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Believers spread message of hope, faith at downtown gathering

ALBANY — If the heat and the lower-than-expected turnout of true believers impacted Tarlita McCrary during the first of three planned “hope-raising gatherings” in downtown Albany Saturday morning, she certainly didn’t show it.

McCrary, fellow members of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church and others bent on “restoring hope and faith in our community,” held up signs proclaiming faith in God Saturday morning, the first of three planned gatherings dreamed up by McCrary as an answer to “all that’s going on in our world.”

“I know one of the first things people are going to ask me is if this has anything to do with the Black Lives Matter movement,” the minister said. “We’re not here to get into that today. We are here simply to lift the name of Jesus, to raise hope, faith and encouragement in our community.

“There are people now who are afraid to come through the church doors, but we are here to tell those people that death is sure, that heaven and hell are for real. And they get to choose where they will spend eternity.”

McCrary said she was excited to be participating in the gathering, but she decried the response of some local pastors who were invited to take part in the awareness-raising event.

“We’ve gotten a good response from people in the community, but so many pastors told me they were unsure about being involved in anything that brought people close together,” McCrary said. “Look, we can social distance and do this. Plus, if all we’re going to do is minister to the people who come to church, we miss the point. We need to go out into the world and talk to the people who need God most.”

Charlene Procha was one of the first to take up a position along Slappey Drive early Saturday. She said she came to do God’s bidding.

“I’m here to support God,” she said. “I want to remind the people in our community that God has their back. This is the day of salvation; now is the time to turn to God.”

Lisa Mason said she found the answer to the country’s troubling issues in God.

“I want the people here to know that they can come out and stand up for God,” Mason said. “We came out here today to say to the people of Albany, ‘With all that is going on in our world today, God is still with us.’ That’s where we need to turn our focus.”

McCrary was in her element at the gathering, whether talking with Albany City Commissioner B.J. Fletcher, Albany Police Department Chief Michael Persley or a surprised young passer-by.

“Young man, have you been saved?” she asked, and when the man said he’d come to know Jesus “a while ago,” she said, “Once you are one of God’s children, you will always be one of God’s children. Can I pray with you?”

And she did, leaving the unsuspecting young man with hope for a blessing that he may not have expected when he began his walk along Slappey.

“That’s what I’m here for,” McCrary said. “That’s what this is all about.”

Next Saturday’s gathering will be held at BJ’s Country Buffet on Dawson Road.

From the ground up: Pretoria Fields' hemp production stretches from seeds to finished product

LEESBURG — For decades, hippies have been claiming the marijuana plant may have the potential to heal many of mankind’s ills; now it appears they may have been onto something for all that time, as opposed to just being “on” something.

Today’s medicinal hemp products contain a minute amount of THC, the main ingredient that gives users a “high” when ingesting marijuana, but millions of people say it packs a powerful punch in treating a number of health conditions. The 2018 Farm Bill allowed for the growing of hemp, and hemp products, often labeled as CBD, are legal in all 50 states.

About a third of adults in the United States have tried a product derived from the hemp plant in various forms, from tinctures that are placed under the tongue to lotions, bath oils, coffees and gummies. For many, CBD oil derived from the hemp plant brings relief for arthritis and other aches.

Albany-based Pretoria Fields Collective has launched an ambitious plan to enter the emerging market. The company, which also operates a downtown brewery, has worked from the ground up, enlisting farmers to grow hemp and has established a production facility in Lee County.

The company has about 60 Georgia farmers, most growing a small acreage of hemp plants, signed up for its inaugural year.

A University of Georgia researcher grew test plots last year near Tifton and in north Georgia, and the effort for Pretoria Fields and area growers is a learning process in 2020.

Some states, such as Tennessee, are ahead of Georgia as their legislatures approved growing hemp plants earlier. Now it is Georgia farmers’ turn to learn to grow the plant in an environment that can bring intense heat, humidity, insects and summer thunderstorms that can damage the crop.

“The majority of our farmers have held off for the winter growth,” said Lewis Rickerson, Pretoria’s agronomist and farm representative. “The majority of our farmers are going to be growing less than 2 acres.

“Our focus for this year is really on being small and getting the farmers used to growing a plant that hasn’t been selected for any resistance to disease or pests or adverse weather conditions. We want to get farmers to learn this year.”

Planting later in the year will help avoid some of the severe storms that can come in the summer, he said. The target date for the late planting is set for around July 13, with some growers likely to plant later.

“We also know growing later in the season gives you more biomass with respect to stem length,” Rickerson said.

While the plants come from the same stock as other marijuana plants — cannabis sativa, cannabis indica and cannabis ruderalis — those grown to maximize CBD oil content are treated differently to keep the THC content low.

Rickerson likened it to growing a peach and harvesting it a little early, but in the case of hemp production, it means waiting until the plants flower and harvesting before they begin producing THC.

“What you’re doing with the plant is just producing CBD,” he said. “So (it’s like) you’d be waiting three months to pluck a green peach, plucking it before it starts to ripen.”

While waiting for locally grown hemp, Pretoria Fields has started production at its Lee County facility using plant material from other states. There, the biomass is first steeped in a metal chamber containing ethanol cooled to a chilly temperature as low as -85 degrees Celsius.

That process, called winterization, extracts the bulk of the valuable oil, said Kathy Blakey, Pretoria Fields’ chief science officer and lab director.

The liquid then goes through a steam distilling process to separate the oil from the ethanol, which is recycled to be used again. Further processing of the wet biomass produces additional oil. Once the work is done at the lab, the oil is transported to pharmacist Will Coley at The Prescription Shoppe. There, Coley turns the oil into hemp products, including tinctures and creams.

Coley manufactures the products in a sterile environment.

A third-party company tests the products for purity and presence of contaminants before they are shipped or sold at the pharmacy, he said.

“We test the CBD distillate, then we have the final products tested,” Coley said. “We use an independent agency that tests all our products before they leave and go out on the shelves.”

Most of the customers who purchase the products use them for pain relief and anxiety, Coley said.

“CBD is anti-inflammatory and it’s naturally antimicrobial,” he said.

With its plan to eventually control the process from the seeds going into the ground to the finished product, Pretoria Fields is looking to be a pioneer in the field.

“We’re the first processor in the state of Georgia,” said Pretoria Fields COO Albert Etheridge. “We’re out farming, and we’re putting out products with the Georgia-grown logo.”

Albany bike shop falls victim to pandemic

ALBANY — Imagine you’re a businessperson, the owner of a bicycle shop, say, and a family of nine comes in, cash in hand, and says, “We want to buy nine bicycles.” And while you’re imagining, imagine that the average cost of those bicycles is $500 ... each.

Then, imagine yourself saying, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have anymore bicycles in stock ... and we haven’t heard back from our suppliers in more than two months.”

Now you know what Gene Kirk’s life is like.

The owner of Breakaway Cycles Bike Shop in Albany, Kirk’s tale of woe is no doubt one many are familiar with since the coronavirus pandemic changed the world. But it didn’t start out that way.

“Man, when all this started, I actually started feeling a little guilty,” Kirk said. “While some businesses were struggling, we were selling bikes hand over first; it was Christmas times 10.

“Even when our inventory started zeroing out, I wasn’t really concerned. That’s not uncommon during our busy times of the year. I figured I’d place an order and we’d get more inventory in. But you know what ... what I’ve found out — the hard way — is that there are no bikes. Not just in Albany ... or Georgia ... there are no bikes in the country.”

Told that bicycles, when they became available, would be shipped on a first-come, first served basis, Kirk placed an order for 70-80 bikes (“In essence, a semi full.”) That was two months ago. He hasn’t heard a word since.

“OK, so you have no bikes in inventory, and you have no idea when or if you’re ever going to get some, so you get by on repairs,” Kirk said. “But now, we’re zeroing out in regular parts as well. You can’t get tires, tubes, chains, seats ... things you never think twice about ordering. Distributors have simply quit communicating with us.

“To show you how bad it is, take the 26-inch tube, that is the most popular piece of equipment on the planet. I used to sell a case a week. Now ... none. I used to order by the hundreds, but now, I’m lucky if I find five or two or one. If I happen to come across any, I go ahead and buy them all. Anything I can get my hands on.”

So Kirk has made a habit now of watching traffic as if flows in front of his shop on Ledo Road.

“Every semi that pulls up, I get my hopes up,” he said. “I’ll watch it, hoping every time it’s my delivery coming through. So far, though, I’m still waiting.”

In Lee County government, two heads are better than one

LEESBURG – Success and progress in Lee County can be traced back to a number of things. But one of the most unique approaches might be found with the division of duties between the two county co-managers supervising Lee county government functions.

For the past five years, Christi Dockery and Mike Sistrunk have worked as a team, turning the vision of the Lee County Commission into reality for the citizens of the county. The arrangement was initially brought about by necessity when the Lee County Commission voted unanimously to relieve Ron Rabun of his county manager duties on Nov. 17, 2015, during a special called meeting of the commission.

The reason cited for Rabun’s dismissal was “repeated gross abuses of Lee County ordinances, Mr. Rabun’s failure or refusal to follow the directions of his employer, Mr. Rabun’s failure or refusal to carry out his duties under his employment contract in a proper, satisfactory and professional manner, and Mr. Rabun’s breach of his employment contract.”

Following that action, Rick Muggridge, who was then the commission’s chairman, asked Dockery, who was serving as county clerk, and Sistrunk, who was director of the Public Works Department at the time, if they could keep things going until a replacement could be hired.

The duo agreed and, five months later things were going so well that the commission approached them about taking on the roles of county co-mangers. Under a plan devised by the commission, they would each keep their current duties, and the oversight of all the other county departments and activities would be divided between them based on their areas of expertise

Dockery currently supervises Finance, Human Resources, IT, the county clerk’s office, courts, the tax commissioner, tax assessor, library, chamber of commerce, authorities, Parks and Recreation, Development Authority, and continue to serve as Lee County clerk.

Sistrunk currently supervises building inspection, Planning & Engineering, Elections, Code Enforcement, the county Health Department, Public Works, Animal Control, facilities, Public Safety, the sheriff’s office, and continues as director of Public Works.

“When it comes to making decisions, our focus is on what’s best for the county. That’s what drives us,” Dockery said.

“We trust each other’s judgement,” Sistrunk added. “We have the same passion for doing what’s right, not only for the citizens but our employees as well as the commission.”

Records indicate that between 2005 and 2013, Lee County had seven different county managers. Dockery said she believes one of the major benefits of the arrangement “is institutional knowledge. For a while, we were changing county managers every two years, and that was disruptive. The average tenure of a county manager is about four years.”

Dockery and Sistrunk have a combined work history of almost 37 years with Lee County, providing the county with an almost unheard-of wealth of institutional knowledge.

A quick glance at Lee County’s progress and achievements in the past five years is a pretty good indicator that this team approach is working. The county has one of the best ISO ratings in the state. The Lee Fire Department is now EMS-certified, and the department not only has new equipment but a state-of-the-art training facility on site at its Century Road Station. With the use of T-SPLOST funding, the annual rate of repaving and paving roads has increased dramatically. The 911 call center now has Emergency Medical Dispatch and is working on finalizing a text system.

Dockery and Sistrunk say they consider the partnerships with the school board and other agencies a critical part of their success.

Following the implementation of the dual manager arrangement, many county services were centralized in the Tharp Governmental Building and adjoining facilities, creating a “customer-friendly” environment for citizens seeking licenses, permits and other services.

“We are small; I think that’s why it works differently here,” Dockery said. “We don’t have a lot of staff. Everybody is nimble and flexible. We all do a lot of different jobs. Mike is more accessible to the public. Mike goes out and meets with people. That is pretty unheard of elsewhere, to have such a direct connection to a county manager.”

“I enjoy being out there. I’ve been doing this stuff for almost 30 years,” Sistrunk said. “This county and region have gone through a lot in the last five years: floods, tornadoes, and a hurricane. There is a pride in this community. I’ve said it a thousand times: I’ve never seen the kind of pride like I see from the citizens of Lee County. There will be problems and people will complain about them. But they are also the first to say ‘thank you’ for taking care of this. Thank you for making our county look good.”

“We have motivated employees, a good commission and citizens that want to see things happen,” Dockery added. “I’m very proud of Lee County. We want what’s best for the county. We listen to the citizens. The commission is involved. When we make a phone call and we need something, people want to help.”

Tyler T., Lake Park Elementary School