Making a Living in Greene County

A photographer’s account of business life in three rural Alabama counties: Part 3, Greene County.

William Dickie Odom

Catfish Farmer | Boligee

“Down home near Mobile, we farmed a little bit of everything — hogs, cows, corn, watermelon, you name it. Now I’m farming catfish. I prefer the rural, small town area. I go to Tuscaloosa and I understand road rage. It’s getting to be a crowded world. We don’t see it here in this county — we have four red lights — and they’re all around the downtown square. We are probably the least populated county in the state.

“People don’t think about it much, but the task of feeding this world is going to be tough in the days and years to come. We have a lot more people and not as many farmers. A lot of people my age are getting out and retiring. There’s nobody out there, that I see, to replace it. This task of feeding the world is going to be in the headlines in the years to come.

“From hatching to harvest it takes about two years to get catfish to market size. We sell our fish to processors. We don’t sell direct anymore. A processor will come and get them — most of them furnish a seine net. They’ll send a crew over, and haul them back to wherever the plant will be — Uniontown, Demopolis or back to the Mississippi Delta and some other places. They will make fillets for whatever market they need. So in other words, they sell the fish.

“The processor wants about a two-pound fish — maybe three-pounds — it depends on the market. There are times when the fish prices are high and you really enjoy it. There are other times when it’s slow and you wonder why you are even in it.

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“But I still enjoy it.”

James Bey

Mechanical Trades | Boligee

“This was a cotton town. There was a lot here at one time. There was a bank and post office. Now, there is a restaurant right across the street and the town hall and that’s about it now. But at one time, it was bustling. There were several stores up and down that area across the railroad tracks. We had a whiskey store. The next county over was dry, so everyone came here to buy whiskey — other than the moonshine. People were making moonshine everywhere at that time.

“A lot of people moved away when they put in the interstate. Before that, all the traffic came through here. There were a lot of things going on. People would stop here. But when they put the new interstate out there, it bypassed this as it does most small towns. A lot of people stopped farming.

“I was a quality control inspector most of my life — inspected parts. Here, I do everything. I cut the grass, work on vehicles. I went to school for mechanical trades — diesel mechanic, carpenter, welder, mechanic. Whenever I’m not here, I help people with roofing jobs, sheet rock, carpentry — you name it. I can’t sit around. I get bored. I have to be doing something.

“I know most everyone in the area. It’s a small town, so you know everybody. I prefer small town living. It’s more comfortable. It’s more economical.”

Larry Burnette

History Teacher, Greene County High School | Eutaw

“They told me when I was hired, ‘We want students to hear a white man’s perspective about teaching African American history.’ That was one of the things about my resume that they liked. When I was working on my master’s degree, I was a graduate assistant to a professor on the Civil Rights Movement. I am the only Anglo in the high school building. Nearly all the staff and the students were pretty open to me being there. It was no big deal.

“It got to be that at the beginning of each semester, I would say, right off the bat, if you ever have a question that you wanted to ask a white person — ask away. Initially, that broke the ice. It’s not even a thing now. It usually just opens up the door to a good conversation.

“When we get to the topic about the transformation of the economy from being an agrarian-based to being industrial-based and the movement into the urban areas after the Civil War — to make the point, there is a hay field close to the school, so I walk the kids out into the hay field. And I’ll tell them, don’t look back at the school, but look straight in front of you and imagine that you are the age that you are now, because this is all you’ve ever seen or known and now all of a sudden, you’re going be making the transition to living in the city and going to work in a factory. It opens the door. I ask them how it’s changing their life.

“I will always get a few, ‘Well, what did they have for the bathroom? Did they have phones?’ I think it’s a good lesson because it gets them thinking. There’s always one student who is fascinated with food. ‘What did they eat?’ I tell them they’re probably eating better out on the farm than once they got to the city.”

David TeichertCoddington

Aquaculture — Shrimp / Crawfish | Boligee

“My dad was a missionary in Africa. I was born in Liberia, West Africa. I grew up living very close to the ocean and it kind of influenced me into my career of aquaculture. As a kid, who wouldn’t want to grow up in front of the ocean? In front of our house, the Atlantic just came roaring in with constant, big crashing waves.

“I studied at Auburn and got a PhD in aquaculture. I learned the science and was very good at that, but all the mechanical and electrical, well, we’ve done that ourselves. There’s been a lot of trial and error that’s been learned on the job about aquaculture. My dad was an electrical engineer so I learned a lot by watching him as a kid. I’ve got over 20 ponds devoted to farming and raising shrimp and crawfish.

“Everybody used to think that raising shrimp had to be done on the coast. But, you just need to have water with the appropriate salinity and the correct ionic composition and we have that here with the underground Eutaw aquifer. People used to think the salt water was coming from the coast and somehow working its way up. But, it’s not. Our water is all groundwater that’s been mineralized from up north that has flowed down. The mineralization is pretty good for aquaculture. Greene County is in a particular zone.”

Eric Dusenbery is a documentary photographer who lives in DeLand, Florida. He is currently at work on a book project called Sidetracked: Travels Across the Undiscovered South. Emphasizing the traditions of documentary photography, the project fieldwork is accomplished through the lens of large-format, black-and-white film photography. Dusenbery’s work in this issue of Business Alabama is the third part of a three-part series. The first appeared in the November 2018 issue and the second in the April 2019 issue.

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