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Go Green in White County

Time to mark your calendars to start setting aside a little early evening time on the third Friday of each month for dropping by the Sparta Green Market.

The monthly festival of fresh food, open-air local shopping and lively music begins Friday at Metcalfe Park near Liberty Square in downtown Sparta.

Starting at 4.pm., it’ll include a full pavilion of food and craft vendors, talented musicians and entertainment for kids.

Green Market chairwoman Margaret Petre says to expect more than two dozen booths and attractions at the May 19 fest, including local beef-raisers, bakers, produce growers, face painters, balloon-animal designers and honey producers. Featured musicians scheduled to perform include Green Market veteran Whitney Newport, a keyboardist back for her third season, and guitarist Eli Payne, who’ll be playing the market for the first time.

The Green Market takes special pride in attracting and displaying “top quality products from the Sparta area,” said Petre.

In addition to free entertainment and educational booths, the market provides a vibrant hub for buying and selling local meat, fruits and veggies, honey, flowers, eggs and a whole lot more, she said.

“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 7 p.m.,” Petre said.

Don’t forget: it is always a good idea to bring chairs and an iced cooler for meats, poultry or other items you might purchase at the market. Also, because Sparta Green Market is in fact a “green” outing, organizers encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags for produce and other goods they purchase. No smoking or pets are allowed.

For more information, contact Ms. Petre at spartagreenmarket@gmail.com, or send a message on Facebook.

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Deep in the Heart of TN: TX Longhorns

Of the hundreds of cattle breeds raised on farms and ranchlands throughout the United States, few are more striking and recognizable than Texas Longhorns.

Longhorns have earned distinction not just for their ability to survive and thrive in arid, barren and otherwise inhospitable wilderness environments, but as a cultural and historical symbol of the Great American West itself.

They’ve been described as the “original bovine” in North America.

Today, longhorns represent just a fraction of the total number of cattle raised in America — especially outside Texas — estimated at less than one percent of the total population as a whole. The Fort Worth-based Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America reports about 80 registered commercial longhorn ranches are operating in Tennessee.

Even though their relative population is small, Texas Longhorns maintain a sturdy niche market, both for breeders and direct-to-market meat growers, said Roger Townsend, president of the Tennessee Valley Texas Longhorns Association.

Unlike cattle stocks that predominate today, “no one set out to develop Texas Longhorn cattle as a breed,” according to an informational webpage set up by a professor and longhorn conservationists at the University of Texas. “Instead, they evolved in North America from descendants of cattle brought into the Americas by the Spanish in the late 1400s and early 1500s.” Early herds roamed wild for centuries, and “underwent intense natural selection.” Descendants of the original stocks developed robust disease resistance, enabling them to flourish in harsh range conditions. With their prodigious, spike-tipped headgear, worn by bulls and cows alike, they could formidably defend themselves and their young against predator threats.

Owing to their natural evolution, Texas Longhorns today are capable of ingesting a much wider array of plants than other cattle.

“A lot of people compare them to bison or even goats,” said Townsend, who runs about 250 head of purebred Texas Longhorns on his ranch in Giles County. “They will graze and forage and go out in the woods and eat vines and things that other breeds nowadays won’t.”

Most all today’s cattle varieties have been bred “for one particular thing, be it for beef or milk,” he said.

Preeminent congenital trait among longhorns are endurance, stress tolerance and vitality, but were engineered by the hand of nature, not man.

“Longhorns are a beef-type cow, but because they are rangier and leaner, the meat is low fat and low cholesterol,” Townsend added. “It is very similar to eating bison.”

Meat from longhorns “is very profitable and definitely sells,” he noted.

Steer By Silver Point

If you’ve ever found yourself moseying along Highway 141 just west of the little hamlet called Silver Point, you may have observe a stately herd of the regal beasts grazing along a rolling parcel of highland pasture.

Randall Fedon, with his wife, Rosemary, has run a herd of purebred Texas Longhorns on their R&R Ranch property there for more than a decade.

Fedon, who lived as a child in Arizona, said he’s always loved the majestic look of longhorns, and both he and his wife “came from farm people.” When they bought land in Putnam County more than a decade ago, they knew they wanted to run cattle on it.

Texas Longhorns, said Fedon, fit the bill.

“We just like to let them roam out there, like they did in the West,” he said.

Despite their imposing appearance and reputation for stubborn perseverance in hardscrabble domains, Texas Longhorns typically display a placid temperament and exhibit docile behavior.

“They are really easy,” Fedon said of caring for his herd. “You can pet them and everything, as long as they are not mating. Then you need to watch out.”

No Bull, Longhorns Aren’t Dull

Texas Longhorns possess unusually sharp minds between their colossal horns. They’re among the most intelligent of cattle breeds.

“Longhorns are very inquisitive,” said Townsend. “If you go out and sit in the field on my ranch, it will be no time before you are surrounded by 20 calves. If you sit still, they’ll come up and start nudging you. If you have a cap on, they’ll nudge it off your head and start licking on you. It’s just how they are. They’re nosy and inquisitive.”

Townsend warns those who buy calves from him to raise for beef that they’ll nudge their way into your heart if you’re not careful.

“I tell people not to take a calf home and let their wife or kids make it into a pet, because if that happens it’ll never make it to the freezer,” he said. “I’ve then had those same people come back later saying that’s exactly what happened, the family wouldn’t let it be killed. They’ll grow on you, for sure. People love them.”

Visitors to the area and passersby along Highway 141 are welcome to use the R & R Ranch pull-out area on the north side of the road to view and photograph the longhorns over the fence, as long as they’re respectful of the property and animals.

Another pullout is located along Buffalo Valley Road, about a half mile past the Silver Point Baptist Church at the bottom of the hill. The R & R Ranch is a little under a mile and a half west of I-40’s Exit 273

“They are really neat. They’re a different kind of breed than you see much around here, that’s for sure,” said James Jones, a resident on the R & R Ranch who helps the Fedons look after the cattle. “You wouldn’t believe how many people stop and take pictures. Sometimes, people will stop right on the road and I’m like, Oh gosh, that ain’t good!”

To contact the Tennessee Valley Texas Longhorns Association, email Roger Townsend at tnman37_38478@yahoo.com. His number is 931-309-9480.

Visit the Texas Longhorns Breeders Association of America at tlbaa.org.

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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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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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A Taste of Cumberland Wine Country

DelMonaco Winery and Vineyard in Baxter tempts tourists to toast regional agriculture

Over the last decade, growth in Tennessee agriculture tourism, or “agritourism,” has emerged as a promising, profitable trend for many families relying in whole or part on farm income for their livelihood.

A 2013 University of Tennessee economic survey estimated that farm-based businesses that cater to tourist harvested $34.4 million statewide, and another $54.2 million was generated in local economies as a “multiplier effect” of spending by visitors.delmonacomap

Volunteer State “wine tourism” has particularly flourished.

The number of Tennessee vino-making venues has more than doubled over the last eight years. In 2008, there were about 30 wineries in the state. Today there are about 65, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

“Wine, grapes, grape products and allied industries create employment and new market opportunities in rural communities,” a 2014 study commissioned by the department asserted. “In areas that previously had diminishing farming of tobacco, cotton, and other crops, the planting of grapevines and the creation of wineries is now offering new life. Grape farming is providing employment as is the establishment of new wineries, shops and restaurants springing up in the footprint of these rural communities.”

Barbara DelMonaco, who owns DelMonaco Winery and Vineyard in Putnam County, has witnessed firsthand the industry’s burgeoning potential to prosper since she and her husband, David, planted their first vines 14 years ago.

“Tennessee still has a long way to go to reach its full potential,” she said.

But DelMonaco Winery is doing its best to help Upper Cumberland’s wine industry blossom and develop.

Situated just a few miles off I-40 — an easy detour for travelers thirsting to put interstate traffic in the rearview mirror — DelMonaco is one of seven wineries that make up tasting stations along the Upper Cumberland Wine Trail.

DelMonaco also happens to have taken root right by a working set of railroad tracks. So it periodically serves as the destination depot for a vintage excursion train departing from the Tennessee Central Railway Museum in Nashville. The 10-hour round-trip rides are hugely popular, typically selling out weeks or even months in advance.

A Sip Starts in the Soil

Diane Parks, a winemaker at DelMonaco, takes full advantage of the teachable moments when rail riders from the Music City detrain at the vineyard. It’s a great opportunity to enlighten folks living outside the countryside about the time, talent and tolerance for trial-and-error necessary to coax a crop of grapes out of the ground and into the wine-imbiber’s glass.winetrain

First and foremost, winemaking is an agricultural endeavor, Parks explains.

“A winery is nothing without grapes. The life’s blood of most wineries are its grapes,” she said. “You can make a crappy wine out of really good grapes, but you can’t make a really good wine out of crappy grapes. You really have to manage your vineyard well in order to have good quality grapes — and, in turn, to make good quality wine.”

Tammy Algood, a viticulture marketing specialist for the state, has been studying and helping promote Volunteer State varietals for the better part of 30 years.

It’s gratifying to see the wine industry benefiting from Tennessee’s booming tourism economy, said Algood, precisely because it is “inherently tied to the land.” Tasting-destination wineries represent “a beautiful marriage between the tourist industry and the Tennessee wine and grape industry,” she said

“Grape-growing is farming. And it is beautiful farming,” she said. “This industry is enhancing the visual appeal of Tennessee. If you are going to have a great wine, it started on the vine.”

And often wineries are drawing visitors’ and their vacation-spending into areas both that particularly need it — and might not otherwise enjoy a reputation as a tourist draw, Algood said.

“The topography of the land is very important for grape growing. Unlike a manufacturing facility that can pick up their operations and move to a different county or a different state seeking out tax incentives or a different kind of labor force, an agriculture operation like a vineyard is connected to the land and the local rural economy,” she said.

“You are not typically going to see vineyards in the middle of large cities. You are going to see them where they have land to spread out,” said Algood.

While Tennessee is trailing neighboring states like Missouri, Georgia and Virginia in total number of wineries, wines from here are regularly judged favorably against the best at national and international festivals, she said.

“Each winemaker puts his or her own spin on a particular product,” said Algood. “Tourists that come to Tennessee, particularly from more northern areas, are surprised and pleased to learn that we grow different grapes and as a result have different wines than they are accustomed to.”

“Everybody wants to go home with something from Tennessee, and a bottle of wine is the perfect thing to carry home with you after spending a vacation here,” she said.

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Vineyard Serves as Sample of Viable Family Farming

Cellar 53 Winery in Brush Creek promotes local agriculture, protects rural landscape

The newest sipping stopover along the Upper Cumberland Wine Trail is a testament to one family’s commitment to farmland preservation and conserving country lifestyle.

Owned and operated by Scott and Rebecca Paschal, with the help of their three boys, Cellar 53 Winery is notched into the western edge of the Highland Rim in Smith County, just south of I-40’s Exit 254 on Alexandria Highway.

Cellar 53 opened to the public as a walk-through vineyard and winery just last year. But it took root more than a decade ago.

In the early 2000s, Scott and Rebecca shared “a dream to keep the family farm.”

Rebecca Paschal and her husband, Scott, put down Cellar 53's roots more than a decade ago.

Rebecca Paschal and her husband, Scott, put down Cellar 53’s roots more than a decade ago.

So they made arrangements to purchase a 100-acre tract that, while it’d been under family ownership for generations, had earlier been platted for future sproutings of suburban-style houses in lieu of raising crops and livestock.

In order to make a profitable long-term reality of their dearly priced dream, they set about sowing the seeds of a wine-growing operation.

Over the ensuing ten years, their vision blossomed into what is today a winsome venue for sipping homegrown vino and lingering about a vintage landscape that exemplifies Middle Tennessee at its bucolic best.

The idyllic parcel that rears the fruiting vines for their assortment of wines does abut up against a cove of contemporary homes. But that’s where the residential development stops.

Beyond the rolling hedges of Cellar 53’s wine grapes rises a wild and sprawling expanse of thickset timber that’s now buffered against exurban homebuilding.

Visitors to Cellar 53 are invited to stroll the grounds or relax in the tasting room or on the patio behind the pole barn that houses a conference room, commercial kitchen and wine-making vats. Typically, Cellar 53 has ten or so wines for oenophiles to sample.

“I make a lot of dry wines,” said Rebecca. She noted that they also grow all the blackberries for their blackberry wine, which tends to be a customer favorite.

The itinerary for touring Cellar 53 is pretty laid back. “You taste wine, you get educated, you walk through and appreciate the vineyards and the agriculture,” explains Rebecca. “And hopefully you buy a bottle and go home and enjoy it.”

To visit Cellar 53 Winer: From Interstate 40, Take Exit 254. Turn South - toward Alexandria. Go approximately 1.5 miles and turn left onto Poplar Drive - there are two stone pillars at front of the drive. Take the first left onto Oak View East. Head to the rear of the residential development - please drive slowly! cellar53winery.com

To visit Cellar 53 Winery: From Interstate 40, Take Exit 254. Turn South – toward Alexandria. Go approximately 1.5 miles and turn left onto Poplar Drive – there are two stone pillars at front of the drive. Take the first left onto Oak View East. Head to the rear of the residential development – please drive slowly! cellar53winery.com

Over time, the Paschals have come to recognize that a key element of their role in the community and the regional economy is in fact instructional, and maybe even inspirational. Their message to locals and tourists alike is that agriculture remains a viable livelihood for people willing both to work hard and think creatively about how to use their land and develop markets for selling locally grown products.

The Paschals believe wine growing has a particularly robust future in the Volunteer State if its full potential is ever uncorked. “Before the Prohibition Era, Tennessee had 19,000 acres of wine grapes,” said Rebecca. “Now we have 900. So we obviously can grow them here.”

The Tennessee Farm Winegrowers Alliance reports that there are currently about 25 wineries in the state.

“During the late 1800s, vineyards were flourishing in Tennessee, mostly in areas that were believed to be unsuitable for other agricultural uses,” according to TFWA. “At the time, it appeared that grape-growing would become one of Tennessee’s most important cash crops. However, Prohibition all but ended this promise in 1919. It is just within the last quarter of the 20th century that grape growing (and winemaking) has seen a remarkable recovery.”

The Upper Cumberland Wine Train includes eight wineries. Visit uppercumberland.org to learn more.

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Chestnut Blight-Fighters Breeding Brighter Future

Tide slowly turning in war against against decimating spores

Grand stands of native chestnut trees, now absent from our forest landscapes, are the stuff of legends.

Hailed in its heyday as the “Redwood of the East,” the once mighty and magnificent North American chestnut was a towering, commonplace presence across woodland countrysides, from the middle of Mississippi throughout Appalachia and New England up into Canada.

American chestnuts thrived in nearly all of Tennessee, save some of the western lowlands.

Throughout its 200 million acre range in the eastern United States, chestnuts provided a source of forage for the entire food chain.

Prior to the tree’s calamitous demise in the early and mid-20th Century, chestnuts were “the single most important food source for a wide variety of wildlife from bears to birds,” according to the Tennessee chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation’s website. It was an “essential component of the entire eastern US ecosystem.”

The wood and nuts served as a staple of survival and prosperity for humans as well. Prized not just as a food source for people and livestock, Chestnut trees were a nearly boundless source of sturdy lumber.

Chestnut is estimated to have at one point been the highest timber-volume tree in Tennessee.

Insidious Interloper Introduced

But nature’s native chestnut bounty is no more in this country.

“Oh mighty, magic chestnut tree, how did you slip away from me?” asked Dolly Parton in a musical ode to the arboreal archetype.

The answer was a foreign invader.

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Dr. Hill Craddock discusses chestnut blight disease characteristics at a field demonstration in Cookeville. The orange-colored blight spores can be seen encasing the trunk of this tree.

A fungus blight imported from across the Pacific Ocean on Oriental varieties of chestnut trees in the late 1800s and early 1900s took hold in New York. And over the course of just a few decades, the relentless pestilence — which was relatively innocuous to the Asian chestnut varieties — devastated the non-resistant American chestnut.

“There is no example of a forest disease that so quickly and completely eliminated its host,” Dr. Hill Craddock, a biology professor and chestnut-breeding expert at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, told Center Hill Sun. “It spread very quickly in concentric circles, killing literally billions of trees.”

Craddock said the distinction between “epidemic” and “pandemic” is tragically vital in the tale of the American chestnut tree’s rapid descent toward oblivion.

“This was a true pandemic. There were no unaffected individuals,” he said. “The chestnut blight pandemic may be the worst ecological disaster in the history of North America since the Ice Ages.”

The blight pathogen, which kills back infected trees by scoring and splitting the bark with necrotic cankers, reached Tennessee in the 1930s. By the 1950s, mature American chestnut had been all but obliterated from forests throughout the United States.

However, if there was anything resembling a bright side to the blight plague, it was this: The fungus cankers terminate the tree’s trunk and canopy growth, but the root systems lived on.

And the chestnut is famous for its ability to send up fast-growing new shoots.

“If you walk in the woods today, you can still find chestnut trees sprouting from the base,” said Craddock. “So, therein lies the hope that we can bring them back.”

Craddock, 56, is a celebrity and savant among chestnut restoration enthusiasts. He’s committed his professional life to battling the blight through means of plant breeding and public education about how to engineer a rebound. In a 2004 Smithsonian magazine profile headlined “Chestnutty,” he was described as a “chestnut evangelist.”

This spring, Craddock led a group of regional foresters on a tour of a university chestnut-breeding plot he is managing near Tennessee Tech’s Hyder-Burks Agricultural Pavilion.

“The strategy we’re using is to create a hybrid between the blight-resistant Asian species and the American chestnut,” said Craddock.

Backcrossing to the Future

The breeding process he is using to develop blight-resistant trees is known as “backcrossing.” Parent trees of both Chinese and American are crossed, then back-bred to successive generations to eliminate most of the Chinese tree’s physical characteristics — except for blight resistance.

“If we start with a tree that’s fifty-fifty Chinese-American and we backcross that to an American, we get a tree that is three-quarters American and one-quarter Chinese. When we backcross that generation, then we get a tree that’s seven-eighths American. Backcross that, and then we get a tree that is fifteen-sixteenths American.”

Craddock selects for trees that have the look or “form” of the American chestnut, and also display blight resistance.

“When the trees get up to four or five years old and two or three inches in diameter, we deliberately inoculate the tree with the chestnut blight fungus,” he said.

Trees that show acceptable resistance are used in future crosses, thus bringing forth evermore resistant varieties that are, genetically speaking, very close to native chestnuts.

Seeds from the most resistant strains are then planted in a seed orchard. “In those trees we expect to recover full resistance,” he said.

So, in a nutshell, things are looking up for the iconic giant that once shaded the eastern United States and showered sustenance onto forest floors.

“Ultimate success,” however, is measured not in decades, or even human lifespans, but more like centuries, said Craddock.

“We are talking about ecosystem restoration” he said. “We need a tree that can survive and reproduce on its own under natural conditions. We are hoping to be able to release these trees into the woods in a way that allows natural selection to take over.”

For that to occur, trees must display a level of blight resistance enabling them to survive and reproduce in the wild. “In my lifetime, I think we will have initiated those plantings,” Craddock said.

“A hundred or two hundred years from now, I think we will be able to measure success in another way: if we have naturally reproducing populations of chestnut trees in the forest,” he said.

Interested in learning more about chestnut trees, or obtaining young trees that have been bred for blight-resistance? Contact Dr. Craddock through the American Chestnut Foundation at paul@acf.org, or visit the Tennessee chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation website at tnacf.org.

(Photo at top of page: Krystal Kate Place of Chattanooga is pollinating chestnut flowers. The bags over the blossoms are to prevent pollen pollution.)

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Pest Control, Property-Rights Protection Top Woodland-Owner Issues

Note to Campers: Buying local firewood helps keep bad bugs at bay

Public policy issues wax and wane in importance among rural landowners. But some topics always tend to hover at the top of the list of concerns for families invested in woodland property.

For nearly three decades, the National Woodland Owners Association has been annually polling its members around the country for the main issues on their minds. Three themes always on the radar are taxes, property rights and controlling the spread of damaging insects.

Timberland owners spend a lot of time fretting that local government officials will try to balance tight budgets in part by raising woodland property taxes, said Keith Argow, NWOA’s president.

“All politics and forestry is local, and landowners must pay attention to new proposals,” Argow writes in the spring 2016 issue of National Woodlands, the association’s quarterly forestry magazine. “Society benefits in multiple ways from healthy forests, including clean water, wildlife habitat, a reliable wood supply for business and open space. As a rule of thumb, woodland tax rates should be no higher than $3/acre/year.”

Battles over property rights protection are often byproducts of urban-rural divides, both physical and philosophical. Increasing urbanization is a persistent issue of concern for family forestland owners, who fear diminishing public appreciation for working rural landscapes.

“As rural America continues to transform from working farms and forests to homesites without working landscapes, the character of the neighborhood changes,” said Argow. “Eventually the composition of state and local elected officials changes too. The elected officials either reflect opinion of the new arrivals, or they are soon out of office.”

NWOA tends to encourage “right-to-practice-forestry” laws at the state level to guard against restrictive local ordinances that discourage even responsible timber harvesting.

Another matter about which woodland managers are keenly alert is “bad bugs and diseases,” said Argow.

Real and present dangers to Tennessee forests include gypsy moth, pine beetles, emerald ash borer, hemlock woolly adelgid and thousand-cankers disease, which is a fungus transmitted to black walnut trees by a twig beetle.

Preventing infestation tends to be key. The invidious insects like to hitch free rides into uncontaminated forests whenever they can. Of particular concern is the transport firewood, even within the state.

“People should try to keep it as local as they can, at least within their home county,” said Tyler Wakefield, a state forester for Cannon, Coffee, DeKalb, Warren Counties. “We certainly don’t want people hauling firewood across the state to go camping.”

The Tennessee Department of Forestry advises: “Don’t bring firewood along for camping trips; get the wood from a local source. Don’t bring wood home with you.”

To check out the National Woodland Owners Association’s Top 10 list of tree-growers’ issues, visit http://woodlandowners.org/.

Argow noted that the Tennessee Woodland Association, which is affiliated with NWOA, is looking to sign up volunteers to promote public awareness about forest health issues in the Volunteer State. Contact him at argow@cs.net for details.

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Buffalo at Home Roaming TN Highland Range

America’s newest national symbol is on majestic display at Lazy G Ranch in Putnam County

Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when people think of the great American buffalo.

But prior to the demolition of wild bison herds across this country in the latter 19th Century, the massive, magnificent beasts wandered vast sweeps of the continent — not just the Great Plains and Mountain West.

The historical range of Bison bison bison — which is the buffalo’s distinctive scientifically accurate name — encompassed an immense expanse of the North American interior, from Alaska to Alabama and even into the Florida panhandle.

Buffalo Valley, just off the I-40 Center Hill Dam exit, is said for example to have gotten its name because the area served as a congregating point for migrating bands of bison meandering down to water in the Caney Fork.

The multitude of bison that once ranged this country at the end of the 18th Century, and the magnitude of their demise in the century that followed, is almost impossible for the modern American mind to grasp.

More than 40 million buffalo are estimated to have roamed what’s now the Lower 48 and upper Mexico two centuries ago, and tens of million more lived north of the U.S. border. In less than 50 years in the late 1800s, buffalo numbers plummeted to near extinction.

“To go from tens of millions of wild buffalo down to thousands — that’s something that is hard to comprehend,” says Eddie Gaw, who runs a herd of aboubisonbwt 30 bison on his Lazy G Ranch a few miles north of Cookeville on Hwy 135.

Today roughly half a million bison exist in America, on both public and private lands. Wild herds are managed by fish and game agencies in 11 states, including the Land Between the Lakes. That’s far, far fewer than the wild wandering herds of centuries past that the Lewis and Clark journals said “darkened the whole plains.”

But all the same, it’s an undeniable turnabout in the bison’s fortunes. And that was brought about by a growing popular appreciation for buffalo, coupled with efforts to preserve the colossal even-toed ungulate’s iconic place in the country’s imagination by ensuring it continues to exist on its landscapes.

Gaw’s buffalo serve as a living local monument to an ongoing conservation triumph. But to him, raising bison in the 21st Century is about planning for the future as much or more than just remembering the past.

Safeguarding a Living Symbol

The bison’s rebound has bisonwebbabymommabeen commemorated this year with its formal recognition as an official symbol of the United States.

In April, Congress passed the National Bison Legacy Act, which designates the buffalo as the “national mammal.” President Obama signed the Act into law May 9.

The Act declares that “bison are considered a historical symbol of the United States.” Buffalo were “integrally linked with the economic and spiritual lives of many Indian tribes through trade and sacred ceremonies,” the measure goes on.

Furthermore, buffalo historically shaped the terrain they roamed, which aided in the health and survival of other native plant and animal species. “Bison can play an important role in improving the types of grasses found in landscapes to the benefit of grasslands,” the Act reads.

Passage of the Bison Legacy Act marked the climax to a half-decade-long effort by the Vote Bison Coalition, a collection of more than 60 buffalo-advocating businesses, ranchers and nonprofit groups. A statement on the coalition’s website described Congress’s approval of the Act as “a great milestone for an animal that has played a central role in America’s history and culture.”

Marketing Sustainable Meat

The Bison Legacy Act specifically recognizes early efforts by private ranchers in rescuing the buffalo from oblivion.

“A small group of ranchers helped save bison from extinction in the late 1800s by gathering the remnants of the decimated herds,” declares the Act, which also expresses that “bison hold significant economic value for private producers and rural communities.”

Today, bison that are “under the stewardship of private producers” are responsible for “creating jobs and providing a sustainable and healthy meat source contributing to the food security of the United States,” the Act declares.

Dedicated to promoting bison’s potential as a source of beauty, pride and healthy red-meat protein, the National Bison Association is among the groups delighted to see the bison given official national significance along with the bald eagle and the oak, which was declared America’s National Tree in 2004.

“There has never been a national mammal,” said the association’s assistant director, Jim Matheson. “Bison being the largest mammal on the continent, and also probably the greatest conservation success story of America. So we see it as a great fit.”

Some of the bison at the Lazy G Ranch, particularly non-dominant bulls, are slaughtered for meat and hides. But Gaw’s foremost mission is raising awareness. He’s hopeful a charge of bison-promoting publicity related to the National Mammal classification will send more folks his direction for a firsthand look at the country’s newest symbol.

Gaw has set aside about half of his 150 acre spread of rolling grassy pasture for his bison. Over time, he’d like to more than double the size of the herd to around 75, and expand their range to most or all the ranch’s pastureland.

Awesome to Behold

Already, it is not uncommon to see more than a dozen cars pull into his ranch driveway on a Saturday to gaze while the buffalo graze.

What is it about bison that people find so captivating?

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“Blizzard” is a rare white bison. His owner, Eddie Gaw, bought him as a calf two years ago. Like a lot of privately owned buffalo in America, Blizzard’s genetic profile probably includes some trace DNA remnants of beef-cow. Mr. Gaw is a member of the National Bison Association, which opposes ranchers purposefully cross-breeding buffalo with cattle.

“Just look at them,” says Gaw. The two words that typically spring to people’s minds when viewing bison — especially up close — are “powerful” and “majestic.”

That, and “big,” of course.

Bulls can weigh more than a ton and stand six-and-a-half feet tall at their hulking shoulders, The horns on their mammoth, wooly heads — worn by males and females alike — can grow two feet long. These burly beasts seem not far removed from the Ice Age.

Bison are startlingly agile and fast. “Buffalo can jump six feet vertical. Anything they can lay their chin on, they can jump,” Gaw said. And they can outrun a horse over sustained distances.

Just looking at them is precisely what Gaw wants more people to do at his ranch. He encourages visitors to stop and simply behold the grand critters.

Their stately grace is undeniable, whether ambling slowly along munching at turf, laying about ruminating their cuds, loping over a hill in a rumbling formation, or blithely bathing in a dirt wallow, which Gaw said they do to ward away bugs.

“A lot of people just don’t really know much about buffalo,” he said. “Anytime I see people down by the road watching them, especially if they’ve got kids, I like to go down and talk to them, and maybe educate them a little.”

Gaw is happy to entertain fibisonwebwarningeld trip buses of youngsters and adults. Residents of the Fairfield Glade Retirement Community in Cumberland County were excited to visit after reading a story in the Crossville Chronicle a couple years back about a rare white buffalo calf that Gaw had acquired from South Dakota.

“Blizzard,” as the blond young bull was christened, is a baby no more. But he still attracts an audience, including American Indians for whom a white bison holds particularly solemn spiritual significance.

Gaw said Indians have come to his ranch and sat on the grass for hours at a time meditating on the sight of Blizzard and the rest of the herd. “I’ve even had them write me letters asking for locks of hair,” he said. “If they have buffalo hair in their house, it’s Good Medicine.”Google ChromeScreenSnapz005

One of the best viewing times to watch the bison on Gaw’s ranch is as the afternoon wanes. That’s when they tend to get particularly lively and animated, calves and adults alike.

“In the evening, sometimes they’ll get to running and run the whole area of their field,” said Gaw. “They’re liable to do it for 30 minutes, chasing each other just like they are playing.”

If you’d like to call ahead to book a guided visit, call Eddie Gaw at 931-528-1681. Look them up on Facebook at Lazy G Ranch TN. The ranch address is 6070 Dodson Branch Rd (Hwy 135), which is about five miles north of TTU’s Hooper Eblen Center.

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Landowners Urged to Take Long View When Logging

Deciding when to cut timber on your property, and in what manner, is one of the most important decisions a woodland landowner can make.

When it comes to agriculture commodities like row crops or cattle, if you make a mistake you can recover in a relatively short period of time. Such is by no means the case with trees, warns University of Tennessee extension forestry specialist David Mercker. Read more