their yearly concert series, visit their website at


South Forty: steaks, burgers and more

The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner five days a week to hungry patrons in Conecuh County.

By Allison Law

Most folks don’t venture into the restaurant industry during their retirement years. But for Don White, the decision to start running a restaurant was rooted in a desire to help his family as well as a commitment to the little community he calls home.

White’s investment in the South Forty restaurant, which is served by Southern Pine EC, has been a boon to the tiny town of Repton in Conecuh County, population 282. There are few dining options around, and to have a place that serves a variety of hot, tasty food three times a day is invaluable.

“It’s been very good to us, and we’ve enjoyed it,” White says.

After he retired from the railroad, he and his wife, Patricia, wanted to help their sons get started with a business. The idea was for them to buy the existing South Forty restaurant, work together as a family to build up the customer base, and then White would step back to let the younger generation take over.

But sons and their families found success in other businesses. Many of them still help out at the restaurant, so it’s very much a family affair, but no one is really in a position to take over full time. So White has put it up for sale, but has had to counter the rumor that he was going to close the restaurant.

“I told my wife, it won’t sell overnight. You’ve got to be patient and wait. Somebody will come in and buy it. You’ve got to find somebody who wants to step out on a limb. We definitely stepped out on a limb.”

He’s been approached by a couple who asked if he would stay on while if they purchased the restaurant. He has no problem with that, he says; he wants to see someone succeed. “You work 10 years for something, then to just watch it go down? I don’t want that.”

Steaks, burgers and more 

A full pound of hamburger steak with gravy and onions is one of the many dinner options available at South Forty.

The prices at South Forty are tough to beat: A 16-ounce ribeye with a side, beverage and a salad is just over $20. White can keep his costs down, thanks to family members who pitch in to help; because he has his retirement from the railroad, the restaurant isn’t his main source of income.

“I’ve got one up on everybody else, because I can set my prices like I want,” he says, but that doesn’t mean he skimps on the quality of the food.

The South Forty’s steaks, which are fresh cut weekly, are popular choices, but burgers are his biggest sellers. These are no skimpy patties: they’re one-pound, all-beef burgers. “When I bought (the restaurant), people said, don’t change them,” and he hasn’t.

Besides the beef burgers and ribeye steaks, there are dinners featuring catfish, chicken tenders, fantail shrimp, country fried steak and more; appetizers (including the “South Forty Roundup” – homemade potato slices loaded with cheese, bacon bits and chives, a holdover from the previous owner); sandwiches; and loaded baked potatoes.

And there are salads, including the “Trashcan Salad,” another holdover from the previous owner, with grilled and fried chicken, popcorn shrimp, ham and turkey.

“How she came up with that name, I don’t know! The salad is huge – you cannot eat the whole thing,” White says, laughing.

It’s about community

White is proud of the charitable contributions South Forty makes – “probably more than we should.” They donate mostly to local causes and organizations, and have been known to comp the meals of first responders as well a few folks, “who, you know they’ve been through a lot.”

One of those folks was Steve Fugate, known as the “Love Life guy,” who lost a son to suicide and daughter to an accidental overdose. Fugate has walked across the country multiple times to spread his message of loving life, and to use his tragedies as a way to encourage others.

His travels took him near the South Forty, and when White’s family saw him, they fixed a meal for him. Fugate made an impression on White, who felt moved to contribute toward his cause; Fugate, in turn, mentioned South Forty in his book.

Given its rural location, the patrons are mostly locals; White says To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee and her sister, Alice, would come to eat from nearby Monroeville, “and nobody would bother them.”

Perhaps the Lee sisters also liked the friendliness of the staff. “We put an emphasis on friendliness and pleasing the customer,” he says. Whatever the complaint, White says they’ll make it right.

“If they’re not happy, they’re not coming back. If you don’t have repeat customers, especially in a small place like this,” you won’t succeed.

Taste, don’t waste: Group raises awareness of less popular fish

Derek Johnson with Reel Surprise Charters shows off a porgy caught while fishing in the Gulf of Mexico south of Orange Beach, Ala. Photo by John N. Felsher

Growing up in South Louisiana, where people eat anything that doesn’t eat them first and some things that do, I tasted about every fish species found in the Gulf of Mexico or associated waters. Some I only tried once. Some I spit out about as fast as it hit my tongue.

But there’s a group based in Gulf Shores that wants people to try different species of fish, like jack crevalle. Large, hard-fighting sport fish that can challenge any fishing tackle with lightning runs and devastating strikes, jack crevalle seldom show up on dinner plates because most people believe that the bloody red flesh makes them unpalatable.

Chris Sherrill, the executive chef at Coastal restaurant ( in Gulf Shores, and Chandra Wright want to change that perception. They co-founded the Nuisance Underutilized Invasive Sustainable Available Noble Culinary Endeavors, or NUISANCE Group, to convince more people to eat underutilized species like jacks, bonito and others that most anglers consider “trash fish.”

“Our purpose is to raise awareness of flora and fauna that are a nuisance, underutilized or invasive, but sustainable and available through noble, culinary endeavors,” Wright says. “Sometimes, people look at us like we’re crazy when we offer them a piece of jack crevalle to eat, but we want to educate people on eating these fish and show them how to treat and prepare them. When prepared certain ways, many underutilized species can be quite tasty. Not too many years ago, most people considered redfish trash fish and didn’t eat them.”

If people eat more undesirable species like jacks, Sherrill and Wright say, that might take pressure off popular species like red snapper, grouper, redfish and speckled trout. Also, catching something different to bring home for the table could give recreational anglers, charter captains and even commercial fishermen more opportunities to keep different kinds of fish.

When they first started the group, Wright challenged Sherrill to invent a recipe that would make jack crevalle appetizing so they could serve it to a congressional staff delegation visiting the Alabama coast. A friend brought the chef a jack to prepare. When cleaning it, Chris noticed that the meat looks similar to beef, so he decided to treat it like beef. He cut the dark red bloodline out of the meat and marinated it.

“Jack crevalle has been our biggest surprise,” the chef admits. “I thought it was inedible, but the bloody red flesh looks like raw beef. If we cubed it, marinated it like steak and grilled it medium rare, it might taste like steak, I thought. We did and it came out beyond anyone’s expectations. We had to check to make sure nobody slipped in some prime rib, it was so good.”

Now, the chef experiments with many other less desirable fish. He frequently offers samples to his friends, usually without telling them the species until after they taste it. Some other underutilized species include stingrays, pinfish, scorpionfish, bearded brotula, gafftopsail catfish, porgies and others.

“I’m the guinea pig-in-chief,” Wright says. “I’m the one who gets to eat all the weird stuff Chris cooks to see how it tastes. Many less desirable fish are wasted. If people realized how good they are to eat if prepared properly, they might be more likely to keep some for the table.”

The group especially wants to promote lionfish as a delicacy. Native to the Pacific and Indian oceans, beautiful but dangerous lionfish invaded the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico a few years ago, probably as aquarium fish released into the wild. Highly prolific with no natural predators on this side of the world, lionfish multiplied and spread rapidly. Now, they displace or eat many native species.

“Lionfish are terribly voracious and prolific invasive species that eat just about anything and outcompete many native species for space and food,” Wright warns. “It’s a huge threat to native species in the Gulf of Mexico. We want to wipe them out here. They are delicious, but people need to handle them with care. They have 18 venomous spines that people need to avoid. The meat is not poisonous and is very white, flaky and delicious. People can fix it a variety of ways.”

Not everything makes the dinner table menu, despite the chef’s best efforts. For instance, he doesn’t like hardhead catfish, a well-known bait-stealing pest. I tried hardheads – once!

“I’m still on the edge with hardhead catfish,” Sherrill says. “When it’s ultra-fresh, it has some firmness to it, but it deteriorates rapidly. Another chef made some ceviche and cured hardhead catfish in lots of citrus juices to make it more firm. It’s pretty good with that, but it’s still probably my least favorite fish along with skipjack or ladyfish.”

Feel like eating something new? Some anglers bring their catches to the restaurant to ask Chef Chris to cook it for them. For more information on the NUISANCE Group, see its Facebook page at or email

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

Understanding your energy bill can help you save

This is an image of an externally-fitted A/C heat pump. For many homes, heating and cooling require more energy than any other end use.

Q: Every month, I look over my electric bill, but a lot of it doesn’t make sense to me. Is there information included on my bill that can help me save money?

A: It’s always a good idea to understand how you’re spending your money. You look over your credit card statement carefully each month, so you should do the same with your utility bills. As you’d suspect, analyzing your bill can help you save energy and money.

If you live in an all-electric home, all of your home energy costs will be on the monthly bill from your electric cooperative. This bill will probably have one or more fixed charges that cover some of the costs your co-op incurs in delivering the power to your home.

Beyond these fixed fees, you will pay for the power you have used that month, which is sold in kilowatt-hour (kWh) units. One kWh is equal to 1,000 watts over a one-hour period.  Think of 10 100-watt lights that are used for one hour. Most electric co-ops charge the same rate for a kWh no matter when you use it, but some offer a Time-of-Use rate that is higher during peak energy hours – when the wholesale price of electricity is higher because there’s greater demand.

Some co-ops have different rates for different use tiers, so the rate could be higher or lower as monthly use increases. Electric rates can also vary by season and cost more during high-use months.

If you’re being charged more for energy use during On-Peak hours, you can often adjust the time you use certain appliances and equipment, like your dishwasher, air conditioner, clothes washer or oven to Off-Peak hours. This won’t reduce your electric use, but it can save you money if your co-op offers a Time-of-Use rate.

Most energy bills include a chart that shows your electric use over the past 12 months. If your home is electrically heated, you will see how much your use goes up in the winter. This chart can also show how much your use goes up during the summer when you’re running your air conditioner.

Your electric co-op may offer tools on their website to help you track energy use and estimate how much you use for space heating, air conditioning and water heating, which are often the three largest energy uses. Knowing how much you spend on heating or cooling can help you determine how much you might save by installing a new heat pump or other energy efficiency upgrade.

Some co-ops also offer online energy audit tools that provide ways to reduce energy costs based on a detailed set of questions about your home. If your co-op doesn’t offer an online audit tool, or if you want a different perspective, you can try the ENERGYSTAR Home Energy Yardstick at

This resource can give you a good idea of your space heating and cooling use without using an online tool. Just total up your average electricity use for the months when you use the most energy and subtract the average amount you use in “shoulder months” – when you’re not cooling or heating your home. The difference is likely the amount you pay each month for heating and cooling.

If someone says switching to a new heating or cooling system could save you 20 percent, they may mean you can save 20 percent on heating or cooling costs. Some homes also have significant uses besides heating and cooling that increase their winter or summer bills, like a well pump, spa or swimming pool.

You may receive a separate monthly bill for natural gas, or for propane or heating oil, which might be delivered on an as-needed, keep-filled basis. The Home Energy Yardstick can accommodate any type of fuel you use in your home.

I hope this information can help you analyze your energy bill and give you some general ideas on how you might be able to cut your energy expenses. The best way to turn these ideas into specific actions is to conduct an energy audit of your home. Contact your electric co-op to see if they offer free energy audits or if they can recommend a local professional.

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency. For more information on understanding your utility bill, 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.

Alabama tourism increased by $1 billion in 2017

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

By the Alabama Tourism Department

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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