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Boom Times for Black Walnut

Prospects brighter for giant provider of wood, food and forest shade

As it often turns out, for better or worse, the future just ain’t what it used to be.

But in the realm of hardwood forest health, that actually ought to be a big win for the tall, dark and handsome black walnut, which is certainly no stranger to the wooded hillsides, valleys and ridges of Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region.

Not so long ago, though, it looked like dismal days indeed lay ahead for the opulent heartwood of the eastern U.S. heartland. A tiny twig beetle was casting a long and ominous shadow out over the horizon, potentially menacing the survival of many millions of black walnut trees across their native range.

Given the appalling pandemic that befell and felled the American chestnut, and the ongoing disaster unfolding as a result of the emerald ash borer’s baleful spread, anxiety among forest health experts soared back in the early years of this decade when a malevolent blight called thousand cankers disease, or TCD, was discovered in the Knoxville area.

Thousand cankers disease is described by scientists as a “disease complex” that is native to the western United States. It is an arboreal ailment that scientists say results from  “the combined activity” of a fungus (Geosmithia morbida) spread by the walnut twig beetle (Pityophthorus juglandis).

Walnut twig beetle

A disease that primarily affects black walnut trees, TCD gets its name from a pernicious propensity to inflict numerous small ulcers or “cankers” on trees. If proliferation of the cankers brought on by the beetle’s “overwhelming attacks” goes unchecked, it will kill the tree.

Of particularly worrying concern when the twig beetle and TCD was detected in Tennessee was not only that the pestilence had not yet been observed east of the Mississippi, but that the Volunteer State essentially constitutes the very core of black walnut country.

“Tennessee is roughly in the middle of the native range for black walnut trees,” said Steve Powell, the state’s chief entomologist. “So when it was found in 2010, it was really unfortunate.”

Tennessee’s Division of Forestry estimates there are 26 million mature walnut trees growing throughout the state’s countrysides, and another 1.3 million in urban areas, representing a combined standing economic timber value of $2.84 billion.

Forest Fears Festering

The sinister dread primarily bugging scientists, conservationists, loggers and forestland owners after the discovery of thousand cankers disease in east Tennessee was that black walnut trees were facing a crisis similar to that currently witnessed with emerald ash borer, which is now in more than 60 Tennessee counties. EAB is a bonafide “catastrophe” for ash trees wherever it appears, according to Vanderbilt University biological sciences professor Steve Baskauf.

“The emerald ash borer has been expanding its range throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada at a steady pace and there is currently no way to stop it,” Baskauf wrote in 2015. “All attempts at quarantine or creating ‘firebreaks’ have failed. The only real question is when the EAB will arrive in an area. It’s like a giant steamroller slowly rolling down a hill towards your house. You can see that it’s coming and you know that when it gets there, it’s going to smash your house. But there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Fortunately for black walnut trees, though, TCD isn’t EAB.

While TCD has in fact ravaged black walnuts in the Western United States, those trees are not native to that environment. They were historically introduced from the Midwest and Eastern U.S.

“The pioneers took their black walnuts out west and planted them,” said Alan Windham, a plant pathologist with the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture. “They had black walnuts in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado — usually planted along streams and rivers.”

Windham said it appears now the black walnut’s devastating susceptibility to TCD in the West looks to be greatly exacerbated by natural environmental stresses as a result of the drier climate out there, which greatly inhibits a tree’s ability to fight off and survive the condition.

No Place Like Native Home

The wetter Eastern U.S. climate is, by contrast, more to the black walnut’s liking than the arid west.

Trees here appear much more capable of fending off the disease — and even recovering after a TCD infection sets in, which is uncommon in the West, said Windham.

“When TCD showed up here, there was an assumption that the same thing would happen here that happened there — that it would be very damaging to the species,” Windham said. “But here we are, more than seven years later, and it really hasn’t moved much from the initial location in Knox County. The good news is that we have had a totally different experience with thousand cankers disease in the Eastern United States than what the scientists who had followed it out West were perhaps anticipating.”

While black walnut trees are not as plentiful in Tennessee as in some states, especially further north, they nevertheless play a crucial role in forest ecosystems and wildlife habitats here. Demand for the delicious nuts, among both humans and fulltime forest-dwelling fauna — like squirrels, raccoons, turkeys and bears — is robust.

And like sapling shoots invigorated with the spring, walnut timber prices are reaching ever upward. Demand for the exquisite, richly-grained black walnut wood, especially for decorative veneer, is “extremely strong right now,” said University of Tennessee extension forester David Mercker, who tracks Tennessee timber prices as part of his job.

“It increases almost on a weekly basis,” he said.

And that has been the case for a while now. “The loggers and mills just can’t get enough of it,” Mercker said.

Jonathan Boggs, who manages a woodland resource consulting firm based in Dickson County, said that while it’s true walnut trees are currently fetching premium prices, don’t assume you’re in for a tidy and effortless payday just because you have one growing out on the lawn in the subdivision where you live.

“Believe me, I get two or three calls a week from somebody that’s got a walnut tree in their front yard and they’ve been hearing the same thing that everybody is hearing, that prices are real high,” said Boggs. “The reality is that it may be worth something if you’re willing to cut it down yourself and take it to a mill. But you’re probably not going to get a buyer to come and cut a single tree — or even a few trees — out of your yard. It just isn’t going to be feasible for them to do that.”

Boggs added, though, that if you’re a logger or a landowner contemplating a timber sale, a 25-foot walnut log that’s at least 24 inches on the small end might yield $10 a board foot. “There could be 500 board feet in that tree, so in all reality it could bring $5,000,” Boggs said. “But most yard trees aren’t going to have that quality or board feet in them.”

A forest-grown black walnut tree is “going to have better characteristics” than an urban tree — like “not having any low-hanging limbs,” he said. “They self-thin themselves in the woods.”

Going for Nuts

For some rural landowners and freelance foragers, the nuts are basically just another crop to harvest when they start dropping in the fall.

The two Upper Cumberland black-walnut buying-and-hulling stations in 2017 were Jackson County Farm and Garden in Gainsboro, and at local rancher Brent Hewitt’s place near Morrison in western Warren County. Both sell their walnuts to the Hammons Products Company in Stockton, Missouri.

“The flavor of black walnut is very rich and robust, very distinctive from English walnut,” said Brian Hammons, the company’s third-generation president. “Chefs are increasingly intrigued with what that flavor will do in their dishes. So they are using it more and more all the time.”

Hammons’ grandfather, Ralph, launched the operation in 1946 after he tracked down a used nut-cracking machine for sale in Tennessee and hauled it back to his hometown in the Ozarks, whereupon he started buying walnuts from whoever wanted collect them and bring them in to him.

Today, the Hammons company buys 20-30 million pounds annually. Last year they bought black walnuts from more than 235 hulling stations across 15 states.

Jacob Basecke, vice president of marketing and sales at Hammons, said 2017 was “a really, really strong year in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio.” Hammons purchased about 731,465 pounds out of Tennessee.

“The 10 year average is about 475,000 pounds, so it was up last year,” Basecke said.

Hewitt, whose hulling station is located about 10 miles west of McMinnville, said he’s been rolling in black walnuts ever since he got into the business five years ago. Like all Hammons-backed stations, Hewitt paid his clients $15 dollars per hundred pounds in 2017, post hulling. Five years ago the price was $13, he said.

“This was a good year,” Hewitt said. Although it could have been even better were it not for some frost-loss, he said. “I done almost 200,000 pounds. That’s about the same as the year before,” he said.

In fact, he actually took in a few hundred more pounds in 2017 than 2016. “I lacked just 306 pounds from having 200,000 pounds this year,” Hewitt said. “Last year I think I lacked thirteen-hundred.”

For Jackson County Farm and Garden, this year in fact wasn’t as good as last, said store manager Alana Pippin. They hulled 95,000 or 96,000 pounds, she said. In 2016 they did 103,000.

“The always say you’ll have a good year, then one bad, then a good one and then a bad one again,” she said. “Some years it’s good, some years it’s not. This was kind of an off year, so hopefully next year will be better.”

Black walnuts are actually alternate bearing, Call it “alternutting,” if you like. They tend to produce noticeably larger average crops every other year.

A lot of people bring in harvest hauls from neighboring counties,  and often those taking particular advantage of the black walnut buy-up are families and individuals of modest means, Pippen said.

“People will drive pretty far to come down here,” she said. “And a lot of times you can tell that they really need the extra money.”

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When Land Became Lake

“Under the Lake” is a book published in 2016 about life in the Caney Fork River Valley prior to construction of Center Hill Dam. Pictured above are the book’s authors (from left to right): Judy Taylor Fuson, Carol Denson Williams and Ria Baker.

Seven decades have passed since Center Hill Dam construction

This coming year will mark the 70th anniversary of Center Hill Dam’s completion and subsequent submersion of the Caney Fork River Valley above it.

Undeniably, many modern benefits accompanied the lake impoundment, from hydroelectric power production to flood control to numerous forms of recreation.

So it’s easy — perhaps too easy — to overlook the heart-rending historical reality that for hundreds of families living in the area, the coming of the federal government’s new dam meant doom for their old ways of living. Along with displacement, the rising of Center Hill Lake’s waters came at the price of washing away all but the memories of the only life many former inhabitants had ever known.

When the dam closed off in the fall of 1948, once rich farmland and forests were inundated, thus “completely changing the face of the northern and eastern sections of DeKalb County,” local historian Thomas G. Webb wrote in a “Tennessee County History Series” book published by Memphis State University Press.

Fortunately, three DeKalb County women — Judy Taylor Fuson, Ria Baker and Carol Denson Williams — have endeavored, with assistance from Mr. Webb, to record for posterity the remembrances and manners of life that existed in the valley before it was deluged.

Their 2016 coffee table-style book, “Under the Lake,” is a painstakingly assembled compendium of history, anecdotes, images, maps and family genealogies. It preserves and pays homage to a bygone epoch that gave begrudgingly away to the 20th Century surge of modern resource development.

Construction on Center Hill Dam, 1946

Williams, a retired school teacher of 30 years, said she, Baker and Fuson pored over property maps of the entire lake in an attempt to catalog all the families that owned land and were forced to move. Thousands were dislodged from throughout the region, particularly in the fertile farming areas areas close to the dam, she said.

“DeKalb County population in 1940 was 14,588 yet the following census, in 1950, recorded the county population at 11,680 showing a 2,908 population drop after the dam project was completed,” the authors write in “Under the Lake.”

It’s hard for people today to grasp the scope and process of removing all the people who used to reside amidst the fingers, branches, ravines and coves of what is now a lake in excess of 60 miles long covering nearly 19,000 acres, with more than 400 miles of crooked shoreline.

“That is a massive amount of land,” said Baker, formerly the town mayor of Alexandria. “We’re not talking about just taking a 500 foot strip for an interstate or whatever. And it wasn’t like they were saying, ‘We’re gonna to cut your farm in half and take just so many acres.’ No, it was, ‘We’re going take your whole farm and you’re going to move — we’re going to cover your house up or tear it down, and we don’t care if your grandmother lived there forever’.”

The process of picking up and clearing out was exceptionally difficult for the elderly, who were “really hurt” by the prospect of leaving forever behind family hearth and heritage, she said. Often they never recovered.

“So many people, the older people especially, were just broken,” said Baker. “This was their home, it was their lives. It would probably have happened to anybody in those circumstances, but it was just such a mass of people here. Of course, it also happened everywhere a dam went in.”

Williams said many were in denial about the inevitability of what was happening.

One man reportedly didn’t believe the water was going to submerge all his property, so he “neatly stacked all his belongings up under a bluff overhang.” Baker said. “They finally had to go get him and pull him out — he wasn’t going to leave.”

“A lot of people knew it was coming even before the Second World War, when (government agents) came and started surveying,” said Williams. “But when the war came they had to stop. After the war was over they started full-force. Some people kept saying, ‘Oh no, this is not going to happen.’ In the end, though, it did.”

If you’d like to inquire about ordering a copy of “Under the Lake,” visit the Facebook page maintained by the authors: DeKalb County, TN, Caney Fork River (@nowunderwater).

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Domestic Elk a Doable TN Livestock Option

Great grazing here in the Upper Cumberland country, but good fencing needed

When people think of elk, what probably comes to mind is the American West, and in particular, the Rocky Mountains.

But elk, which are one of the largest native land animals in North America, were in fact historically abundant throughout much of the Eastern United States. Prior to their reintroduction in small enclaves by state and federal wildlife managers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, wild elk hadn’t roamed Tennessee’s woods in great numbers since well before the middle of the 19th Century.

“Early records indicated that elk were abundant in the state prior to being settled by European explorers and colonists,” says the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s informational web page on elk restoration. “As these settlers moved westward the elk population declined.”

“The last historical record of an elk being sighted in Tennessee was in 1865 when one was reported to be killed in Obion County,” according to the agency. There was not “one specific reason” for the depletion of the animals, although “over-exploitation by man” and “habitat destruction” played significant roles in their demise.

Self-sustaining herds of wild elk in Tennessee exist today only in a few remote tracts, like Land Between the Lakes, Smoky Mountain National Park and the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area in Campbell County.

But even though elk have had a pretty rough couple of centuries in the Southeastern United States, rearing them in captivity on marginal farm and ranch land is both feasible and potentially quite lucrative.

At least two ranchers in Middle Tennessee are currently raising elk, and have been for years.

Dow Armistead runs a small herd of elk — along with sitka and fallow deer — on his property near the Caney Fork River in eastern Smith County, where his family has owned land in the area for generations — “I’d say 100 years or better,” he told the Center Hill Sun.

“I’d love to see more people doing this,” Armistead said of raising elk. “They’re not the easiest things in the world to take care of, but they aren’t the hardest either.”

With a little general knowledge of raising traditional livestock added to a little basic research, anyone can probably figure it out without much difficulty, Armistead said. He’s also happy to talk to people about the basics, and doesn’t mind people pulling off the road to admire his animals along St. Mary’s/Stonewall Club Road just west of the Opossum Road turnoff.

There’s certainly money to be made selling the the animals for genetics, meat and antlers, said Armistead — who works a regular job in commercial construction. But his primary motivating interest is simply in observing their grace and grandeur.

“A lot of times I come here to feed them and end up just sitting or leaning up against the fence and watching them for a while,” Armistead said.

Installing and maintaining the eight-foot-high fencing to keep the animals penned in is the most costly and labor-intensive element of the operation, he noted. Armistead’s farm consists of about 60 acres of hilly forest and scrubland, and the elk meander about on a little more than half of it.

Not Too Tame

Often when they see him, Armistead’s elk will amble down and see what he’s up to — and often there’s a snack in it for them when they do. Armistead supplements their grass diet with an occasional bucket of grain and provides them additional hay in the winter.

Armistead said he doesn’t like them getting affectionate with people, though. Even unintentionally, a several-hundred pound animal can do serious damage to the human body in short order. That’s especially true of a mature bull that’s wearing a massive, dagger-pronged antler rack.

“They can be dangerous if they get too friendly,” said Armistead.

Herb Fritch owns Two Feathers Elk and Bison Ranch in Hickman County, where he runs about 300 elk on 400 acres. Fritch has been raising elk, buffalo and other somewhat unusual livestock since the late 1990s. His operation was formerly near McMinnville, and before that he raised exotic animals near the Caney Fork River along Smith Fork Creek.

The most lucrative aspect of raising elk in the United States is the market in “trophy antler genetics, buying-and-selling semen from the champion bulls,” Fritch said.

But as with Armistead, Fritch said just having the opportunity to regularly behold and appreciate the singular majesty of an elk herd is for him what offers the deepest sense of personal fulfillment — more than the economics of the enterprise.

“I love just looking at these magnificent animals as much as anything,” said Fritch, a retired Nashville health-care industry entrepreneur. But being the largest elk breeder in Tennessee, “at some point you have to sell something somewhere,” he added.

Call of the Wild

Autumn is an especially rewarding time to own elk, which are noted for the eerie, hollow-sounding high-pitched whistle, or “bugling.”

In an effort to trumpet their desirability to available females within earshot, bulls give vent to the otherworldly whine during rutting season. Bugling also serves to warn away male interlopers — or let them know a fight awaits if they plan to stick around.

Elk are in fact quite vocal beyond just their distinct bugling. They’re actually “among the noisiest ungulates, communicating danger quickly and identifying each other by sound,” according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Newborn calves will bleat out shrill squeals and squalls that are individually recognized by their mothers, and adult males and females alike utter a variety of barks, chirps, mews, pips, grunts and snorts that make up an elaborate lexicon of audible elk talk.

“Elk also use body language. For example, an elk displays dominance by raising its head high,” according to RMEF.

Southern Things to Think About

Keeping domestic elk in the South “does have its challenges,” Fritch said. “They have heavy coats, so they can deal with the cold weather — but the heat can be an issue.”

It’s essential to keep a lot of shade available in their pasture ranges, he said. Armistead said his “really like to roll around in the mud during the warmer months.”

Likewise, parasites can be an issue of greater concern here than in northern climes because winter temperatures often don’t drop low enough for long enough to naturally disrupt the lifecycle of dangerous parasites.

“You really have to pay attention to parasites down here,” Fritch said. “The other issue you have to be aware of is ticks. It can get to the point of having to bring an animal down if you don’t stay on top of it.”

“There is a bit of a learning curve,” he said. “The main two things you have to deal with to get started is the fencing and the handling facilities to work the animals.”

If you have multiple bulls pastured together, bulls will fight during the rut. “That is not good – you can lose animals that way,” he said. So it’s necessary to either separate the bulls or removed their antlers at the end of the summer.

“Beyond that, the rest of it is not too different than keeping dairy cattle,” said Fritch. “There are certain nutritional requirements, but that is not to hard to learn and get a handle on.”

The North American Breeders Association maintains a useful FAQ page for anyone interested in learning more about raising domestic elk.

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Pumpkin Picking Time Arriving Promptly

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Sept. 6, 2017:

More than Pumpkins to Pick on Local Farms This Fall

NASHVILLE– A trip to the pumpkin patch has become standard fare for autumn loving locals, and this year it’s worth looking around for more than great gourds. Many farmers are expanding options for consumers to learn how and where food and home goods are grown or made.

Bountiful Acres Farm near Watertown produces a wide range of personal care products, and found that customers also wanted to learn how to make their own. Owner Sue Dickhaus added a retail store in Lebanon where she hosts soap making classes using the same goat’s milk, honey bee products and herbs her family produces on the farm.

In addition to dairy and creamery tours, Noble Springs Dairy near Franklin hosts farm festivals every Saturday from September 16 through October 28. Their celebrations include pumpkin picking, food trucks at their picnic area, a bounce house and petting zoo.

Greeneville’s Two Roots Vineyard and Alpacas hosts a National Alpacas Farm Days festival September 24 and 25. Visitors can try spinning and weaving in addition to touring the vineyard, picnicking and mingling with the farm’s alpacas.

Most agritourism farms, like Falcon Ridge near Jackson, still offer farm favorites like wagon rides, petting zoos, pony rides, all kinds of fall décor, and pumpkin picking. Family movie nights in the pumpkin patch, praise and worship opportunities for area congregations, and educational corn mazes are also popular fall fare. The Plantation Barn of 1810 in Morristown is a popular wedding venue, and this year plans to host a community wide “trunk or treat” for the first time.

Find fall farm activities and products with the Pick Tennessee mobile app or here. Most on-farm activities depend on good weather, so call ahead and check the farm’s social media posts before traveling.

Pick Tennessee is the farmer to consumer service of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and offers farm, farmers market, and farm product directories as well as seasonal recipes. Follow Pick Tennessee on social media.

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Sparta Green Market and Grassroots Artisans Hold Joint Event July 21

PRESS RELEASE from the Sparta Green Market. July 15, 2017

Contact: Margaret Petre
spartagreenmarket@gmail.com
Phone: 615-477-8801

SPARTA, TN – The non-profit Sparta Green Market’s 2017 third event of the season opens July 21, 4-7PM at Metcalfe Park near Liberty Square with a full pavilion of vendors, musicians, and entertainment for the kids.

Due to a rainout last weekend, Grassroots Artisans will be located adjacent to Metcalf Pavilion during the Green Market event.

The Artisan group was “created by a group of four individuals to revitalize Sparta and White County’s economy,” says Wendell Rust, co-founder. The event is held monthly in downtown Sparta and features local artists and crafters and the products they create.

Margaret Petre, Sparta Green Market event chair and founder, says, “We are expecting nearly double the number of venders and crafters. There will be local farmers, cattlemen, bakers, produce growers, face painting artists, balloon animals, and honey producers for the third market of the season.”

Popular keyboardist, Whitney Newport, is back for her third season as the featured entertainer.
The Sparta Green Market is the place for growers who have honey, seasonal plants, vegetables, meat, fruits, and flowers to meet hungry patrons in an entertaining atmosphere.

Ms. Petre says, “Patrons can expect top quality products from the Sparta area.” According to Tennessee Department of Agriculture, acceptable Farm Products include, but are not limited to: farm produce, plants, eggs, honey, meat, cheese, decorative gourds, herbs, animal fibers, and cut flowers.

Ms. Petre continues, “An evening event in Sparta is a good way for families and friends to eat dinner downtown, visit local businesses, enjoy the Green Market, and listen to a free bluegrass concert starting at 7PM. We encourage everyone to support downtown Sparta, enjoy the free entertainment, educational booths, locally grown meat, veggies, fruit, honey, flowers, eggs, and much more.”

Sparta Green Market is a “Green” outing so please bring reusable bags for produce and other goods. No smoking allowed and please do not bring pets to the event.

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Fare Well in Local Canning Competitions

Rule of thumb: Stick with the standards

Once something of a dying art, home canning has enjoyed a mini resurgence as more and more people rediscover the joys of country living. And county fairs are a great place to see what others in your community are putting in jars — and maybe, if you’re up for a challenge, seeing how your efforts stack up against the competition.

If you’re hesitant to try your hand at canning for fear of making a mistake – or making someone ill — think about taking a course in canning. Local county extension offices offer classes that walk a would-be home canner through the dos and don’t of food-preservation safety.

Also, the USDA publishes time-tested canning guidelines and recipes on a “Complete Guide to Home Canning” webpage that’s easy to find and follow.

Judging in the home canning arts category is no joke to Shelly Barnes, an agriculture extension officer in Wilson County. Food safety is the number one concern for canned goods, she said.

What judges like to see are entries that have clearly been properly processed in clean mason jars, with brand new lids and rings.

So, for example, a bright red jar of tomato sauce that has not been processed long enough is sure to be skipped in favor of a browner product. And if your jelly jars are sticky with jam, that is an indication that something went wrong in processing and it will not likely winning a ribbon.

In fact, Barnes said she’s not above refusing to award a blue ribbon if no entry is worthy of one.

The Competitor View

Tapatha Ray of Smithville knows a few things about blue ribbons. Last year she won an astounding 55 of them in the Dekalb County Fair.

Her farm sells produce at the farmers market on Saturdays. But what doesn’t sell is carefully preserved for winter use by her customers and family. When county fair time arrives, Tapatha chooses samples from her store to submit for judging.

Ray said that in her experience, what “doesn’t work” is getting too creative in canning competitions and coming up with odd concoction and mixtures that judges likely haven’t seen before.

“One year I added bright red peppers to my pickles and those jars were not chosen, probably because they were not your usual pickle,” said Mrs. Ray.

No Taste-Testing

It’s pretty obvious to anybody who’s tried them that home-canned foods taste better than their store-bought counterparts.

So it might seem a little strange that Tennessee fair judges don’t typically perform taste-tests on the contents of the jars they’re evaluating. Wilson County Fair’s Barnes said that’s because they have no way of knowing whether the submissions were in fact properly packed, processed and handled. And the equipment required to check for safety is expensive, she said.

In sum, if you want to make a winning impression at your local fair, choose your produce carefully, use proper mason jars, measure the “headspace” and make certain to follow established guidelines and conservative recipes.

Catching a judge’s eye in a good way often means signaling that you’re confident enough in your canning skills to put traditional simplicity to the competitive test.

Nicole Sauce is a homesteader, publisher, podcaster and local coffee roaster. Reach her at LivingFreeInTennessee.com.

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Life Crests on the Upper Cumberland

After climbing world’s highest mountain, local man gains appreciation for TN

For his 70th birthday last year, Tim “Bubba” Garrett of Buffalo Valley wanted to do something unique, in keeping with a tradition he’s developed over the years.

So the retired businessman and software engineer decided to climb Mt. Everest, the highest mountain on planet Earth.

He didn’t go all the way to the top. Just to the base camp, and then, for the heck of it, another thousand feet or so beyond that.

Mind you, that’s no small feat. It takes at least eight days just to trek up to the base camp, which is about 17,000 feet above sea level. That’s more than three thousand feet higher than anywhere in the continental United States, and nearly 11,000 feet above Tennessee’s highest point, Clingmans Dome. Climbers often spend several days at the base camp acclimating to the altitude before ascending Everest’s highest ridges.

Tim “Bubba” Garrett holds a photo of the Mt. Everest base camp in Southern Asia that he hiked to last fall for his 70th birthday.

Being determined as he was that Mt. Everest “wasn’t going to be the hill I died on,” Bubba said he took serious medical and training measures beforehand to prepare for the physically taxing journey.

He said avalanches are always a concern, and bad weather, but altitude sickness tends to be “the real killer.”

“People die going to base camp, because of the altitude,” he said. “There’s just no way to prepare for the altitude. It’s brutal. Just about everybody gets altitude sickness.”

In order to avoid the additional risk of food poisoning, he lived almost solely on energy bars the entire time he was on the mountain.

Bubba said October and November tend to be drier and warmer in the day, but it still gets cold after dark. “When night comes, you better have that down jacket on, cause the bottom falls out of it,” he said.

Past a certain point, “there’s nothing but rock,” Bubba said. So the accompanying yaks provide an essential source of warmth in the camp huts. “The only heat you got is burning the yak dung,” he said.

But while the yaks may be indispensable as pack-animals and fuel-providers, they aren’t particularly friendly, said Bubba. “One of the really dangerous things up there is, if you get near a drop-off, those yaks will push you off,” he said. “They tell you to watch out for the yaks. They’re mean and they’re big.”

Bubba’s camera became a yak-casualty after one of the brutes stepped on his bag.

As for day-to-day nourishment, Bubba said he lived on pretty much solely on energy bars the whole time because the last thing he wanted on top of everything else was a case of food poisoning.

His time on Mt. Everest lasted just shy of three weeks. “I arrived at base camp November the 15th, and my seventieth birthday was on the 16th,” he said. Bubba described the homeward expedition off the mountain as “starting the descent of my life.”

Nowadays Bubba has embarked upon his newest adventure: raising Tennessee fainting goats. It’s something he’s wanted to do since childhood. He’s getting assistance from his good friend, Billye Foster, a professor at Tennessee Tech’s School of Agriculture.

“She told me that ‘Raising Goats for Dummies’ was going to be too advanced for me, so she made me my own book,” Bubba said.

Bubba plans to hire out the goats for free to clear overgrown rural cemeteries around the region. Although he said that if the property owners can afford it, he’ll encourage them to make a donation to a charity that serves farmers in Africa that Professor Foster works.

Through all his travels and adventures and novel undertakings over the years — Professor Foster says Bubba is the type of person who “changes directions easily” — Bubba says he’s come to truly appreciate an old adage that says, “Happiness isn’t getting what you want, but wanting what you got.”

“People spend a lot of time saying, If only I had this or if only I had that,” said Bubba. “Well, I’ve traveled all over the world and I have never found a better place to be than right here.”

 

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Lee Leads Expeditions in Imagination at Liberty Paper

DeKalb County artist expands frontiers of experimental creativity

Claudia Lee loves what she does and loves living where she does it.

Growing up in Connecticut and New Jersey, Lee always knew she wanted to live in Tennessee.

“When I was little, I had a best friend and he and I were determined to move to Tennessee because that is where Davy Crockett was from. We were big Davy Crockett fans,” recalls Lee, who 20 years ago moved to the woodsy slopes and shady hollers northeast of Dowelltown. Prior to that she spent three decades in the Tri-Cities area, in fact not far from Crockett’s Greene County birthplace.

Lee has become something of a pioneer in her own right — not just living, as she does, encompassed by DeKalb County’s timberland wilds — but as an artist. On an old farmstead along Cripps Road, she’s made a home and runs her Liberty Paper art studio amidst the tall pines, thick cedar and sturdy hardwoods, by a small stream that runs down to Smith Fork Creek.

Lee’s artistic expertise lies in handcrafting colorfully elaborate paper — typically from raw fibrous plant materials, like flax and leaves of abaca, a species of banana tree native to the Philippines. In turn, she masterfully stitches, weaves, molds and otherwise shapes the paper into elegant sculptures, ornamental boxes, wall pieces, decorative lamps, table adornments and richly detailed book covers and scrapbook pages.

Lee says she’s always experimenting, always making unique paper sheets with novel textures, hues and consistencies.

She’s collected numerous honors and recognitions for her expressive spirit and innovative initiative over the years.

In 2011, she was commissioned to design the various individual Governor’s Awards that the Tennessee Arts Commission biennially bestows upon the Volunteer State’s most creative contributors to the arts and cultural life. “The awards themselves represent artistic genius from some of the finest working artists across the state of Tennessee,” the commission’s website declares.

Light sculptures by Claudia Lee.

Lee’s latest accolade came in the form of a cover-feature and six-page photo spread of her work in this summer’s edition of a national quarterly magazine called Bound & Lettered, which is prominent in the world of bookbinding, papercraft and calligraphy. In addition, the editors asked her to craft an essay detailing her fascination with papermaking.

Lee wrote that her vision has always been to “develop a signature body of work” which would blend “many textile techniques, including weaving, spinning, dyeing, and stitching.” But it’s the methods of her undertakings, as much or more even than the finished products, that fulfill her yearning for artistic adventure.

“When you make paper almost every day for more than thirty years, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the magic of the process,” Lee wrote. “It begins with a humble plant growing in yard, field, or woods; cooking the plant to remove non-cellulosic materials; beating it into pulp; and adding the pulp to a vat of water.

“Next is stirring the vat with your hands,” she continued. “An experienced papermaker can tell by the feel of the pulp in the water if the amount of pulp is sufficient for a sheet. With each dip of the mould and deckle into the vat, the sheet miraculously forms before your eyes.”

Lee doesn’t see her artistic role solely as one of blazing new trails and charting exploratory courses on her own. She gains great satisfaction and gratification in teaching the techniques of her craft both to novices and other experienced artists.

Lee said papermaking was something she learned “from the ground up.”

She knew immediately it was something she wanted to learn when she first encountered it at a craft school decades ago. It’s something that often draws people in from the moment they see it, she said.

“Sometimes people just walk into the studio and that’s it,” Lee said. “It is very tactile. And it is immediately accessible to people.”

Getting started “is so easy to do,” she said.

“I have worked with small children and handicapped kids, they can all make paper,” said Lee. “So it is a very friendly medium. If you make a mistake, you dump it back in and make another one. It is user-friendly, easy to do and you can do it very simply at home with very little equipment.”

One of Lee’s primary objectives when instructing people is to teach them in a way that build their confidence and understanding of the process, so they indeed can do it again on their own. “I want them to go home and do it,” she said. “I don’t want them to be like, OK, I did that once, now what?”

Those who take an immediate interest have sometimes become absorbed already with scrapbooking or notecards or activities that require purchasing a lot of paper at a craft store. “It’s kind of the next step up to make your own paper,” Lee said.

Working with established artists who’re already proficient in some other medium is also rewarding, she said. Helping them incorporate their own handmade paper into other projects and creations enables them to dive deeper into their own creative processes.

“People can design a unique sheet of paper for their work, so that no one else is going to have that kind of paper,” Lee said. “And the great thing about making your paper if you are an artist is you can design what you need. If you run out, you just make more.”

To set up a time to visit with Ms. Lee, tour her studio or inquire about attending classes or purchasing her work, email her at libertypapermaking@gmail.com. Visit her website at claudialeepaper.com.

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Demand for Pest-Free Firewood Heating Up

Parks and campgrounds urging heat-treatment certification

Federal and state natural resource agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation want to expand availability of government-certified firewood at public campgrounds.

Public lands managers are looking to put a damper on fires made from wood that hasn’t undergone heat treatment beforehand. For that reason, hauling unapproved firewood into a state park or federal recreation area might become a thing of the past in the not-too-distant future.

Their aim is to impede the spread of tree-threatening non-native creepy-crawlies, like the emerald ash borer and longhorned beetles, both indigenous to Asia, as well as the gypsy moth and gold spotted oak borer, which are unwelcome guests to Tennessee from, respectively, Europe and the southwestern United States.

“All these things have been introduced — that’s why we call them invasive,” said Greg Aydelotte, who administers plant protection and quarantine procedures for the USDA.

Aydelotte was one of several forest-health specialists who delivered presentations in Cookeville this spring during a seminar on the certification process. The goal of the May 25 conference, attended by about 50 people, was to cultivate interest in the certification program among would-be Upper Cumberland wood-products entrepreneurs.

“Emerald ash borer tends to be the one that we handle in most situations involving firewood,” Aydelotte said. “People will bring firewood from long distances.”

For that reason, campgrounds are often suspected as a point of entry when invasive pests spread into areas that were previously free of them.

According to a TDEC information sheet on the state’s “Don’t Move Firewood” campaign, “Native trees have defenses against insects and diseases that they’ve been living with for millions of years. Likewise, native predators eat native insects, keeping their numbers in check. Non-native insects and diseases have no predators in their new homes and the trees have no natural defenses against them. Because these foreign bugs don’t have anything stopping them, they reproduce rapidly, killing thousands of trees in their wake.”

All Tennessee State Parks now adhere to a certified-firewood-only “policy” — although it’s not actually a state law, according to TDEC spokeswoman Kim Schofinski.

State park managers also don’t want people bringing untreated wood in from the surrounding vicinity. TDEC officials believe areas near Tennessee state parks may in some cases already have infestations of invasive forests pests, even if they’re as yet undetected.

“We encourage campground and cabin guests to follow this policy in the effort to stem the spread of invasive pests that damage our forests,” Schofinski wrote in an email to Center Hill Sun. “This is a joint education effort with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry and the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee. National Parks also have firewood policies in place.”

Campers are still allowed to make fires using “dead material on the ground” or “downed wood collected inside the park, near the campsite.” However, in many circumstances such fuel is scarce near high-use camping areas, or gathering it may in fact be prohibited in some places.

Park and campground managers are encouraging private vendors to fill the void by selling more certified heat-treated wood that’s “clearly marked with a state/federal seal.”

Obtaining a government seal of approval — and with it, an official online listing by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture as a certified-firewood seller — requires signing a compliance agreement and acquiring a firewood-heating system, which in turn must undergo periodic inspection by regulators.

To ensure the firewood is heated to at least 140 degrees for 60 minutes, as required for the certification, temperature probes are inserted into individual sticks of firewood throughout the kiln.

“We’re looking for the center to reach those temperatures,” said Heather Slayton, a forest health and sustainability expert for the state Division of Forestry who has been delivering presentations around Tennessee on the firewood-certification program. “The probes are put randomly throughout your kiln, and every single one of the probes have to pass the certification.”

Slayton said there are a number of “turnkey” kilns available on the market, but homemade rigs and systems work just fine, too. Woodland property owners, farmers, loggers and anybody else that might have access to a steady supply of fuel-timber is encouraged to get into the firewood-selling game.

Constructing a homemade kiln-heating mechanism is perfectly acceptable. “We’re not certifying the kiln design,” said Slayton. “Build it how ever you want to build it.”

The central requirement is that certification regulators verify that it’s heating the wood sufficiently, and for the appropriate period of time, to terminate all unwanted bugs and their larva, she said.

According to the USDA, heat treatment procedures may employ steam, hot water, kilns or any other method that raises the center of the wood to 140 degrees for a full hour.

“It doesn’t have to be high-tech,” said Slayton. “But you do have to be able to monitor your temperatures and write them down. If you’re going to build your own, you need to make sure you think about how the thermodynamics work.”

If the kiln isn’t insulated properly or doesn’t allow for appropriate air circulation to disperse the heat, it may fail when put to the test by the certifying agents. “You’ve got to hit those temperature thresholds,” said Slayton.

Retail sellers of certified firewood include big-box stores like Lowes, Home Depot, Gander Mountain, Academy Sports, as well as numerous other smaller vendors like grocery stores and gas stations, she said.

While the number of certified firewood-drying kilns in Tennessee is still relatively small, Slayton said she’s “working extremely hard to raise that number so folks can buy Tennessee-produced certified firewood as opposed to out of state producers.”

If you’d like to get more information about the procedures for certification, contact Ms. Slayton at heather.slayton@tn.gov.