Visionary leaders of the Alabama Farmers Federation were inducted into the Alabama Agriculture Hall of Honor Feb. 17, alongside legends in farming, agricultural research and conservation.
Posthumous inductees receiving the Pioneer Award were former Federation and American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) President Edward A. O’Neal III; Federation founder and former Alabama Cooperative Extension System Director Luther Duncan; and legendary agronomist and researcher George Washington Carver.
The late William Rankin of Faunsdale was honored in the Hall of Honor production category; conservationist Earl Norton was inducted for work in education and government; and livestock auctioneer Don Green was recognized for agribusiness.
Federation External Affairs Department Director Brian Hardin helped organize the event as first vice president of Auburn University’s (AU) Ag Alumni Club. He said honoring O’Neal, Duncan and Carver was a fitting culmination of the Federation’s centennial in 2021 and kickoff for AU College of Agriculture’s sesquicentennial in 2022.
“These gentlemen had a lasting positive impact on Alabama farmers and American agriculture,” Hardin said. “Duncan’s vision of uniting farmers to have a stronger voice in public policy laid the foundation for the Federation, which has become one of the nation’s most influential and effective farm organizations. O’Neal was a powerful voice in Washington and architect of federal farm programs. Carver’s research is still paying dividends for farmers and agriculture around the world.”
O’Neal’s great-grandson and namesake accepted the Pioneer Award for his family. He said it’s hard to overstate the significance of his ancestor’s leadership at AFBF from 1931-1947 or his friendship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“There was a clear shift happening at the time to policymaking focused on urban areas of the country. He recognized the only way farmers were going to have a seat at the table was if they all united, coast to coast. Farmers needed to stand together and vote together to have their voices heard,” said Edward O’Neal VI, who described his great-grandfather as, “the most powerful lobbyist to walk the halls of Congress on behalf of American farmers, ever.”
Before serving at AFBF, O’Neal was the state organization’s second president. The organization began in 1921 when Duncan invited farmers from across the state to a meeting on the campus of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API), now AU. Duncan’s grandson, Bob, said the patriarch, who grew up on a Limestone County farm, dedicated his life to serving farmers.
“He wanted to study agriculture, and that’s what he wanted to make his life about — the promotion of agriculture,” said the younger Duncan.
That passion vaulted Duncan to the presidency of API, which his grandson is convinced would have been swallowed up by the University of Alabama had it not been for the Federation and Duncan’s political acumen.
Like O’Neal and Duncan, Carver left an enduring legacy on American agriculture. His work at Tuskegee University spanned four decades, beginning in 1896. Carver is best known for revolutionizing Southern agriculture by creating new markets for crops such as peanuts and sweet potatoes. This led to diversification and improved soil health.
A century later, Rankin, Norton and Green are among agricultural leaders who have picked up the banner to strengthen farms, rural communities and the environment. They were selected for induction into the Hall of Honor last fall.
Rankin headed the row-crop operation for his family’s Cedarcrest Farms, which earned national recognition for Jersey dairy cattle. Rankin also won honors for conservation and land improvement, including advancements in drainage, waste management and related systems. He died in December.
Norton led a successful career of 35 years with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, including nearly 20 years as state conservationist. Since his retirement in 1995, Norton has continued protecting soil and water resources and authored the definitive handbook on erosion control and stormwater management for construction sites.
Green, a world-renowned auctioneer, was a partner in the Roanoke Stockyards, where he worked to provide a thriving, profitable marketplace for cattle farmers, as well as equine enthusiasts. Green was recognized as “Official Auctioneer” of the National Cutting Horse Association, which also presented him a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Since 1985, the Alabama Agriculture Hall of Honor has recognized 115 individuals for their service to the state’s farmers and landowners. An additional 55 have posthumously received the Pioneer Award.