Old country home slowly fading into history

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In my neck of the woods, the above is what we call a “fixer-upper.”

Safe to say it will require just a bit of reconstruction, perhaps beginning with new walls, new roof, new windows, and a rebuilt chimney. However, the granite block foundation remains as solid as when the home was build more than a century ago.

This could have once been the home of a sharecropper or tenant farmer, or it may have been owned by the individual who farmed the land around it. Whatever the case, the structure looks to have been vacant for at least a quarter century.

Located in rural Saluda County, SC, it will almost certainly continue to deteriorate. It would be far less expensive to simply replace this structure with a new, modern home rather than attempt to make the wholesale repairs needed to get within earshot of bringing it up to code.

These decaying edifices can be spotted throughout the rural South. Some are used for storage, others, in somewhat better condition, are still habitations, even though they lack many of the amenities common in cities and suburbs.

Many are on the slow path to oblivion. As they deteriorate, wood, tin and stone are often scavenged for use elsewhere. Eventually, little or nothing remains and vegetation eventually covers over any reminder of the homestead.

These old houses are sometimes romanticized by individuals passing by on drives through the country, but to those who grew up in such shacks, particularly if conditions were like those experienced by many poor sharecropper families, the memories are often less than rosy.

Beware the remorseless vine that ate the South

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Among that which marks the onset of spring in the South is the arrival of wisteria and kudzu. The first is an attractive flowering plant that is in bloom just a short time, while the latter is an unattractive weed that pretty much takes over everything and anything in its path.

Both are vines, but kudzu has become a symbol of the South, given its propensity to engulf stands of trees, signage, telephone poles, abandoned vehicles, homes, barns, loitering youth, etc.

Native to Asia, kudzu was introduced to the US as an ornamental bush at the Philadelphia Continental Exposition in 1876. During the Great Depression, it was “rebranded” as a means for farmers to stop soil erosion.

Close-up of kudzu in Beaufort, SC. Photo by CJ Dietrich, aka Cotton Boll Jr.

Close-up of kudzu in Beaufort, SC. Photo by CJ Dietrich, aka Cotton Boll Jr.

Southern farmers were given about $8 dollars an acre to sow topsoil with the vine and more than 1 million acres of kudzu were planted. As a result, millions of acres of land in the South and beyond are today covered with the invasive vine.

Kudzu isn’t all bad; it adds nitrogen to the soil and can be eaten by grazing animals such as sheep and goats. The vine also has medicinal uses.

However, it competes with native species and tends to take over land, blocking out competitors.

Today, not even 150 years after its introduction to the US, kudzu is as much a staple of the Southern US as swamps, slash pine and seersucker suits.

(Top: Kudzu evident in rural area, with small cabin in middle completely overgrown.)

A reminder of the golden age of sweet potato farming

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Located in a rural area of Lexington County, SC, is a dilapidated sweet potato drying house. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a sweet potato drying house, welcome to the club. I, too, had no idea such a structure existed until I happened across it recently.

From its appearance, it’s safe to say that it’s been many a year since any sweet potatoes were cured in the rectangular wooden structure. The building has a single door, four openings in the roof, and four small windows and one larger window. It was definitely not built for comfort.

Estimating its age is inexact at best, but because it was built with round-headed nails it was almost certainly built after 1890 and, from its appearance, most likely before World War I.

The structure recently achieved higher visibility because, after many years of being surrounded by thick woods, the land surrounding it was cleared, leaving it sitting in the open.

When constructed, sweet potatoes were a staple of the American diet. At the beginning of the 20th century the tubers were the second most-important root crop in the nation. Per-capita consumption of sweet potatoes in 1920 was 31 pounds, but by the start of the 21st century that figure had dwindled to just 4 pounds per person, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Storing sweet potatoes is a relatively straightforward. The bottom line is to cure the tubers, than keep the potatoes dry, to fend off rot, and prevent them from getting too warm or too cold.

The main goal behind curing is to heal injuries so that sweet potatoes remain in good condition for marketing during the winter and to preserve “seed” roots for the next crop, according to the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Georgia College of Agriculture.

Healing takes place rapidly at 85 degrees Fahrenheit and between 85 to 90 percent humidity, for four to seven days.

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Sweet potatoes in all their glory.

“Curing should start as soon after harvest as possible to heal injuries before disease-producing organisms gain entrance,” according to the Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. “Healing involves production of cells that are very much like the skin in their ability to prevent infection. These new cells form in a layer just below the surface of the injuries. Because this layer is corky, it is commonly called wound cork. Healing is more rapid under clean cuts and skinned areas than in deep wounds where tissue is crushed. The rate of healing differs a little among varieties.”

In the above structure, heaters and exhaust flues were used to promote circulation, remove excessive condensation and prevent accumulation of carbon dioxide produced by sweet potato roots.

The four holes in the roof were used to vent the flues.

After the tubers were cured, the temperature in the storage house was brought down to a narrow range of between 55 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit, with relative humidity maintained at between 85 and 90 percent.

Much below that and sweet potatoes experienced an increased susceptibility to rot and discoloration, and the quality of roots was diminished, hurting their ability to produce sprouts when planted the following season.

It’s unclear how common standalone sweet potato drying houses were. It’s likely most individuals who raised the tubers simply relied on earthen structures, whether dug into banks or put into holes then simply covered with dirt.

Standalone structures like the one shown above would likely have been used by more than one farmer, a cooperative of sorts, or by an individual with an extremely large spread.

(Top: Old sweet potato drying house, located in rural Lexington County, SC, west of Columbia.)

Feed a Bee program results in 65 million+ new flowers in US

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More than 65 million flowers were planted in 2015 as part of initiative to feed honey bees and other pollinating insects across the United States.

More than 250,000 consumers and 70 organizations took part in Bayer’s Feed a Bee initiative last year, according to Southeast Farm Press.

When bees have access to adequate, diverse food sources they are better able to withstand the stresses caused by the Varroa mite, as well as other mites and diseases, according to recent studies.

The Varroa mite attaches itself to the body of the honey bee and weakens the bee by sucking hemolymph, the fluid which circulates in the bodies of insects. This can cause problems such as the deformed wing virus to spread throughout hives and can ultimately result in a hive’s death.

Through Feed a Bee, Bayer is working to increase forage options for bees and other pollinators at a time when agriculture is relying on them more to help produce enough food to feed a growing world population, the publication noted.

“When we talk to the public, the most common question we hear is, ‘What can I do to help bees?’ Providing pollinators with abundant, diverse food sources is one of the most important things we can all do to promote bee health,” according to Becky Langer, manager of the North American Bee Care Program.

“We created Feed a Bee to make it easy for people to be involved, and we are delighted with the overwhelming response,” she added. “We look forward to getting even more people involved this year.”

Honey bees play a critical role in pollinating many of the fruits, nuts and vegetables which contribute to a healthy, nutritious diet. Given the important role bees play in US agriculture, Bayer undertook the Feed a Bee initiative to help the insects thrive.

“Lack of diverse food sources is a major obstacle to improving honey bee health,” according to the Feed a Bee website. “Quite simply, bees do not have access to all the pollen and nectar sources that they need.”

Feed a Bee seeks to create forage areas with a wide range of bee-attractant plants. It also strives to educate consumers about pollinator food shortages and works with them to plant tens of millions of flowers to increase bee-forage areas.

“We’ve seen some great news in pollinator health in the past year from increasing population numbers to heightened involvement from consumers and other stakeholders,” said Jim Blome, president and CEO of Crop Science, a division of Bayer. “We still have much work to do to ensure the future health of our honey bee colonies, but we hope the foundation we have from Feed a Bee will continue to bring more partners to the table.”

Antiquated sign reflection of state of rural South

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It’s difficult to tell not only the last time the Ridge Café’s sign was operational, but when the restaurant itself, located in Ridge Spring, SC, was even open for business.

Nevertheless, the sign is a classic:

“Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner”

“Steaks”

“Restaurant”

“Air Conditioned”

“Main St.”

“Open”

That’s a whole lot to pack in, as it appears every thing except perhaps “Steaks” once could be lit up with neon. There are even arrows along the front edge of the sign that would have pointed prospective diners to the entrance.

An indication of how old the sign itself is can be seen in the words “air conditioned.” Today, we take for granted the existence of air conditioning in any dining establishment in this neck of the woods. There was a time, however, when being able to boast of such an amenity was no small deal, especially on a scorching summer afternoon in the Deep South.

The opportunity to gather and discuss cotton prices, the weather or what the yahoos running the state in Columbia were up to would have been especially welcome in a nice air-conditioned café before taking to the fields or after a day spent working under the sweltering sun.

Sadly, the town has seen better days, much like the café.

At one time Ridge Spring had its own bank – the People’s Bank of Ridge Spring – where farmers could deposit earnings from cotton sales and borrow money for seed for the coming season. Now it’s just one of hundreds of branches of a North Carolina-based financial institution.

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Pecans truffles growing in status with Southern gourmets

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They may not have the allure of white truffles found in northern Italy, but pecan truffles are growing in popularity among Southern US gastronomes.

Pecan truffles, first discovered in the 1980s, are a growing commodity in Georgia, and they’re catching on with gourmets, who are increasingly experimenting with them.

Dr. Tim Brenneman, a University of Georgia plant pathologist, has researched pecan truffles since he discovered them in the mid 1980s. His research involves inoculating trees with the fungus responsible for truffles, according to Southeast Farm Press.

“Right now, the main limitation for truffles is lack of consistent availability,” Brenneman said. “They’re underground; they’re hard to find. We’re doing research on producing truffles more consistently by inoculating trees with the fungus, and then, when you plant the trees, it may take a while, but they will eventually start growing truffles on their roots.”

While white truffles sell for as much as $1,200 a pound wholesale, pecan truffles are a little more affordable, going for between $200 and $300 a pound, according to Southeast Farm Press.

As an ectomycorrhizal fungi, truffles are often found near tree roots.

Pecan truffles vary in color from light to dark brown, and range in size from a small ball bearing up to a golf ball, with some occasionally larger. Most will have lobes and irregularities, and have a conspicuously “marbled” appearance with alternating streaks of brown and white.

The hard part, as with more expensive varieties, is locating the esteemed fungi. Now, just as in Europe, individuals are turning to truffle dogs.

“In the past, nearly all of the truffles we had in Georgia were just found by people going out with rakes during late summer at pecan harvest, when the truffles were being exposed, and picking them up,” Brenneman said. “Having dogs that are specifically trained for these truffles really helps find the truffles. It also improves the quality of truffles found because they’re locating the mature truffles. The dogs just go to the ones that have the strongest odor, and those are the most mature truffles and most desired by the chefs using them.”

There is high demand for truffles, especially from chefs, but there are only a few people marketing truffles and not a large supply.

Brenneman first discovered pecan truffles in the soil around pecan trees in commercial orchards in south Georgia. It also has been found in Texas and Florida.

It thrives in some pecan orchards and, in favorable years, can be found readily. Some growers report sweeping them up with the pecans at harvest, only to separate them out with sticks, rocks and other debris, and disposing of them.

Brenneman noted that it is very different from renowned white and black truffles, found primarily in Europe. The pecan truffles is a unique fungus with a flavor and texture all its own.

(Top: Pecan truffles shown amid pecans in a south Georgia orchard. Photo credit: Dr. Tim Brenneman.)

Using cannon, drones and ingenuity to stop cotton pests

Pink bollworms have been a longstanding nightmare for western cotton farmers.

The insects lay eggs in cotton bolls and when the larvae hatch they burrow through the lint, to feed on seeds. This damages both fiber and seed oil. With high humidity, it only takes one or two larvae to destroy an entire boll because damaged bolls are vulnerable to infection by boll rot fungi, according to the University of California at Davis.

The National Cotton Council estimates that pink bollworms costs US cotton producers more than $32 million each year in control costs and yield losses.

The United States Department of Agriculture has long used an ingenious program, called sterile insect technique, to stem pink bollworm infestations.

Pink bollworms are raised, fed a diet of red dye, giving them a permanent, unnatural color, blasted with radiation to make them sterile and released near infestations of cotton-eating pink bollworms.

The sterile bollworms mate with the fertile pink bollworms, which fools the latter into a false state of pregnancy. As a result, an entire generation of bollworms die off without reproducing.

Pink bollworm larve on cotton boll.

Pink bollworm larvae on cotton boll.

The program, begun in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the mid-1960s, originally relied on the use of small aircraft to distribute irradiated pink bollworms. Now a pilot program has them being fired from cannon attached to drones onto cotton fields.

“Drones are a cheaper delivery method than the manual throw-moths-out-of-a-small airplane method that has been used in the past, so if the tests continue to go well, you might be seeing more moths flying out of drones in the future,” according to Popular Science.

Pink bollworms are found in West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and northern Mexico.

Sterile moths are raised and irradiated at the Pink Bollworm Rearing Facility in Phoenix, Ariz., then shipped to Shafter, Calif., for aerial release in the San Joaquin Valley, where more than 90 percent of California’s cotton is grown.

One of the great benefits of the program is that it doesn’t use pesticides, benefiting the environment.

(HT: Eideard)