Intrepid reporter: Avoid floating masses of fire ants

One would think that if a large newspaper company were going to rewrite press releases sent to them – rather than going out and finding news stories – it could do so in an intelligent manner.

A reporter for al.com, which is the website for several publications, including Alabama newspapers the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register and the Huntsville Times, apparently decided the recent arrival of Tropical Storm Cindy, with its potential for flooding, would be a good opportunity to rewrite a release from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System on the dangers of fire ants.

Fire ants, of course, aren’t daunted by flooding, as they ball together by the thousands during floods, making small rafts that enable them to survive for considerable periods until they find dry land.

According to the al.com story, “If a person encounters one of these floating balls of fire ants, it can be seriously bad news, causing potentially serious health problems not to mention many painful bites.”

Anyone living in the South who isn’t aware that a floating mass of fire ants is bad news either just stepped off the plane from an Inuit enclave in northern Canada or has serious short- and long-term memory issues.

And it isn’t the bite of fire ants that is so much bothersome as the other end of the critter; the fire ant has a sharp stinger on its rear, connected to an internal venom sac.

Among advice al.com included, directly quoting the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service release, was the following:

During times of flooding, avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants; and if you are in a rowboat, do not touch the ants with oars.

It’s understood that newspapers cater to a sixth-grade reading level, but even in sixth grade, when I happened to live along the Mississippi River, I knew you didn’t mess with fire ants, never mind a floating mass of the pernicious devils.

To be told to avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants is akin to being instructed not to stare directly into the sun with a pair of high-powered binoculars.

If all this seems nitpicky, remember that the fire ant that today has spread throughout the Southern US, the Southwestern US and California, came into the United States through the port of Mobile in the 1930s. One would expect a story from a site representing in part the Mobile Press-Register to have a pretty good understanding of the facts regarding this invasive and painful nuisance.

(Top: Fire ants grouped together floating on water.)

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Clear waters increase visibility to shipwrecks on Lake Michigan

For much of the year, visibility on Lake Michigan is obscured by either ice in the winter or algae blooms in warmer months. There is a window in the spring, however, when the water is unusually clear and a variety of shallow-water shipwrecks can be viewed from the air.

The US Coast Guard Air Station in Traverse City has noted that this is the time of year when crystal-clear water conditions allow sunken vessels to be spied from above during routine patrols.

Two years ago, Coast Guard officials came across several shipwrecks in the area near Sleeping Bear Point known as the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve, which is “one of the richest areas in Michigan for shipwreck diving,” according to the preserve’s website.

The lumber industry put the area on a shipping route. The North and South Manitou Islands, just north of the point, provided a somewhat sheltered area for ships hiding from storms, according to Smithsonian.com.

Map of Lake Michigan.

It is estimated that 6,000 ships have been lost on the Great Lakes over the years, with approximately 1,500 of these vessels having gone down in the waters of Lake Michigan, according to National Public Radio.

Of course, far more shipwrecks are beyond viewing. The lake, which covers more than 22,000 square miles, has an average depth of nearly 280 feet and reaches down to more than 900 feet in some locations.

While not much is known about many of the wrecks, a large number of which sank in the 19th century, they do include the James McBride, believed to be the first to carry cargo from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Michigan in 1848. The vessel,  a 121-foot brig, ran aground during a storm on Oct. 19, 1857, and her remains lie in 5 to 15 feet of water.

Like other Great Lakes, visibility on Lake Michigan decreases as the year goes on, due to algal blooms fueled by agricultural runoff. Warmer temperatures will likely nurture the blooms and obscure the wrecks in the summer, according to Smithsonian.com.

(Top: Shipwreck off the shore of Lake Michigan. Image taken in the spring of 2015 by US Coast Guard Air Station in Traverse City.)

Trying to recollect memories of fabled Milk Farm Restaurant

davis-1-23-2017-015For more than 50 years I’ve passed the old Milk Farm Restaurant sign near Dixon, Calif. The visits are less frequent these days, occurring on trips West when I visit family, but each time as I head along Interstate 80 south of Sacramento I see the venerable marker, all that remains of the once-famous eatery.

Those not conversant with area history have no way of knowing that the site was once one of the busiest stops between the state capital and San Francisco, where thousands were served weekly.

The 100-foot sign, topped with a cow jumping over a moon, once lit up with neon so vivid that it pierced the thick winter fog of the Sacramento Valley.

In my memory, I couldn’t recall the restaurant ever being open, and supposed that it had closed sometime in the 1960s. My parents said they had taken me there when I was around 18 months old, which would have been around the start of 1966. Yet, I would pass the site dozens of times in later years and could not remember the restaurant in operation, or even what it looked like.

So it was somewhat startling to find out that the Milk Farm, which began serving customers in 1919, remained in business until 1986.

Old Milk Farm Restaurant sign, Dixon, Calif.

Old Milk Farm Restaurant sign, Dixon, Calif.

Just down the road was another famous restaurant, the Nut Tree, in Vacaville, which operated from 1921 through 1996. I clearly recall that location and stopping there on more than one occasion. But the Milk Farm remains a void, except for driving past its iconic sign each time I headed north to such places as Davis, Sacramento or Lake Tahoe.

Fortunately, the world does not base historical judgment on what this author does or does not remember.

The Milk Farm began in 1919 as Hess Station, named for local rancher Karl Hess, who rented cabins to travelers in the days before motels.

The site was beside the old Lincoln Highway – Highway 40 – which was later expanded and renamed I-80.

Hess was apparently quite a promoter: he held milk-drinking contests, sold inexpensive chicken dinners and offered “all-you-can-drink” milk for 10 cents. He also helped make a named for the town of Dixon, where my grandfather and other family members attended high school, as the heart of the California dairy industry.

In 1938, Homer Henderson and his wife bought Hess Station and renamed it the Milk Farm. They added the cow logo which can be seen on the sign today.

“Stables, gas stations, an orange juice stand and a new restaurant all contributed to the Milk Farm being labeled ‘America’s Most Unique Highway Restaurant’ and to features on the radio and in such national publications as the Saturday Evening Post,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Celebrity visitors including crooner Bing Crosby, boxer Jack Dempsey and California Gov. and future US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

The sign still visible today was erected in 1963 at a cost of $78,000, no mean sum more than 50 years ago.

The restaurant was eventually done in by rising food prices and increased competition, particularly from fast-food chains.

It closed in 1986 following damage from a violent windstorm and never reopened. In time, vagrants began inhabiting the structure, and in 2000 what remained of the building was razed.

Only the sign remains, a witness to the pre-chain-restaurant era, when part of the fun of vacationing involved the journey itself, and eateries put more emphasis on the quality of their food than on gimmicks used to lure travelers inside.

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.

Sweet potatoes

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

feed a bee

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.”