By Debra Davis
A century. One hundred years. Ten decades. That’s how long the Alabama Farmers Federation has represented farmers, giving them a voice in local, state and national affairs affecting their livelihood.
While the organization focuses on the future of agriculture, it’s important to recognize and honor the past, especially in its centennial year.
In 1921, Alabama Extension Service Director L.N. Duncan asked farmers, bankers and businessmen to form a farm organization. Those groups met Jan. 31 at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) and voted to form the Alabama Farm Bureau, now known as the Alabama Farmers Federation.
The organization’s stated purpose was simple. “The object of this Federation shall be to effectively organize, advance and improve in every possible way the agricultural interests of the great commonwealth of Alabama, economically, educationally and socially through the united efforts of the county organizations of the state.”
Two years prior, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) formed in Chicago to give farmers a seat at the table with major economic players — business, manufacturing, railroads and labor.
The relationship between Extension and Farm Bureau was mutually beneficial. Duncan sought to maximize Extension’s service and effectiveness while increasing benefits to farmers. County agents were a major force in organizing local groups, often collecting dues and soliciting memberships.
Montgomery County, led by Charles W. Rittenour, was the first county to formally organize in April 1921. Rittenour was county president and was elected the first president of Alabama Farm Bureau. Annual dues were $10. Organizations soon formed in Lauderdale, Limestone, Hale, Calhoun, Autauga, Geneva and Baldwin counties. It wasn’t long before Dale, Pickens, Lee, Pike and Colbert counties organized. In less than a year, 55 counties had united. Three years later, Wilcox County joined, formalizing memberships in all 67 counties.
After successfully improving cotton prices by forming a marketing association in 1922, membership sprouted to 17,000. Growth prompted establishment of the organization’s first home office building in Montgomery in 1922.
In 1923, Edward O’Neal III, the first president of the Lauderdale County Farm Bureau, was elected Alabama Farm Bureau president. The organization experienced exponential growth under his leadership, catapulting him to AFBF president in 1931, a position he held until 1947.
Robert Croom served the remaining three months of O’Neal’s term as state president, followed by John Edwards (1931-38); William Howard Gray (1938-40); Walter Randolph (1940-61); J.D. Hays (1961-78) Goodwin L. Myrick (1978-1998); Jerry A. Newby (1998-2012); and Jimmy Parnell (2012-present).
O’Neal’s political prowess parlayed into work with the nation’s highest government officials. Serving as AFBF president through the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, O’Neal developed a relationship with then newly elected U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and convinced him to implement programs that benefit farmers today. O’Neal helped create the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, the first farm bill, which helped end the Great Depression.
While improving cotton prices was a catalyst to unite farmers, the Federation recognized Alabama’s agricultural diversity. It now represents 17 commodity divisions.
AFBF was among the first national organizations to note the important role women have in agriculture and politics. It formed the first women’s committee in 1920, the same year the amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified. In the Federation, the first woman to hold state office was Mrs. John S. Morris of Talladega County, who served on the executive committee in 1924. Now called the Women’s Leadership Committee, the group continues to be a source of strength for Alabama’s largest grassroots farm organization.
Alabama began its Young Farmers Program in 1957 to develop farm and community leaders. Its success is evident by many current and former state Federation leaders and state political leaders who are program alumni.
Improving the lives of Alabama farm families helped herald Alfa Insurance Co. In 1946, the state Federation formed an insurance company to write fire insurance on farm homes and buildings. Today, Alfa offers a full line of insurance products for customers in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. It covers more than 1.2 million cars, homes, farms, businesses and churches and has more than $31.5 billion of life insurance in force. Alfa offers non-standard auto coverage in 11 states through its Trexis Insurance division.
Through the insurance company, urban families began to recognize the value Federation members received from their insurance coverage and service. Membership swelled as non-farm members joined.
Its strong membership ranked Alabama among the largest state Farm Bureaus. Alabama resigned from AFBF in 1981, dropping the Farm Bureau name and becoming the Alabama Farmers Federation.
After a 24-year split, Alabama farmers voted to rejoin the national organization in 2005, bringing more than 400,000 family memberships and returning as one of the largest member states.
When the Alabama Farm Bureau was organized 100 years ago, agriculture was the state’s largest industry. Agriculture and forestry continue to be a leading economic engine with an annual economic impact of $70 billion and 500,000 jobs.
The Federation continues to “organize, advance and improve” life for Alabamians. Its strength is also the same — its members.
Editor’s Note: Information for this story was gathered from a variety of sources, including the Federation’s 75th annual meeting program, Neighbors magazine, AFF archives, Auburn University archives, books, newspaper articles and personal accounts from members.