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Take a Walk on the Wildflower Side

TN state naturalist visiting Edgar Evins and Rock Island for public hikes

Looking to amplify your sense of Upper Cumberland feral floral appreciation? Then take note of a couple guided walks through the Eastern Highland Rim woods coming up this weekend.

On Saturday, Tennessee State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath will lead an interpretive wildflower hike at Edgar Evins State Park. On Sunday, he’ll do another at Rock Island State Park. Both events are free.

A lifelong Tennessean and three-decade veteran of the state park system, Hedgepath is expert at explaining the fascinating finer details of plants and wildlife and special features on Volunteer State public lands, from Mountain City to Memphis.

State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath

Hedgepath, a graduate of UT-Martin, worked for a number of years at South Cumberland State Park and Radnor Lake State Park. Based now in Montgomery Bell State Park, he travels the state putting on educational programs and guided hikes. Hedgepath is “one of the most sought after interpretive specialists in the southeastern United States,” according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

“Wildflowers will be starting, although it may be a little early for some species,” Hedgepath said of the upcoming Edgar Evins and Rock Island treks. “But there will certainly be things to look at.”

At Evins State Park, Hedgepath will lead participants on an eight-mile tromp around the Merritt Ridge trail overlooking Center Hill’s emerald depths. He anticipates trout lilies and trilliums will have commenced painting the Highland Rim’s rolling slopes with spring color.

Worth mentioning is that merely to access the 5.5-mile Merritt Ridge Loop requires an initial mile-and-a-half investment on the Millennium Trail. “The walk is a little bit lengthy,” Hedgepath said. “Of course, if someone wants a shorter walk they can accompany us for a shorter distance and then turn back.”

At Rock Island, Hedgepath is planning an amiable 1.5-mile amble along the Downstream Trail to Blue Hole. The trail hugs the gushing Caney Fork just before it slackens into the Center Hill pool.

Twin Falls at Rock Island State Park

In addition to the dazzling spectacle of 80-foot Twin Falls across the river, Rock Island’s Downstream trail soaks up a lot of sunshine that warms the soil and beckons forth blooms. It therefore proffers the region’s best bet for glimpsing early-bird bursts of vernal hues.

“Wildflowers are always earlier on that trail than any other that I know of,” said Hedgepath. “The trail is truly beautiful. Hopefully there will be some trilliums and spring beauties and other early wildflowers out that day.”

If you’re interested in signing up for one of Hedgepath’s walks — or inquiring about other park activities — contact Rock Island State Park directly at (931) 686-2471, or Edgar Evins State Park at (931) 858-2115. Email Randy Hedgepath at randy.hedgepath@tn.gov.

Most all of Tennessee’s 56 state parks are hosting free guided hikes on March 18 “to celebrate the coming of spring and the bounty of recreation opportunities state parks offer,” according to a TDEC press release. The parks have information pages and event calendars at tnstateparks.com.

“For 80 years our state park system has created outdoor adventures and recreational opportunities for all Tennesseans,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner of parks and conservation. “We are always excited to highlight our state’s beauty and special stories.”

For a full list of all planned hikes for March 18, go here.

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New State Natural Area Opening in April

Window Cliffs area offers yet another scenic attraction to region

Outdoor enthusiasts will soon have another remarkable Upper Cumberland landform to behold and appreciate.

Located in Putnam County — southwest of Cookeville and a bit north-northwest of Burgess Falls — the newly designated Window Cliffs State Natural Area is scheduled to open to the public Friday, April 7.

The trailhead address is 8400 Old Cane Creek Rd., Baxter.

The 275-acre haven of Highland Rim splendor promises yet another splendid hiking getaway for a region already brimming with robust outdoor recreation opportunities.

“It is a spectacular area in terms of scenery,” said state naturalist Randy Hedgepath, who leads tours and directs nature-education programs on public lands around Tennessee.

“You have a bluff that separates the upstream and downstream parts of the creek there,” Hedgepath said. “The bluff has eroded from both sides causing an opening to develop — hence the name ‘Window Cliffs.’ It is also a beautiful area of native forests. The stream that runs through the area and the rock formations are really pretty.”

The eight-mile trail at Window Cliffs — which crosses Cane Creek a number of times within the area’s boundaries — will supply visitors with ample opportunity for birdwatching, flower-gazing, woods wandering, animal observing and vista viewing.

The gemstone of the natural area of course is the age-hewn limestone pinnacle hemmed in by an oxbow bend along Cane Creek, which empties into Center Hill Lake a couple miles downstream.

“At the narrowest point, the cliff is only about 50 yards wide at the base with the clifftops just a few feet wide,” according to a survey-description by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees state parks and natural areas. “However, the stream distance separating the two cliff-faces is about 0.8 mile. The narrow cliffs have resulted from erosion and natural bridges or ‘windows’ appear within them.”

The area will compliment Burgess Falls in superb fashion, said state park manager Bill Summers. Like Burgess Falls, Window Cliffs will be a day-use area only.

Whereas the foot trail above Burgess Falls is relatively easy and short, the trek from trailhead to the Window Cliffs is a “fairly strenuous” four miles each way, said Summers.

“You start the hike on the Highland Rim, then descend into the Central Basin, then back up onto the Highland Rim,” he said. “We are rating it strenuous because of the elevation change and the nine creek crossings.”

“There’s a steep ascent toward the top of the Window Cliffs,” he added.

Summers does not doubt that the area will draw crowds, though — both because of the landscape and “a rare botanical area along the cliffs and on top of the cliffs,” he said.

The area is special for “the uniqueness of the scenery and rarity of the plant species,” said Summers, who has headed ranger operations at Burgess Falls State Park since 2004.

Plans have been in the works for the state to acquire the area for many years, but didn’t come to fruition until the last three years, with the help of the Land Trust of Tennessee, he said.

Summers noted that visitors to the area won’t be allowed to climb the distinctive rock formations due both to safety and conservation concerns. “The window cliffs are limestone, and the limestone is very fragile. Just by touching it it falls apart,” he said. “The trail doesn’t go through the windows because the rock will fall apart and the trail would become very unstable.”

A grand opening ceremony for the Window Cliffs State Natural Area is tentatively scheduled for April 7.

Emily Parish, who works for the nonprofit Land Trust, describes the limestone crags and window-arch as “a one-of-a-kind thing.”

“As you’re hiking along it almost feels like they appear out of nowhere,” she said. “It is a nice surprise when you get to the end when you see those cliffs. It will just be a really pretty place for people to visit.”

Parish said the Land Trust is just recently putting the finishing touches on the property purchases to complete the area. She noted that locals have been visiting the cliffs for years, despite it being private property.

“A lot of people have been going there for a long time, perhaps not legally,” she said. “But now they will be able to go see it without trespassing.”

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York Loves His Crappie Job

Customers biting on Carthage angler’s hand-tied fishing jigs

If you happen unannounced by Darryl York’s little backyard workshop just west of Carthage, don’t be surprised if you encounter a “Gone Fishing” sign.

York, who turns 50 this spring, doesn’t just dream about going fishing a lot. He lives that dream a majority of the time.

“I’m doing something a lot that I’ve always loved to do a lot. I’m out fishing probably 200 days a year,” York told Center Hill Sun on a clear-skied midwinter afternoon that in fact found him docked at his jig-tying table rather than trolling a submerged brush pile.

“I’ve been fortunate enough that if I say I want to go crappie fishing, then I can go crappie fishing,” explained York, adding that not having a wife has probably aided his lifestyle. “And if I’m going crappie fishing, I catch crappie. Just thinking about catching crappie gives me goosebumps.”

Darryl York ties crappie jigs to order for fishermen around the country. He runs his York Bait Company and guide service from his home just outside Carthage. Visit his website at yorkbaitcompany.com.

York has stalked the scrappy slabs all over the southeastern United States, from up in Kentucky across Middle and West Tennessee down into Mississippi on over to Georgia and back up through Tennessee, again and again.

Make no mistake about it: “We live right in the heart of fishing country,” said York.

“Carthage is within 60 miles of eight lakes,” he said. “And I like being able to fish all of them.”

His favorite is Center Hill. “That’s where I learned to fish for crappie,” he said.

York recalls when state fishery managers first started stocking the feisty blacknose strain of crappie in Center Hill Lake in the mid-1990s.

“I fished there every day,” he said. “And a lot of nights, too.”

Those were the good ol’ days, before the work on Center Hill Dam commenced. “I just don’t have confidence to fish Center Hill as regularly now as I used to. Not until they get that water back up and keep it there,” he said.

York credits his love of fishing and skill for locating and landing big crappie to local fishing luminary Carroll Wilburn, an angling ace on all the local waters. “He fishes every day and he’s taught me everything I know,” York said.

And York has parlayed his shrewd on-the-water schooling into becoming a savvy guide and enterprising fishing-lure designer. For about eight years he’s run the York Bait Company out of his home. He specializes in churning out vibrant handmade jigs, spinners and plugs for anglers tracking the tastiest warm-water sport fish species — crappie, sauger and walleye.

York assembles the baits to order through his website, yorkbaitcompany.com. On the site, you’ll find a rainbow of hues and gamut of sizes for all fishing conditions and water types.

It took some time for the business to start paying off. But as a result of word of mouth, the internet and a commitment to craftsmanship and customer service, things are working out, he said.

“Business has been coming around pretty good,” said York, who has expertise as a plumber and electrician in case absolutely nothing’s biting.

Over the years, he’s developed a dexterous proficiency for putting orders together as quick as he gets them. “I can probably tie about two dozen jigs in an hour, one color,” York said. “If you start adding multiple colors, it takes a little longer.”

Like most adept anglers, York will tell you that a key to reliably hooking up with an underwater tug is confidence in what you’re tossing. That’s because confidence is also key to fishing with concentration. If a fisherman doesn’t like the bait, it won’t likely get fished in appetizing fashion, he said.

“Color is for the fisherman,” he said. “All color really does is make the object look bigger or smaller in the water. They can’t see color, per se.”

Brighter colors for darker, murkier water — more natural colors for clearer water — that’s York’s approach.

“But I wouldn’t be scared to close my eyes and pick a color and fish it,” he said. “In the springtime when they are beginning to spawn, that’s the best time. That’s when everyone’s an expert.”

To that end, York expresses supreme confidence in his jigs — especially when warming late-winter and early-spring water temperatures start luring crappie into the shallows.

“If you’re casting these jigs and you aren’t’ catching them, then the fish aren’t there,” he said.

Interested in ordering some hand-crafted baits, booking an outing or just talking crappie tactics with a regional guru? Drop Darryl York a line online, or give him a call at 615-732-2109.

Never Too Soon to Start Planning a Startup

Business success begins with a blueprint

Here’s a new kind of New Year’s Resolution to consider for the coming year. Why not mark the start of 2017 by starting to formulate a plan for going into business for yourself?

No doubt, timing is key for launching any profit-seeking venture. Getting off on the wrong foot when you’re getting off the ground can greatly extend the time it takes to hit your stride, or even prevent it altogether.

But it’s never too early to start planning, even if you know you’re nowhere near ready to launch an enterprise.

“The more homework you can do, the more research you can do to find out about the industry and the markets you’re heading into, then the more successful you will be,” advises Jen Dangelo, director of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center in Cookeville.

Gathering information and organizing intel with respect to business development and potential markets is guaranteed to enhance your startup’s strength when you finally do take the entrepreneurial plunge.

“We prefer people come to us when they are in those beginning stages, so that we can help point them in the right direction,” said Dangelo. Her office, which is affiliated with Tennessee Tech University, offers free counseling and seminars to small businesses in all stages of development and operation.

“It takes a lot of time and thought to do a good business plan, which should be a full feasibility study on paper,” she said.

Is Starting a Business for You?

The reasons people give for going into business are diverse. Making your own schedule, making important decisions for yourself, making more exciting and rewarding use of your time and making more money — all are common explanations people offer for making the decision to strike out on their own.

All have merit, too — but with caveats, said Dangelo.

For example, thinking about going into business because “you don’t want to work for somebody else” is shortsighted and unrealistic, as novice entrepreneurs tend quickly to discover, she said.

“We have to remind people that, while they may not actually have a boss telling them what to do, there is the federal, state and local governments telling them what they can and can’t do,” she said.

And, of course, clients and customers always get their two cents worth in — or else they’ll take it, along with the rest of their spending money, somewhere else.

“At the end of the day, you’re the only one responsible when something goes wrong,” said Dangelo.

Interested in making big bucks in a big hurry?

“People are often surprised to discover that entrepreneurs usually don’t draw a salary from their business for at least the first six months to a year,” said Dangelo. She noted that it is helpful for one domestic partner to continue holding a fulltime job to augment family income in the lean startup phase.

And all that free time you’ll find when you start “setting your own hours”? Don’t count on it, said Dangelo.

“The amount of time it takes to run the business — it does tend to spill over and become a lot bigger job than most people realize,” she said. “It usually takes years to get to the point when you have employees under you to man-the-shop when you want a day off.”

Sometimes startup operators fail to size up the government’s bite that they’ll be on the hook to supply. “People who don’t anticipate how much they’re going to pay in taxes don’t price their products at a level that makes them money,” said Dangelo.

There, again, planning and anticipating well ahead of time is critical.

Talk to any successful entrepreneur and they’ll usually describe a host of things they’d have done differently were they awarded a do-over. But likely as not, many of those early-on difficulties could have been avoided, or at least mitigated, with better frontside planning.

“You want to do what it is that you love. But you want to make sure it makes you money at the end of the day,” said the John Woodard, who leads seminars for SBDC.

Think of it this way, said Woodard: “Business is a game, and money is how you keep score.”

SBDC introduction seminars are held on the second Tuesday of the month in the agency’s offices at the Regions Bank Building, 10 West Broad Street.

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Wine Country, White County

Northfield Vineyards specializes in linking people with fruit of the land

Sustaining a profitable farm-based business requires an ability to move with the times and think outside the box.

Realizing a rural property’s full value and working potential may mean using it to produce something new and unique. Or it may entail rediscovering something that’s been there all along.

For Mark Ray and his sister, Marty Luna, who own and operate Northfield Vineyards in White County, it was a good bit of both.

They’ve built their 30 acres of highland farmland, located a couple miles east of Burgess Falls, into a flourishing destination for visitors to come taste Tennessee country wines and sample some rural flavor and scenery away from the hum of population hubs.

In addition to their tasting-room and a Pick Tennessee store that’s open to the public daily, Northfield operates an event hall that caters to family-focused events like reunions, weddings, baby showers and birthday parties. It is also an ideal location for business conferences, organizational retreats or other kinds of group meet-ups in which the participants will appreciate pastoral charm and bucolic views.

Everything about Northfield says “country” – the surrounding hayfields, the rustic barns, the old tractors, wagons and vintage fuel pumps and especially the resident draft mules, Burt and Rube (short for Reuben), who serve as the winery’s readily identifiable mascots.

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Mark Ray, Marty Luna and Belinda Elsberry of Northfield Vineyards serve up down-home hospitality at White County’s highland country winery.

Northfield is a great country escape both for tourists passing through or for local inhabitants looking to get out and enjoy some sweeping views while sipping an assortment of down-home vino flavors.

Northfield tends to specialize in fruit wines. “Sweet, but not syrupy,” is how Ray describes them.

“A lot of these country wines are the ones that get people out, because they like something different,” he said.

Especially popular is the mild and mellow rhubarb wine. “Everybody seems to like it,” said Ray.

Another crowd-pleaser is a cranberry wine that’s very popular around the holidays. “We sell the world of it this time of year,” he said. “People put mulling spices in it and warm it up. And you can mix ginger ale in it and it really makes a good spritzer.”

With the grape wines, Ray’s preference is to avoid going overboard on the oak tones. He doesn’t like it “when you can’t taste the grapes.”

Reuben’s Red, named after the mule, is more in the vein of a traditional hearty table wine. Ray noted that Burt doesn’t have a namesake wine yet. “But he will — we’ll do something for him later on,” he said.

But of all the wines Northfield bottles, the the biggest source of pride to Ray is the Mule Shoe Muscadine, which won a silver medal at the Wines of the South competition in Knoxville this year.

“Muscadine is a Southern thing,” he said. “We’re at the far northern end of muscadines range. You get up into Kentucky and they freeze out — and they even freeze out here sometimes if we get a real hard winter.”

It was especially gratifying, because muscadines were his first foray into winemaking years ago and resulted in a tub of undrinkably foul hooch. “That batch was awful. I poured it out, it was so bad,” Ray recalls. “But it got me interested.”

If you’d like to see for yourself just how far Ray’s handcrafted, award-winning Northfield wines have come after years of trial and error and tasting and tweaking, Northfield is open Monday through Saturday, 10am to 6pm, and Sunday, 1pm to 5pm. Look them up online at northfieldvineyards.com or Facebook, or give them a call at 931-761-9463.

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Rep. Ryan Williams a Face of TN’s Political Future

Newly elected House GOP caucus chief in prime position to champion Upper Cumberland issues, potential

Congratulations, Cookeville. Your state representative in Nashville is arguably the most popular member of the 74-member House Republican supermajority.

He’s also now among the most powerful.

Just days after winning a landslide re-election bid on Nov. 8, incumbent state Rep. Ryan Williams won appointment to serve as chairman of the House GOP caucus for the next two years in the Tennessee General Assembly.

Williams earned selection to the position by beating Rep. Kevin Brooks of Cleveland in the intra-party caucus elections that Republicans held in Nashville on Nov. 17.

Williams won 47 votes to Brooks’ 23.

The job of majority-party caucus chairman in either the House or the Senate is among the most politically influential roles in the Legislature.

“In the last three weeks, I’ve met more with the governor one-on-one than I did in the previous four years,” Williams said in a phone interview on Dec. 1. “That’s just the difference it makes.”

Williams said his new assignment will likely benefit not just Putnam County, where his district is located, but the entire region. Having “a voice for the Upper Cumberland” involved in setting the state’s policy agenda will ensure that issues important to citizens of the plateau and Highland Rim won’t get overlooked, he said.

State Sen. Paul Bailey, a Republican from Sparta, said he’s very pleased a regional lawmaker has assumed such a high-ranking role. “It’s wonderful news for the Upper Cumberland,” he said.

Williams’ ascension to caucus chairman bodes particularly well for farmers and forestland owners and others who live and work outside urban population hubs, said Bailey. His Senate district includes Putnam, White, Cumberland, Jackson, Overton and Bledsoe Counties.

“Ryan is someone who can definitely speak up for the rural communities of Tennessee, and especially the Upper Cumberland,” said Bailey. “He knows our values and he appreciates the challenges that we face. He will be able to take that message to Nashville.”

During the caucus elections, GOP lawmakers also tapped members for other leadership posts, including a new majority leader and a nominee to serve as speaker of the House, which will again be Beth Harwell of Nashville.

Williams won more caucus votes than any other Republican seeking a House leadership slot.

He replaces Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin, who served as caucus chairman for eight of the last ten years. Casada this year sought and won the title of majority leader, beating out Rep. Mike Carter of Ooltewah, 42-29. That position was previously held by Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, who didn’t seek it again this year.

Speaker Harwell turned away a challenge from Jimmy Matlock of Lenoir City, 40-30, thus ensuring her third term presiding over the House of Representatives.

In an interview with Center Hill Sun after the caucus votes, Casada described Williams as “the face of up-and-coming leadership in the Tennessee House of Representatives.”

“I am really excited about Ryan’s tenure in the leadership,” said Casada. “He will bring in fresh ideas, fresh legs and hard work to the job.”

Likewise, Speaker Harwell praised Williams as a capable legislator whom she expects will excel in his new capacity.

“Representative Williams will be an asset on the House Republican leadership team, and I look forward to continuing to work with him,” Harwell said in an emailed statement. “The next two years we will do all we can to ensure that Tennessee is the best place in the country to live, work, raise a family, and own and operate a business. Ryan has done a great job representing Putnam County and will continue to be a strong advocate for the entire Upper Cumberland region.”

Williams, who is married and has two children, also works as a salesman for J&S Construction Company in Cookeville. He was first elected to the Legislature in 2010. He’s also a past member of the Cookeville City Council and the city’s Planning Commission.

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Military Chopper Accidentally Cuts Through TVA Cables

LANCASTER, TENN. — A U.S. Marine helicopter may have narrowly averted disaster here last weekend after severing a pair of static lines along a high-voltage TVA transmission system in the vicinity of Center Hill Dam.

The system was in fact out of service at the time and therefore not carrying a charge, according to TVA officials.

The incident occurred around mid-morning on Saturday. Residents in the area heard and observed at least one military whirlybird flying low to the terrain above wooded hills and hollows not far from the Caney Fork River, about a mile downstream from the Corps of Engineers dam in northern DeKalb County.

The aircraft was reported by a Marine Corps spokesman to be an AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopter. Its estimated value is more than $10 million.

The helicopter collided with the TVA lines along a 1400-foot span between two rugged hilltops a short distance from Highway 141. It was able to continue flying.

An investigation is ongoing, according to Marine Lt. John Roberts, a public affairs officer. He said the helicopter was, at the time of incident, returning to its base at Marine Corps Air Station New River near Jacksonville, N.C. following a training exercise.

“Why they were flying so low, that’s a valid question as part of the investigation,” said Roberts. “We will figure out exactly how they got into that situation, why they were there, if there was something else going on.”

The cost of repairing the helicopter is yet unknown, he said. “Obviously we can assume there was damage to it, but we just don’t know the extent of that damage,” said Roberts.

There are five lines linking the transmission towers. The two uppermost cables are parallel-running “nonelectrical” static wires designed to protect the system against lightning strikes.

The entire transmission line was under repair at the time, so no electricity was flowing through the system, said Jim Hopson, TVA public relations manager.

Hopson said there’s been no formal tabulation on the cost of damages, but the Marine Corps will likely get the bill ultimately.

“The way this works is that we typically do expect the agency that caused the damage to reimburse us for cost associated with repair,” he said.

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A TVA lineman works to repair static lines linking transmission towers that a Marine helicopter severed in DeKalb County on Oct. 29.

A dispatcher at DeKalb County Emergency Communications in Smithville took a call around 6 pm Saturday from a Marine captain reporting the wire strike. TVA crews began inspecting the damage Sunday night.

A Marine helicopter was observed circling the site of the incident on Monday morning.

Neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. Media relations contacts for both agencies said the United States military investigates all accidents and incidents involving its own aircraft.

The helicopter may have been outfitted with with special wire-cutting devices, which helped avert a serious accident. “Wire strikes…account for about 5 percent of all civil and military helicopter accidents,” according to a 2008 FAA report on the effectiveness of wire-collision protection systems.

Matt Zuccaro, president of the Virginia-based Helicopter Association International, said wire-cutters can prevent “catastrophic results” by “eliminating the possibility that you will get tangled up in the wire.”

“There is also technology that actually detects the wires,” Zuccaro said.

However, the best course of action for pilots to keep clear of power lines is to maintain a safe altitude above them, he said.

“The primary safety protocol for avoiding wires is not to be down at the elevation of the wire environment to begin with,” said Zuccaro, who has nearly 50 years experience flying helicopters, including in Vietnam and as an Army flight instructor. “We recommend that when helicopters are in operation they be up at a satisfactory cruising level — which normally might be at least 1500 feet on an average flight.”

Zuccaro said he expects a full inquiry into the incident. “The military is very good about investigating all incidents and accidents, and they have a very good safety program,” he said.

“The primary question is — and we ask this question all the time ourselves –Why was the aircraft at the altitude it was when it encountered the wires?” he said. “It is either going to be mission-related, or it is going to be another reason that brings to question, Why was the flight operating at that altitude?”

In 2009, a Marine helicopter flying from California to North Carolina struck TVA power lines in White County near Rock Island State Park. The craft was forced to make an emergency landing after offloading 600 gallons of fuel, according to news reports.

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Tough Row to Hoe So Far for TN Hemp

It’ll take time to overcome technological stagnation resulting from prohibition

Harvest time has come and gone for the second year of legal industrial hemp cultivation in Tennessee.

The non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana is billed as a potential boom crop in the 21st Century. It has numerous uses and applications as food, fiber, fuel and health remedies, as well as in construction materials, automobile parts, furniture and cosmetics.

But hemp’s potential has been slow to bloom in Tennessee since the state Legislature and federal government lifted the ban on growing it in 2014.

Sixty-four applicants across Tennessee gained approval by the state Department of Agriculture to grow hemp in 2016. As in 2015, licensed growers ran into headaches acquiring and sowing their seeds in a timely fashion.

Five permits were granted to Upper Cumberland growers, including one in DeKalb County and one in Cannon County for a total of four acres.

Seed Scarcities

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration tightly regulate and control industrial hemp cultivation. They require that seed be imported from outside the country and certified as capable of producing only miniscule amounts of THC, the naturally occurring chemical cannabis plants generate that gives people a “high” when ingested.

“Tennessee producers are growing seed from Canada, Italy and Australia this year,” according to a state agriculture department spokeswoman.

That’s neither sustainable nor conducive to long-term growth as a crop sector, said Clint Palmer, a Ph.D. student at Middle Tennessee State University who is working to expand industrial hemp’s presence in the state.

State agriculture officials are expected to release a report on this year’s hemp crop yields later this fall.

“Without having a domestic seed source, we are not going to be doing what we need to do,” said Palmer. “My goal is to create varieties for the state, which I hope is about a five-year process.” Seed that isn’t acclimated to this region won’t produce optimum yields, he said.

The other big issue is the question of what to do after harvest. Turning hemp into goods and materials for mass markets requires industrial processing, and that requires building infrastructure, which isn’t necessarily cheap.

“We are still struggling as an industry to be able to gain legs, and that is very unfortunate for us. We don’t have the infrastructure to support processing at this time — that’s pretty much where we are at,” said Colleen Keahey, director of Tennessee Hemp Industries Association. “We are waiting to see processing become available. We hope to start engaging with other agricultural industries to possibly partner together and see how we can resolve some these problems.”

A lack of processing and hemp-product manufacturing facilities is “the gaping hole” in plans for developing a successful cannabis sector in Tennessee agriculture, according to Palmer.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” he said. “We’re kind of in a waiting game right now. People are looking for investors, trying to grow the industry.”

Presently, growing hemp for extraction of therapeutic oils is the most profitable direction to take a crop at this time — although that sector is still obscured by regulatory and legal uncertainty. Furthermore, elevated profit levels for cannabinoid medicinal compounds aren’t likely to last as other states legalize and expand hemp production, said Palmer.

“They fetch a pretty price right now, but it won’t be like that forever,” he said.

Future Holds Promise

Despite the slow start for the reintroduction of hemp, there is nevertheless “reason for hope” that hemp will carve out a productive niche on the agriculture landscape, concluded University of Tennessee plant sciences professor Eric Walker in a 2015 analysis of hemp’s prospects for the future.

“Yields, quality and consistency of today’s predominant crops have increased drastically since their introduction; therefore, it stands to reason that the potential of industrial hemp in the United States is essentially unrealized, and as these research and applied processes of introduction, development, improvement, and refinement continue, industrial hemp yields and quality will only increase,” wrote Walker. “Likewise, if industrial hemp grain and fiber products are proven to be economically viable and sustainable, industrial hemp will again resume its status as an established crop in United States agriculture.”

According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, where hemp maintained a more prominent and indispensable role as a cash crop than in Tennessee prior to the criminalization of the cannabis plant family, China, Russia, and South Korea are the leading hemp-producing nations, accounting for more than two-thirds of the world’s industrial hemp supply.

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Edgar Evins Interpretive Center Offers Glimpse Into Area’s Past

Facility also includes ‘hands-on’ nature room

The state park near the dam on Center Hill Lake is probably known primarily to most who visit as an outdoor recreational destination, a jumping off point for boating, camping, fishing and hiking.

But a visit to Edgar Evins State Park also now includes a fascinating historical and educational component in the form of a mini-museum.

Park officials this year opened an interpretive center in an old employee residence along the main park road.

Brad Halfacre, a ranger at Edgar Evins State Park, shows off a chunk of chestnut wood that's on display at the interpretive center.

Brad Halfacre, a ranger at Edgar Evins State Park, shows off a chunk of chestnut wood that’s on display at the interpretive center.

“A lot of people who come to the park just end up climbing the observation tower and then leave,” said Brad Halfacre, a ranger at Edgar Evins. “This is a way to draw them in and spend some more time in the park.”

The interpretive center contains several displays of historical photos depicting area families and notable people, as well as scenes of life in the Caney Fork Valley before the dam was completed nearly 70 years ago.

“The steep hills and valleys comprising Edgar Evins State Park have undergone little change since European-American settlement around 200 years ago,” reads one display. “The impoundment of Center Hill Lake in 1948, however, covered the meandering Caney Fork River and its floodplain, inundating a number of DeKalb County communities that occupied the valley and several tributaries.”

The building, which also houses a small conference room that park officials plan to rent to visiting groups in the future, includes lifelike exhibits of mounted species of fish and wildlife native to the park, including bobcat, bears, birds and snakes.

Snake skins collected from Edgar Evins State Park on display at the interpretive center.

Snake skins collected from Edgar Evins State Park on display at the interpretive center.

A “touch-and-feel” portion of the center allows visitors to handle and inspect rocks, nests, shells, animal bones, furs, skins and other natural artifacts collected from the park.

Also housed in the center are two live snakes in aquariums — a black rat snake named Martha and a 13-year-old albino king snake named Pearl. Halfacre said plans are in the works to establish an aviary on the grounds that could provide a home to crippled birds that would otherwise die in the wild.

The center is typically open during the day until 4 p.m. For more information call 931-858-2446.

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River of Rainbows

It’s been a golden year for trout on the Caney Fork

It may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but long periods of low rainfall actually tend to improve fishing in cold tailwater rivers like the Caney Fork.

So one silver lining in the relative lack of stormclouds since July has been an abundance of rainbows under Center Hill Dam.

The dry spell has spelled hot trout fishing.

Limiting-out has been the norm rather than the exception for baitcasting bank fishermen, river regulars are reporting. Fly-angling guides describe the past few months as the best the Caney has produced in years.

“It’s been lights out, fishing exceptionally well,” said James Johnsey, owner of the guide service “Tennessee on the Fly.” There were stretches in mid-to-late summer that were nothing short of “magical,” both in terms of numbers and size of fish netted, he said.

The same has been true for brown trout as well.

And, of course, statewide headlines were made on April 1 when a fisherman from Nashville pulled a 4 pound 12 ounce brook trout from the Center Hill Dam spillway, thus smashing the 43 year-old Tennessee record by almost a full pound.

Blessing in the Skies

Trout tend to benefit from regular, predictable water flows. If river levels fluctuate too much or currents run too heavy for long periods of time, fish mortality rates start to rise, especially for rainbow trout, said Frank Fiss, TWRA’s chief of fisheries.

“Higher flows cut down on fish survival,” he said.

Recently stocked rainbows are particularly susceptible to the added rigors of life in the fast water — although he noted that brown trout actually tend to do OK “independent of the flows.”

In a river swollen from prolonged precipitation and torrential dam discharge, rainbows have to “exert more energy just to survive,” said Fiss.

Turbulent, vigor-sapping currents make it harder for young fish to feed at a time when they need more nutrients just to maintain strength, let alone add growth.

Slack water sanctuaries behind boulders and stumps that provide “velocity refuge” become scarcer, Fiss said. And when trout do locate a safe harbor, the bugs, midges, crawdads and smaller fish that sustain them are harder to find and eat.

When flows are lower and currents mild, rainbows can take up more secure residence close to prime feeding zones. From there they can more successfully target prey. Not surprisingly, drier winters typically mean more, and bigger, holdover stocked rainbows the following spring, said Fiss.

“It’s been a good year, both for river access and numbers of fish caught,” said Fiss. “We’ve been seeing good growth on the fish this year — in large part because of those steady flows.”

Big Redsides

If you’ve had the pleasure of landing a feisty Caney Fork rainbow in the last few months, you may have noticed the fish’s natural colors seemed particularly brilliant.

That wasn’t just your exhilarated imagination.

Usually, the Caney Fork gets its stocks of trout from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s hatchery at Dale Hollow Dam. This summer, though, East Tennessee drought conditions become so serious that Tellico Trout Hatchery in Monroe County was forced to rid itself of nearly all the rainbows it was rearing, as water intake flows plummeted and water temperatures began rising to lethal levels.

The TWRA-run Tellico hatchery made an emergency swap arrangement with USFW to truck its rainbows to tailwater fisheries like the Caney Fork, Elk River and Watauga River.

The rainbows from Tellico released in the Caney Fork this summer display exceedingly florid hues of pink and rose flaring down their cheeks and sides — a dazzling compliment to their deep green dapples and mottled silver flanks.

That’s owing to special food the trout at Tellico are fed, said hatchery manager Travis Scott. It contains an added pigment called astaxanthin, which is naturally occurring in organisms fish eat in the wild.

“When they get it in their diet, it’s better not just for their color, but for the overall health of the fish,” he said.

Brian Hickson, who manages the USFW Warm Springs National Fish Health Center in Georgia, said astaxanthin is among a group of organic pigments known as carotenoids.

Carotenoids are commonly used in aquaculture operations to enhance natural fish colors, particularly the flesh and skin of trout and salmon, Hickson said.

“It is the same thing that shrimp have. So sometimes they will put more shrimp or krill in the feed to give the fish’s flesh a more orange color,” he said.

Hickson added, “It’s not like a ‘Dye Number 7’ or something — it is a natural compound. They can synthesize it, but everybody is moving toward natural products” as a result of public demand.

Dale Hollow Fish Hatchery’s director of operations, Andrew Currie, said carotenoid-enhanced fish food has been used at his facility in the past, although not for a while.

“We have it available to us, but it costs extra so we haven’t been doing it,” he said.

Currie said there’s also the option of adding it to the school of trout’s menu just prior to a run of fish being released in the wild — rather than for all the 18-or-so months they’re being reared in captivity.

“There is no sense coloring up a two-inch fingerling over a year away from stocking,” he said.

“We’ve used it in the past years ago, but we really didn’t get much feedback from the public, and since it added to the per-pound cost of feed, we quit doing it,” Currie added. “But if there’s a lot of positive sentiment from the anglers, it is definitely something we can go back to using.”