Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

The Shape of Things

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

Geometric shapes are all around us. Notice the rectangles, circles and triangles present in everyday life.
Photos by David LaBelle

Ever travel to a zoo with an architect? While you are busy looking at the living creatures—birds, animals, fish and reptiles—they are admiring the design of the enclosure. I remember a visit to an aquarium at the Oregon coast. The volunteer went on and on about the magnificent enclosure and the architect.

People have different interests and see different things. One person’s trash is another’s treasure, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

As we go about our busy lives, few of us give much thought to geometrical shapes—circles and squares, pyramids and rectangles. Unless we are architects, we likely don’t appreciate or even notice the many shapes that form our world.

It can be like that traveling with a graphically aware photographer who sees design or beauty in everything. My wife is like that. Rarely do we walk long before she stops and studies a leaf, a twisted branch or a creature’s nest. She lives in constant awe of nature.

Like me, she is a photography teacher, but her background is in art. One of her favorite assignments is to ask her students to take a walk with their camera and find shapes like circles, squares, diamonds or rectangles.

Just like an exercise to strengthen your eye muscles, this assignment is like removing blinders from a horse so they can see beyond what is just in front of them. Students are enthralled by the geometric shapes they have passed by, often without noticing.

As with light, geometric shapes can influence our mood and affect the way we see and feel, usually subtly.

People attending a church service in an elaborate, ornate cathedral with tall ceilings and stained-glass windows say they feel closer to God.

The aware photographer sees things others pass by and don’t or cannot see. Some photographers, like some artists, see light and shape wherever they are. It’s as though they cannot help seeing shapes any more than some breeds of dogs can keep from herding cattle or sheep.

Wry, visually witty photographer Elliot Erwitt tells of returning to his New York City office and sharing with colleagues how he had been out photographing the arrow on the side of the FedEx truck.

“What arrow?” they asked. “There wasn’t an arrow on the sides of those trucks.”

His image proved them wrong.

When teaching about composition, one of my favorite sayings is the stage you build is in the viewfinder while waiting for the performance to begin. Being a documentary photographer who hungers for storytelling moments, foregrounds and backgrounds are shapes—pieces of that stage. While I am far more interested in the performance than the stage, I am reminded to be more aware of both.

If you are feeling energetic and want to exercise your seeing, take a walk with your camera on a photo scavenger hunt for geometric shapes. You likely will encounter shapes you did not see before.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the U.S. and taught at three universities. For more information, visit

Take to the Trails

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

A section of the Good Neighbor Trail—part of the Coast to Coast Trail—travels through the Withlacoochee State Forest.
Photo by Michael Dolan

If you are not a serious hiker or cyclist who lives for long, challenging trails, you are in luck. In Florida, the highest point is a mere 345 feet above sea level. The state offers dozens of choices for fun trips to discover wildlife, springs, lakes and scenic views without having to breathe hard.

Florida’s Coast to Coast Trail—still being developed—will span 250 miles with a continuous paved multiuse trail from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, linking St. Petersburg to Titusville.

It features 18 segments, including the 10-mile Good Neighbor Trail, which connects downtown Brooksville to the Withlacoochee State Trail, bringing culture, history and outdoor recreation together in an urban greenway.

Another segment, South Lake Trail near Clermont, is particularly scenic, passing by several lakes. It connects with Hancock Trail, which attracts road cyclists because of its hilly terrain. A bonus is the nearby Sugarloaf Mountain, which is 312 feet above sea level.

The planned 52-mile East Central Regional Rail Trail in Volusia County will connect Deltona to Edgewater, with a 10-mile segment to Titusville. Three trail segments and two pedestrian bridges are already open to walkers, joggers, in-line skaters, bicyclists and people with disabilities.

Check out the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop multiuse trail, which also is not yet completed. The trail eventually will connect Titusville to St. Augustine and stretch west to Palatka, then back to Titusville in a 260-mile loop. It will be the longest multiuse loop trail in the Southeast, passing through resort towns, a national seashore, state parks and national wildlife refuges.

Florida is also a vital part of the East Coast Greenway. The country’s longest cycling and walking route connects Maine to Key West, with 3,000 miles encompassing 450 communities in 15 states. Thirty-three percent complete, another 24 segments opened last year, including four in Florida: Emerald Loop Segments 1 and 2 in Jacksonville; Sweetheart Trail Phase IV in Daytona Beach; and East Central Regional Rail Trail segments in Brevard and Volusia counties. Those four new trails in Florida make up 21.9 miles of the 44.4 miles added in 2018.

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If you fly frequently, Hopper can help predict when airfares will drop. Download it for free, then select your destination. A calendar reveals the best days to buy, and when and how much fares will likely increase.

Oldest Hotel in Florida recently listed the oldest hotels in each state. Fernandina Beach’s The Florida House Inn opened in 1857 and was first used as a boarding house. During the war, Union soldiers stayed there. After the Civil War, Fernandina was a hot spot for shipping, shrimping and tourism. Today, it’s a reminder of all that is Old Florida.

Florida native and travel enthusiast Pamela A. Keene is a freelance journalist who specializes in travel, gardening, personality and feature writing. She is also a photographer and accomplished sailor. Her website is

Take a Book, Share a Book

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

TJ Patterson donates “Swell,” a book he enjoyed, to Little Free Library steward Karen Newfield.
Photo by Sara Matthis

Little Free Library movement enables neighbors to share and exchange reading material

In rural and big-city neighborhoods around the world, free treasures are stored in little houses. Book lovers of all ages are invited to open the door and make a selection.

Little Free Libraries are part of an initiative to build community and foster reading.

In honor of his mother—a schoolteacher and lifelong reader—teacher Todd H. Bol created the first LFL in 2009. He placed it in his Hudson, Wisconsin, front yard in 2010.

The “take a book, share a book” concept resonated so strongly with his neighbors, Todd decided to take the grassroots movement worldwide.

Teaming with Rick Brooks, outreach program manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Todd set a big goal: to build 2,510 Little Free Libraries—one more than the 2,509 public libraries created by Andrew Carnegie.

In May 2012, Todd and Rick established Little Free Library as a 501(c)(3) organization. Today, there are more than 75,000 registered Little Free Library book exchanges in 50 states and 88 countries.

Karen Newfield was one of the early stewards, ordering a kit from the LFL organization.

“I decorated it to match my home and even went to a local roofing company to put on a very realistic miniature metal roof,” Karen says. “I put some of my own books in there and instantly had people leaving me notes, bags of donated books on my porch and thanking me as they jogged and walked their dogs. It turned out there was just something everyone loved about taking a book. They would say, ‘Really, it’s free? You don’t want it back?’

“Sometimes I would see kids from my window debating which books to take. Their moms said only one at a time. People just kept thanking me and I kept thinking, ‘My gosh, the public library is down the street.’ But they loved my library. They loved the surprise of finding this unexpected gift on their walk or jog.”

When Karen and her husband, Kevin, moved from Tequesta to the Florida Keys, a former neighbor called, concerned something happened to the LFL. Karen explained her LFL moved to the Keys, too.

Her old neighbors pitched in and replaced the LFL.

“She profusely thanked me for the years of happiness I had brought through books,” Karen says. “I have been an avid reader my whole life—and I don’t just love to read, but get real joy by sharing, discussing, recommending and encouraging books to others.”

For the past decade, Karen has reviewed books on various sites, including her website.

“I can connect with just about anyone discussing books, even if we have little or nothing else in common,” Karen says. “I communicate with readers and writers from all over the world.”
She says she met her goal of reading 100 books in 2018.

Karen is hooked on reading and LFLs. She manages an LFL based at her husband’s medical office in Jupiter.

“It is a mostly older population,” she says. “It has been a huge success. They bring me tons of books and joke that they get a Medicare appointment and book as a bonus. They love talking books with me. It brings so much pleasure to their day. One patient, who has two very large libraries in her home, has left me in her will to someday receive all of her books.” n

If you are a steward of a Little Free Library in Florida, share your story and photos at here. Be sure to like our page to see future stories. To find a Little Free Library in your neighborhood, or to start your own, visit



Karen Newfield
103 Coco Plum Drive
Relocated from its original home in Tequesta, this Little Free Library was built with one purpose in mind: the love of reading. “As the world becomes more digital and people become more preoccupied with sitting in front of their computers, our love of reading can connect us as a community, as a nation and as a world,” says Karen, who has led a book club the past 15 years. “It is my joy to share books and share ideas. We look forward to helping our neighbors share them too!”


Vicki Pontius
Highlands County
The area’s first batch of Little Free Libraries were put in county parks in 2014. “I liked the idea, especially since Highlands County is rural, and some citizens might not have easy access to the county’s three public libraries,” says Vicki, top, then-director of Highlands County Parks and Recreation. She approached Library Director Mary Myers, right, about having the libraries provide the books. The partnership continues. The effort has been so successful many other people in the area have created LFLs.


Cathy Felty
Margaret K. Lewis School, 203 N. East Ave., Panama City
Cathy, media and assistive technology specialist at Margaret K. Lewis School in Millville, dedicated the LFL in honor of the school’s namesake on Margaret’s 100th birthday—with Margaret in attendance. Born in 1918, Margaret started her first teaching job in O’Brien, Florida, in 1940, and began teaching students with disabilities in the early 1960s. When Oak Grove Elementary School in Panama City closed in 1968 due to integration, the building was repurposed as a school for students with disabilities, with Margaret as principal. In 1980, the school was renamed after parents approached the Bay County School Board. Margaret retired in 1983, but served on the school advisory council until her death in February 2019. “I met Mrs. Lewis when I first began teaching at MKL School,” Cathy says. “She has served as a mentor to me and hundreds of special educators over the years. I’ve been inspired by her passion and dedication to improving education programs for students with special needs. One thing I learned from Margaret was to never stop learning. Be curious. When we heard about Little Free Libraries, we knew it was the perfect way to honor a woman who has inspired so many people to be lifelong learners. Although Panama City suffered catastrophic damages due to Hurricane Michael in October of 2018, the Millville Little Free Library stood strong, continuing to serve the community in the aftermath of the storm.”


Elizabeth Allen
1022 Balboa Ave. Panama City
“This Little Free Library was built as a service project for my master’s program in speech-language pathology at Samford University,” Elizabeth says.


Sherry Lowe
Lewis Park, 3120 1st Ave. W., Bradenton
“Last year as I thought about my birthday, I asked for money toward a LFL,” Sherry says. “My sister has sponsored one in Georgia, so I thought it would be a great way to express my gratitude for this neighborhood and the wonderful people here. I played in Lewis Park as a child, and now I take my granddaughter there. As a longtime educator, I know the importance of books and reading, and lots of kids come to the playground. It’s well used by both children and adults, and my neighbors help keep it maintained.”


Brenda Brosnaham
Jay Hospital, 14114 Alabama St., Jay
Travis Allen, Jay Elementary School’s technology paraprofessional, left, worked with students to build the LFL. Ricky Sanders, center, Jay Hospital plant manager, worked with Brenda, right, the elementary school librarian, to coordinate placement of the box. “When I first started reading about the LFL movement I was giddy,” Brenda says. “It’s 30 to 40 minutes from here to get to a bookstore. To provide a resource just a couple of miles from home is the reward. It is our goal to serve not only the students and families of Jay, but Jay Hospital patients and families who will be having their health care needs met by this institution.”


Mary Lysaght
Ola Mae Sims Park
11800 Erie Road, Parrish
Each of the branch libraries in Manatee County was sent a LFL to decorate. “Children’s books—particularly beginning reader titles—seem to be popular,” says Mary, who is with the Rocky Bluff Library in Ellenton. “In addition to books, I leave information about the library system, resources we offer and upcoming programs. Rocky Bluff receives donations throughout the year for our two book sales. I put aside books I think might be good choices for the Little Free Library. I feel like the book fairy when I add new items.”


Shelley FitzGibbon
4712 Duffer Loop, Sebring
Shelley’s husband, Matthew, built this library for her parents, Tyree and Mike Dickens, as a Christmas gift. “Their neighbors have been coming to the door of their house for years to borrow books,” Shelley says. “We thought we’d make it easier on everybody by bringing the books outside. The library was built from scrap wood in our garage, and even the screws were recycled from an old canoe my husband built years ago. My three children painted dragonflies to decorate the outside, making it truly a gift from our whole family to my parents and their neighbors.” Shelley and Matthew have an LFL at their home in Orlando, and her brother has one at his restaurant in Miami.


Michael 2018
2433 Pretty Bayou Island Drive Panama City
The outside of this Little Free Library is built almost entirely from scrap wood or excess materials from around the house while recovering from Hurricane Michael, which struck the Panama City area October 10.
It is a tribute to survival of a devastating storm, and spending weeks reading books instead of watching television or surfing the internet as utility services were restored in the area.


Melissa Nell
Jiggs Landing, 6106 63rd St. E., Bradenton
The Little Free Library at Jiggs Landing is the third LFL in Manatee County, and the third in the Parks & Natural Resources Department. Installed in 2014, this LFL overlooks the Braden River. The historical site and preserve include a boat ramp and offers great fishing.


Edward Pipkin
2323 W. 33rd St., Panama City
Father-and-son authors Edward Pipkin, left, and Leelon Edwards were given the LFL as a Christmas present by their children/grandchildren. “The library was built to look like a coastal lighthouse,” says Leelon. “Our town doesn’t have one, but there are many in Florida, and we support their preservation and history.” The LFL served as a neighborhood bulletin board after Hurricane Michael.


Sam Heede
Spring Lake, Sebring
“The book lady,” as Sam is known, has been steward of two LFLs for the Spring Lake Property Association for three years. More “branches” are planned, including the S.S. Bookworm—a half boat converted to hold books. “I’m hoping to build some kind of annex onto our LFLs to hold even more books,” Sam says. “I have about 1,100 books in trays in my two-car garage, about 200 in my car and about 200 in our LFLs. Hundreds of books come and go through our LFLs every month.”


Barbara Riley
4095 Santa Barbara Drive, Sebring
“Nothing in life is more enchanting, can take you more places, introduce you to more cultures, than to read,” says Barbara. “Reading can take any child on trips, not even limited by their imagination. Reading can heal grief, push aside loneliness, inform, educate, restore and bring joy. I have taken many people on a reading journey, with books they would never have known. People have donated books, enjoyed and returned books.”


Adrianne Walker
Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site
5709 Mill Pond Lane, Milton
The visitor center at the University of West Florida Historic Trust site is open Tuesdays through Sundays, but the porch with a LFL is open any time, and includes rocking chairs perfect for sitting and reading.

A Manatee Love Affair

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

Cora Berchem watches over Annie and her calf as part of the Blue Spring Manatee Observer Program, which helps prevent harassment of manatees at the park in the summer.
Photo by Heather Murphy

Curiosity leads filmmaker to her life’s true calling

It was love at first sight for Cora Berchem. Growing up in Germany, Cora was always interested in the environment and marine biology. But when it came time to attend university, she choose communications and film. That brought her to New York City in 2002, where she pursued a career in media production.

“After a time, I realized that this was not the direction I wanted my life to go,” Cora says. “In 2011, I was chosen to work on a show that took me to Miami. That’s when I saw my first manatee. It was a plush manatee. I really didn’t know what it was, but I was fascinated. I did some research and soon adopted a manatee through Save the Manatee Club. But that was just the beginning.”

When Cora returned to New York, her curiosity led to a documentary about the lumbering giants, produced by Correll Productions.

“The film included some of the organizations involved in manatee protection, rescue, rehabilitation, release and public education,” she says. “It resulted in an 80-minute film that covered many aspects of manatee education, protection and conservation. As part of my work, I stayed in touch with staff from Save the Manatee Club.”

“Before It’s Too Late: The Manatee Documentary” is still viewable on YouTube. It opened the door to an invitation from Executive Director Patrick Rose of Save the Manatee Club, who was looking for assistance with live webcams at Blue Spring State Park.

“The purpose of the webcams was to educate people about the manatees that make their winter home in Blue Spring State Park,” Cora says. “I read everything about manatees that I could get my hands on and came to Florida in early 2014—January to March, the peak season—and jumped right in.”

She assisted with the webcam project, helped produce several public service announcements and continued contracting with Save the Manatee Club until she joined the staff in January 2015 as its multimedia specialist. Cora moved to Florida and is now immersed in all things manatee. She manages social media for Save the Manatee Club, produces educational videos, and participates in manatee outreach and rescue work.

When not at work, Cora travels to state and national parks across the country, scuba diving, hiking and camping. She’s also an avid photographer.

“One of my favorite parts of the job is being involved in manatee research,” she says. “Every morning during the time they’re in Blue Spring, I go out with SMC’s Manatee Specialist Wayne Hartley and assist with identifying the individual manatees there. We can identify them from their scars. It’s a sad thing that this is what we’re using to do our research.”

Wayne submits his scar sketches, pictures and genealogies to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Sirenia Project in Gainesville. The USGS maintains the Manatee Individual Photoidentification System, which includes more than 4,600 manatees statewide. The project’s scientific data on animal movements and critical habitat helps manatee conservation work.

According to the most recent synoptic survey by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are about 6,000 manatees in the wild. Threats to their survival seem to be increasing.

“Manatees can have a lifespan of 50 to 60 years, but because they live in areas where humans are active, their lives are frequently cut short,” Cora says. “Boaters who don’t observe the no-wake signs in manatee areas have been known to injure or kill manatees with their boat propellers or in a collision. Manatees can get entangled in fishing nets or line. Loss of habitat is the most serious threat facing manatees in the United States today.”

Save the Manatee Club was founded in 1981 by singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham when he was governor of Florida. The national nonprofit organization with more than 25,000 members was created to protect Florida’s official state marine mammal.

Members support the group’s work financially by adopting manatees and volunteering.

“Manatees don’t get nearly the recognition that dolphins and whales do,” Cora says. “I guess they’re not as popular because they don’t jump through hoops. But to me, when I look at a baby manatee, they are just the cutest things ever. How can you not want to advocate for them? I have really found my calling.”

Forging a Different Education

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

Blacksmith John Lacefield heats a metal rod in the fire. John teaches blacksmithing during craft programs at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park.

Retired industrial arts teacher reaches youngsters through blacksmithing

As John Lacefield pulls a glowing piece of hot metal from the forge, two youngsters from Citra are entranced—and the retired educator-turned-blacksmith does what comes second nature. He teaches.

With John’s encouragement, 7-year-old Camrin and her 12-year-old brother, Kayne—who are visiting Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park with their mother during a special craft festival—take turns helping him hammer the metal rod into a plant hook.

“You have to strike while the iron is hot,” he says, impressing the point by making repeated trips back to the fire to reheat the metal, and working with the kids to pound it into shape.

John—who views the blacksmith shop as an outdoor classroom—seizes the opportunity to extend what starts as a lesson in patience and perseverance to multifaceted learning, tossing science and math into his presentation.

He hands the youngsters a piece of coal, and explains how it is converted to coke when the impurities—petroleum products, sulfur and metals—are burned out. As John adds a blast of air to the fire, he explains how the air helps keep the coals hot.

John retrieves a piece of metal from the forge and pulls out a chart that shows different colors for different temperature ranges. He asks his young assistants to point to the color of the metal he just pulled from the fire. They come close—within a couple of hundred degrees.

“The fire is 2,000 degrees,” John says, turning that bit of information into a math equation when he asks, “How much hotter is that than your oven at home?”

A piece of metal John intentionally leaves in the fire too long begins to spark. He explains that too much heat can turn solid metal into liquid.

Camrin and Kayne leave the park not only with a plant hook they helped make, but having learned how science and math are used outside a traditional classroom.

For John, blacksmithing hearkens back to his time in the military and his 23-year career in vocational education.

“In the Coast Guard I was a welder, so I had a cutting torch and really enjoyed working with my hands,” John says.

He taught industrial arts in Palatka for three years, then Union County for nine years before that curriculum was phased out in favor of technology education.

After one more year in Union County, John moved to Georgia when his wife, Roberta, got a job as a math professor.

He taught industrial arts for a year there before being reassigned to teach vocational building trades and one computer-aided design class a semester.

“The last several years were stressful,” admits John, who laments the near-universal loss of industrial education programs. “Kids today are drawn to technology. We don’t have many vocational programs left in the schools. It’s expensive to have an industrial arts lab. We’ve neglected our apprenticeship programs.”

John was visiting Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park during a folk festival in 2003 and watched a blacksmith for an hour. He was captivated.

“People are fascinated by heating and shaping metal,” John says. “It brings out the pyromaniac in us.”
John found a mentor and slowly learned blacksmithing techniques.

“The gentleman who taught me made four plant hooks in the time I made one,” John says. “But when I focused on blacksmithing, I lost the stress. It’s relaxing.

“You learn that when you heat the metal to a certain temperature, you can move it easily. You work the metal. You don’t have to be big and powerful. But if you don’t get it quite hot enough, the metal works you. A small piece loses its temperature real fast.”

Even before he retired from teaching, John did blacksmithing demonstrations at Stephen Foster—one of the few state parks with a dedicated craft area.

The park is 10 minutes away from the Hamilton County farm where John and Roberta grow a variety of organic fruit and raise Dexter cattle, primarily as pets.

Sharing his skills as a blacksmith serves as a reminder of what once was.

“One hundred years ago, every farmer knew how to do a little blacksmithing and horseshoeing,” John says.

Farriers tend to pick up blacksmithing skills easier than blacksmiths pick up the intricacies of working with horses, John says, noting he cannot shoe a horse.

“In the day, a good blacksmith could make anything,” John says. “They were skilled people in the community. The Industrial Revolution and the advent of welders changed that.”

John combines the old with the new.

“I kind of cheat,” he says. “I use welding principles along with blacksmithing, sometimes using a cutting torch. Lots of people are better at it than I am. I got started pretty late in life.”

John has made three forges, including one he takes around for demonstrations.

“I do lots of honey-dos and make gifts for friends and neighbors,” John says. “I’m fascinated by wind vanes, and use farm parts to make yard art.”

He made a branding iron as a wall decoration for a woman who wanted to preserve her parents’ initials.

John gave a neighbor a gift certificate for his 60th birthday.

“We took a railroad spike and made a knife,” he says. “He had never done any blacksmithing before.”

Always a teacher, John loves introducing people of all ages to blacksmithing—and he continues to learn himself.

He once made a machete from a lawnmower blade. It was a painful lesson.

“That is really hard metal,” John says, recalling how physically demanding the work was. “I felt that for two days.

“I learn a lot through experimentation. Like any hobby, you learn more as you do it. I have a fun time making little things.”

Fish the Spawn— All of Them

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

A fly fisherman welcomes a new day at McTush Cut, Lake Okeechobee. Sunrise, plenty of vegetation and bountiful waters offer him and other anglers on the lake opportunities for a day of world-renowned fishing.
Photo submitted by reader Steven Cook, Moore Haven

Most anglers recognize the importance of the bass spawning cycle. They know that understanding it can mean the difference between success and failure.

What’s surprising is that more of them don’t pay attention to the spawning cycles of baitfish targeted by bass, such as shad and bluegill. Understanding them can increase the likelihood of success even further.

For example, shad is a bass favorite that spawns not long after the peak of the bass spawn. That creates a feeding frenzy and opportunities for bass anglers if they know where and when to fish.

Fortunately, the spawn—bass or otherwise—is relatively predictable. It’s all about moon phases, time of day and water temperature.

The first of the four stages of the bass spawn begins when water temperatures are between 55 and 60 degrees. Bluegill spawn at about the same time, while shad begin spawning when the water temperature is approximately 10 degrees warmer.

Most spawning cycles peak during full and new moon phases. The time of day the spawn occurs varies by species. Shad spawn along the banks of feeder creeks, inlets and draws in early morning. Bluegill spawn throughout the day.

Two of the best lakes in the state to put this knowledge to use are Okeechobee and Istokpoga. They consistently rank among the top bass-fishing lakes in the country.

FWC Celebrates 20 Years
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It was formed by merging the Marine Fisheries Commission, Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, and the Division of Law Enforcement of the Department of Environmental Protection in 1999.

What Day is It?

  • March 20, Spring begins.
  • March 30, Take a Walk in the Park Day.

Catch of the Month
Here are prime fishing opportunities around the state in March.

  • The Keys: bluefish, amberjack, jack, cobia, bonito, grouper, tarpon, mackerel, barracuda, pompano, sailfish, tuna, shark and snapper.
  • Central: snook and bass.
  • Northwest: bonito, grouper, seatrout, snapper, triggerfish, mackerel, pompano and bass.
  • Central West: bass, crappie, flounder, bluefish, drum, seatrout, sunfish, tripletail, snapper and sheepshead.
  • Southwest: bass, barracuda, drum, crappie, sheepshead, ladyfish, snook, bluegill, mackerel, pompano, grouper and snapper.

Got a Tip or a Whopper?
Send us your favorite outdoor tip, photo or story. If selected for publication, we will send you $25 for one-time use. Email your submission to

U-Pick Farms Fresh as Can Be

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

Nothing beats the freshness of a ripe strawberry picked right from the field.
Photo courtesy of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association

Plump, juicy red strawberries are ripe for the picking at more than a dozen commercial strawberry farms across central Florida.

For a fun family outing, visit a U-pick farm and come home with baskets of strawberries that can be turned into pies, jam, cakes, used in salads and to make frothy cold beverages. And, of course, they are good eaten plain.

“U-pick brings families and their children out to see how their food is grown,” says Sue Harrell, director of marketing for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. “Kids get to see that strawberries are grown on plants and start out as flowers before they turn into strawberries. They don’t grow in the grocery store. U-pick gives children and their families a chance to learn about where their food actually comes from.”

The Florida Strawberry Growers Association has a list of members who offer U-pick at

Other U-pick crops available throughout the year include blueberries, grapes, citrus, peaches, sweet corn and tomatoes. Check out or do a Google search for your area. Hours and dates vary by farm.

Isn’t It Odd?
Every state has its stranger-than-fiction attractions.

Check out Spook Hill,, where cars appear to roll uphill. The gravity-defying mystery is near Lake Wales. It is promoted by the Lake Wales Chamber of Commerce as a tourist attraction, and even has its own website,

At the south end of Marco Island on Cape Romano,, you can visit futuristic dome homes, built in the early 1980s as a vacation destination for former oil producer Bob Lee. The six-dome concrete structure sits 180 feet off the shore and is only accessible by boat or kayak. After Hurricane Irma, two of the structures sank because of erosion. The others are in danger of sinking, too. If you go, respect the wildlife and use caution as you approach structures.

Less Than an Hour Away
No matter where you live in Florida, the beach is never more than 60 minutes away.

Choices vary widely—from the Gulf Coast’s fluffy white sand and blue water to the firm sand and sea breezes of the Atlantic Ocean to the green-blue water and tropical feel of the Florida Keys.

Beaches with boardwalks and condos, plus secluded shores and seaside parks, are havens for residents.

Why not pick a new beach destination to explore this spring?

Considering a Cruise?
If you are thinking about a cruise, here are some tips for saving money, time and hassles.

  • Register for several cruise line newsletters that regularly offer promotions, such as free airfare, trip discounts or onboard savings. That will give you a choice of deals, itineraries and dates.
  • Create a packing checklist with your must-haves, such as prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, flip flops, swimwear, casual clothes and perhaps a dressier outfit for the ship’s higher-end restaurant or formal nights.
  • Bring a day bag with a change of clothes and a swimsuit so you can enjoy the ship’s amenities while waiting for your luggage to be delivered to your stateroom.
  • Consider booking onboard activities such as shows—many available at no extra charge—and specialty meals before you leave for your trip.

Florida native and travel enthusiast Pamela A. Keene is a freelance journalist who specializes in travel, gardening, personality and feature writing. She is also a photographer and accomplished sailor. Her website is

Photographing Friends

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

My friend Rick died not long after we made the cheesy selfie above. I am thankful we did those. Right, Rick with the albacore he caught.
Photos by David LaBelle

The last time I saw Rick, he was in his chilled, dark bedroom. He couldn’t take heat or light after his second brain tumor operation, when his thyroid gland was removed.

I crawled in his king-sized bed fully clothed and pulled the covers up to my neck. I lay beside him and we talked in the darkness for hours. I told him I loved him and thanked him for being such a great friend. I think each of us knew this was the last time we would see each other. He died a few months later while I was teaching in Kentucky.

Sometimes, we most miss the things we take for granted when they are no longer with us. Like good friends.

I often have heard someone say after a dear friend passes, “I wish I would have taken a picture of us together.”

I have been blessed with many friends, but a handful of true friends: someone who listens to me, prays for me and watches out for me; who knows my dreams, weaknesses and faults and loves me anyway; who forgives me when I disappoint; who tells me the truth even when I don’t want to hear it; who makes me a better person.

True friends laugh with us when we are happy or at us when we do dumb things. They cry with us when we hurt, encourage us in times of self-doubt and share in our moments of glory without jealously or pretense.

Rick Hester was that friend.

Opposites in many ways, Rick was clean shaven, stout, barrel-chested with pipe-fitter arms, like a fire hydrant with legs. A year younger, I was tall and lanky with a face full of tangled whiskers. A hard-working laborer and ex-football lineman, almost a red-necked conservative, he viewed me as a liberal dreamer and carefree hippie, which I was not. We loved football, fishing and staying up too late playing ice hockey in his garage and trying to serve Christ.

We viewed the world differently, but in time came to realize our differences strengthened our friendship.

I still remember the first time I visited him after he moved from California to his beloved Oregon.

My eyes fill when I remember how Rick played and sang the John Denver song, “Friends With You,” which includes this stanza: Friends, I will remember you. Think of you. Pray for you. And when another day is through, I’ll still be friends with you.

Sometimes, circumstance brings and binds us together.

Hardship can be the catalyst for deep and enduring friendships. Recently, I met two men in their late 70s who had lost their wives and were fighting cancer. Neighbors, they love fishing and have become nearly inseparable.

Most of us have friends early in life and in later years. Some are blessed to have a best friend throughout their entire life. Others, it seems, are given friends when they need them the most.

You may have 5,000 Facebook friends, but only one or two true friends. Cherish them. Make pictures of and with them.

One of the best things still photographs do is preserve and gift-wrap moments in time to be remembered and enjoyed forever.

Make pictures of your friends, maybe even record their voices while they are still near. In the years to come, you will be thankful you did.

After all, when we count all our possessions, is there anything greater or more beautiful than a true friendship?

Tips You Can Use

  • Explain to your friends why you want to make pictures of them.
  • Let them get comfortable with the camera by making posed pictures before trying to capture storytelling candids. After a while, most people lose interest in the camera and quit posing.
  • Hand them the camera and let them photograph you. This ice-breaking technique almost always produces interesting pictures.
  • Dress up. A hat or prop loosens up inhibited friends. People in costume do fun, crazy things, which makes memorable pictures.
  • Ask what is important to them and where they would like to have their picture taken.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the U.S. and taught at three universities. For more information, visit

Free-Range Dairies At a Crossroads

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

From left, Brittany Nickerson-Thurlow, Chad Rucks and Gary Keyes are three of the four Florida dairy farmers promoting their operations as Free Range 365 certified. Their cows graze year-round on lush grass-covered pastures when they are not being milked.

Four Florida dairy farmers are on a quest to expand consumers’ choices—and ensure their survival for future generations

Okeechobee dairy farmer Chad Rucks drives his John Deere Gator into an open field not far from his milking barn. He is quickly surrounded by happy Holsteins eager to greet him and check out his rig.

Cows at C&M Rucks Dairy freely roam grass-covered pastures 365 days a year. When not in the barn being milked or fed, they graze in fields or cool off in specially created ponds.

This is how Chad’s parents, Cliff and Margaret, ran the operation. It is the way generations before them operated. But free-range dairies are rapidly disappearing—a casualty of the industry’s push to squeeze more milk from fewer cows and drive down prices.

“Cows are spending less and less time on natural pastures,” says Chad, a fourth-generation dairyman.

Most milk products today come from cows confined in or around barns, with little to no access to pasture. The most common barns are freestall—large buildings where cows move freely and have access to feed, water and a bedded stall to lie in.

“I could put my cows in freestall barns to boost their productivity, but it would cost several million in infrastructure,” says Chad, who milks 1,700 head along with his brother, Hank. “I don’t think I could win that game.”

Dairy farming the traditional way—giving cows the freedom to live in fields and behave naturally—is in the DNA of Chad, Brittany Nickerson-Thurlow, Courtney Campbell and Gary Keyes.

Cousins and fifth-generation dairy farmers Brittany and Courtney are carrying on a family legacy at four Hardee County farms. Dairying for the Nickersons began with their great-great-grandfather in New York. Their great-grandfather moved to Florida in the 1950s. Their grandfather and two of his sons—Brittany’s dad, Chris, and Courtney’s dad, Joe—became partners and grew the operation to more than 4,500 cows before the farms were split into two entities in 2017.

A second-generation dairyman, Gary grew up on a 60-cow farm in Maryland. He farms in Sumter and Lafayette counties.

All want their children to have the option to carry on the family tradition.

As representatives of Florida free-range dairy operations, Chad, Brittany, Courtney and Gary are committed to preserving that way of life for their cows and their families. The core four, as they call themselves, are united behind a grassroots effort started by Chad called Free Range 365.

Collectively, their farms produce about 43,000 gallons of milk a day. Counting the production from extended Rucks and Nickerson family members who own farms nearby, the group accounts for more than half of Florida’s free-range milk.

“Together, we hope to educate consumers and shed a light on our unique method of farming that is threatened and rapidly becoming extinct,” Chad explains. “Until now, consumers have not been given the opportunity to choose free-range milk. This is our effort to give consumers the knowledge and power to make that choice before it is too late.”

The irony is as free-range dairies struggle to survive, consumers see images in ads of cows grazing in open fields and assume that is the norm.

“People think they are already getting this,” Chad says. “We are the poster child for how people think it should be. What is advertised is us. Meanwhile, we are going out of business.”

The U.S. dairy industry as a whole is in trouble. According to state officials, Wisconsin lost 638 farms in 2018 and Florida is down to 82 from 130 in the recent past. When Gary started farming in Lafayette County in 2012, there were 22 dairies. Only nine are left.

Farmers are scrutinizing every aspect of their operations, which has compounded the move away from free-range dairies.

Chad, who has degrees in economics and finance and a master’s in business from the University of Central Florida, says he focuses on efficiencies.

He and his brother, who has a degree in molecular microbiology, put Fitbit-style trackers on the collars of each of their cows to monitor their health and automatically separate them from the herd if the device detects a problem.

They built a fully enclosed feed mill on the farm so they can mix their own blend at a lower cost. They bale hay for the cows two to three days a week and leave it in the pasture, eliminating hauling and storage costs. They also directly load their milk on semi-trailers, reducing the use of water and chemicals needed to maintain and clean a stationary farm milk tank.

“It’s a bloodbath,” Chad says. “We aren’t hemorrhaging money like most, but I’ve been working for free for four years. We are tight all the time. We rail in a pound of feed and get slightly more than a pound of milk. We have little control over costs or what we are paid.”

Money has not always been tight, says Brittany, a former corporate accountant at a Tampa real estate firm.

She never planned to join the family business, but returned with her husband after the birth of their son, eager to raise him in the same environment she grew up in.

“Dairy has afforded our families with some years of excellent profits, but those have become less often and farther apart,” Brittany says. “Typically, a low only lasts a couple years, then spikes again. Prices are so low lots of dairy farmers are in trouble. We are not profitable, but with grazing, we make the land work for us. The cows eat the grass that they fertilize themselves. We can feed our cows grass on pasture 365 days a year. That’s our competitive advantage.”

It’s why Gary moved to Florida in 1995.

“I wanted to manage cows where there was not a need to build and maintain buildings, and the cows could harvest at least some of their own forage and spread much of their own manure,” he says. “But cows housed in a controlled environment where feed is brought to them produce more milk per cow per unit of feed consumed. It is hard to compete with that. What we are doing is not working out well financially. We are at a crossroads.”

Confinement barns require not only a different management philosophy, but a huge investment in infrastructure. Given razor-slim margins, if any, that is not a viable option for many farmers.

It’s why Chad created and filed a patent on the Free Range 365 certification mark, and is working with Brittany, Courtney and Gary to encourage processors and grocers to give their unique local product a chance.

Emerging science shows milk from cows that graze on grass is a better source of healthy fatty conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-3 fats.

“Milk is a strange commodity,” Chad says. “They don’t advertise where it comes from. There is less and less local milk. Semitrucks bring in additional milk from out of state and blend it with ours. Ask your grocer what farm made the milk in the jug. They won’t be able to answer. Our model (with the label) is about traceability and transparency.”

There is not yet Free Range 365-labeled milk or other products on grocery store shelves. What is produced is blended with conventional milk.

“The percentage of milk that is free range is going away at an alarming rate,” Chad says. “We estimate milk from free-range cows is now less than 35 percent of the total milk produced in the Southeast.

“If you want 100 percent free-range milk—or want to help ensure it exists in the future—you must ask for it by name, Free Range 365, from your grocer.”

Because of the added costs of keeping cows on pasture, farmers need a higher payment to be sustainable—maybe 50 cents a gallon, Chad says. That is less than the cost of organic milk. The free-range requirement for organic milk is a minimum of 120 days spent on pasture.

“Only Free Range 365 milk is certified to be 100 percent free range 100 percent of the year,” Chad says.

Courtney is optimistic their determination and collaboration will lead to success.

“I honestly think that Free Range 365 will be our only long-term strategy for the future and our survival in the dairy industry here in Florida,” she says. “Luckily, I am working with a group of farmers who are just as passionate about it as I am. I believe our story will resonate with consumers in the grocery stores.”

For Chad, the hope of his four sons carrying on the family farm is at stake.

“The writing is on the wall for us,” he says. “Anytime the cow does extra movement—such as grazing in a pasture—it is wasted energy. We are not on the right side of things with the way we farm, but consumers want more natural. Does anyone want what I have? Give the consumer a chance to tell me no. I want to at least say I tried.”

Make Room for More Fishing Gear

Sunday, January 20th, 2019

Here are three ways to make every penny count when shopping for fishing gear: Don’t miss the preseason sales in late February and March, shop the deep-discount aisle and ask retailers to match prices of other stores. If you know exactly what you want, check out online sales. It’s not a bad way to shop. You avoid crowds and can score some awesome deals.
© iStock/JackF

It won’t be long now. Fishing retailers will start rolling out some of the biggest sales of the year later this month.
What better excuse to clean out and organize your tackle boxes, and make room for new gear.
Here are eight tips to help get you started:

  • Go through everything you have. That way you know exactly what you have and what you need.
  • Get rid of ineffective gear. Give it away, garage sale it or donate it to charity. Maybe someone else will have better luck with it.
  • Determine the best way to organize the keepers. There are two main strategies: organizing by type of tackle or organizing by fish species. The latter works well when dealing with less gear, while organizing by tackle type is preferable when managing large inventories. Or use a combination of both.
  • Everything should have a home. Plastic trays and bins with adjustable dividers are perfect for the job.
  • Use clear plastic storage containers. They provide better visibility and allow quicker access to tackle than opaque containers.
  • Keep similar tackle together. Arrange it according to type, size, shape and color.
  • Keep soft baits in original packaging. If already opened, store them according to type and color in plastic bags to avoid a mess.
  • Label everything. Use removable labels rather than writing directly on the containers. Add color coding to locate gear even faster.

Outdoor 101: First Aid in a Bottle
Carrying a first-aid kit is a good idea, even on day trips. To make a pocket-size version, fill a prescription bottle or similar container with a few of the essentials, such as antiseptic wipes, antibacterial cream, adhesive bandages, pain relievers and small tweezers.

What Day is It?
February 3, Feed the Birds Day
February 5, National Weatherman’s Day
February 22, Walking the Dog Day

Got a Tip or a Whopper?
Send us your favorite outdoor tip, photo or story. If selected for publication, we will send you $25 for one-time use. Email your submission to

Catch of the Month
Here are prime fishing opportunities around the state in February.

  • The Keys: bluefish, amberjack, jack, bonito, grouper, cobia, mackerel, barracuda, pompano, sailfish, shark, seatrout and snapper.
  • Central: crappie, striper and snook.
  • Northwest: crappie, grouper, seatrout, snapper, striper and triggerfish.
  • Central West: bass, crappie, flounder, tripletail and sheepshead.
  • Southwest: bass, amberjack, drum, crappie, sheepshead, ladyfish, mackerel, pompano, grouper and snapper.

Many of Curtis Condon’s fondest memories involve outdoor adventures with friends and family, whether fishing with old school buddies, backpacking in the mountains of the Northwest with his sons, or bird watching along the Gulf Coast with his wife. He feels fortunate having the opportunity to write about the outdoors and other subjects for more than 30 years.