CULTIVATING FRIENDSHIP—Kyser’s AFBF Mission: Build Relationships For Farming
Whether he’s slogging through the mud to share encouraging words with a farm worker, discussing legislation with government leaders in Washington, D.C., or greeting a waitress by name at the Mexican restaurant in his hometown of Greensboro, Ala., Townsend Kyser is a man who values relationships.So, it did not come as a surprise when, in January, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee elected him chairman at the AFBF annual meeting in New Orleans.Townsend, who seems to always be smiling, earned a reputation as a consensus builder last year while serving on the national committee. During a recent visit to his Hale County catfish farm, the 31-year-old shared his philosophy about why relationships are important among today’s young farmers.”Farmers are a minority. We are 2 percent of the population, trying to feed the other 98 percent of Americans. If we don’t tell our story, someone else will tell a story for us,” he said. “This past year, I’ve had the opportunity to meet other young farmers, and I’ve come to realize there are people just like us all over the United States. We all do things differently, but we are all trying to make a living with what we’ve been given.”Townsend’s ability to bridge geographic and socio-economic boundaries to find common ground is part God-given talent and part family tradition. After visiting with catfish processing plant employees at the local restaurant, the Young Farmers chairman talked about the business model taught by his father, Bill, a former member of the Alabama Farmers Federation Board of Directors.”We want to have a good relationship with our fingerling producer; we want to be able to trust our feed mill; and we want to sell all of our fish to the same plant for a fair price,” he said. “We would rather build a relationship than to deal with four or five different companies.”The Kysers’ “people-oriented” management style not only prepared young Townsend for national leadership, it also helped the family business grow from a pioneer in catfish farming 40 years ago to become a modern 2,000-acre operation that supports three Kyser households.”My grandfather, Joe Kyser, built the first four ponds for the production of catfish in the state,” Townsend recalled. “Other ponds had been built previously that were stocked with catfish, but these were the first constructed with the intent to raise commercial catfish.”Today, the farm includes about 750 acres of catfish ponds as well as a 300-cow commercial beef herd. The family partnership includes parents Bill and Beverly Kyser, Townsend and wife Kelly, and brother Ashley and his wife Scarlett. The boys’ sister, Alison, and her husband, Jerry Sabens, work off the farm as nurses.Of course, when it came time for Townsend to consider his future with the AFBF Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee, he included his family in the decision-making process.”Townsend came and got our blessing before deciding to pursue this,” said Bill Kyser. “Ashley said he didn’t mind pulling more of the load for a year so that Townsend could experience this. Naturally, I’m excited for him and hope he does well. I know he will learn a lot. I’m a great believer in people being exposed to a lot in their lives.”Looking back, Townsend says he appreciates the times his parents pushed him to try new things or sacrificed so he and his siblings would have greater opportunities. As a result, he not only learned about farming, but he also became proficient in piano, earned the rank of Eagle Scout as a seventh-grader and graduated from Auburn University with a degree in psychology.Since returning to the farm, Townsend has studied every facet of the catfish industry in an effort to make a profit amid skyrocketing feed and energy costs and low catfish prices.Despite these challenges, he’s confident the farm will be in good hands while he travels up to 100 days this year as young farmers chairman.”It really means a lot to know Ashley is here and is able to continue our operation,” Townsend said. “It’s comforting to know the farm is in capable hands. It means a lot for him and my father to step up and do more so that I can experience this.”Townsend’s farming partners, though, weren’t the only ones he consulted before throwing his hat into the ring for national office.”I would not have entertained the idea of this responsibility without Kelly. I wanted her full support before I even thought about doing this,” he said.Kelly holds a degree in commerce and business administration from the University of Alabama and serves as the assistant chief of Health and Administrative Services at the VA Hospital in Tuscaloosa. In addition, she and Townsend are proud parents of a 17-month-old daughter, Laura.Even with these responsibilities, Kelly didn’t hesitate when Townsend approached her about the opportunity to serve as YF&R chairman.”I immediately told him to go for it. It’s a once-in-lifetime opportunity that he shouldn’t pass up,” she said.
Fortunately, the job of national YF&R chairman is not a solo act. Members of the national committee are usually elected as husband-wife teams, and the Kysers were able to develop friendships with other young farm families across the country during 2007.”It’s been a great experience,” Kelly said. “It’s helped me because I didn’t grow up on a farm. It gave me exposure to other aspects of agriculture outside of the catfish farming that the Kysers do.”As national chairman, Townsend hopes to expand on many programs started in 2007.One goal is to have all YF&R committee members speak about their profession at civic club meetings. Townsend admits he was apprehensive about that challenge when it was issued last year, but after accepting the invitation of a former fraternity brother to speak to a Rotary Club, he has now embraced his role as a spokesperson for agriculture.”We need to be proactive. If we lose our ability to feed ourselves, this country will be in a world of hurt,” Townsend said.Another ongoing program of the YF&R Committee is Harvest for All. Working with America’s Second Harvest network of food banks, the young farmers volunteer time, money and food to help feed the nation’s hungry.Townsend said partnering with the charity is a natural fit for agriculture’s future leaders.”There are hungry people out there who need to eat, and we, as farmers, need to help them,” he said.Alabama Farmers Federation Catfish Director Mitt Walker said Townsend and Kelly also will bring added recognition to the catfish industry, which is vital to the economy in west Alabama but is relatively small among national commodity groups.”Townsend already has raised the profile of catfish within the American Farm Bureau Federation as a member of the YF&R Committee. That’s going to pay dividends for the industry down the road,” Walker said.In addition to these efforts, Kelly said she’s especially interested in working to promote the list of 160 “Accurate Ag Books” developed by the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture.”Having a 17-month-old who loves books, I’m excited about the opportunity to encourage children to read and learn more about where their food comes from,” Kelly said. “People’s perception of farming begins at a young age. Through this program, we will be able to explain to children that there are hard-working people who farm so that we can have food, clothes and shelter.”