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Grassroots Leadership: Farmers Guide Federation Through Century Of Growth

Grassroots Leadership: Farmers Guide Federation Through Century Of Growth
May 19, 2022 |

By Marlee Moore

In its first century, the Alabama Farmers Federation has been guided by 10 farmer-presidents — elected by their fellow farmers to serve rural Alabama.

The leaders of the Federation, originally named Alabama Farm Bureau, have diverse backgrounds, educational experiences and leadership styles.

But their mission has been unified — improve, organize and advance life for Alabamians.

Charles Warren Rittenour

1921-1923

He was born in Ohio, but Charles Warren Rittenour left his mark on the Yellowhammer State as Alabama Farm Bureau’s first president.

Opportunities for agricultural growth attracted Rittenour to Montgomery County, but before moving south in 1918, 37-year-old Rittenour dabbled in a burgeoning farm organization while working on his father’s corn, wheat, alfalfa hay and horse farm.

Once in Alabama, the Ohio Wesleyan University graduate bought 4,200 acres where he farmed corn, cotton, cattle and hay. He was president of Alabama’s first county-wide farm organization and represented Montgomery County when Alabama Farm Bureau formed in 1921.

A temporary slate of officers was organized, with Rittenour as president. He was officially elected later that year and was called “a man of unusual business and executive ability.”

In 1923, Rittenour was president of affiliated southern region states and became president of the first Hay Marketing Association. He later served on the Farm Bureau state board and executive committee. Rittenour was secretary-treasurer when he died March 25, 1946.

He and wife Louise had three sons — Charles Jr., William and James — and a daughter, Helen Geesey.

Edward Asbury O’Neal III

1923-1931

Edward Asbury O’Neal III plowed the way for reform during some of the most tumultuous times in modern agriculture.

Before leading the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) from 1931-1947, Lauderdale County’s O’Neal made waves as an innovative livestock and row-crop farmer. He was elected president of Alabama Farm Bureau in 1923 at age 48.

O’Neal is credited with incorporating many national farm programs, including farm price supports, into federal law. Contemporaries recognized him as America’s No. 1 leader in agriculture. He spoke on many occasions to the White House Conference on Rural Education, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee and the Chamber of Commerce Convention in New York.

O’Neal was keenly aware of the importance of elected officials, government and agricultural legislation. As AFBF president, he was a close agricultural adviser to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.

On the farm, O’Neal embarked on a soil-building program that involved livestock, legumes and lime phosphate. He produced then-unbelievable yields of 40 bushels of wheat, 75 bushels of corn and a bale of cotton per acre. He began growing alfalfa in 1913 and raised livestock on his 500-acre farm near Florence.

O’Neal was the first Lauderdale County Farm Bureau president and was state vice president before being elected president in 1923. Under his leadership, the organization grew rapidly in legislative and business services, and in cooperative purchasing and marketing.

He graduated from Washington & Lee University, where he studied law, in 1898 and received an honorary Doctor of Agriculture from Auburn University in 1932.

O’Neal was married to Julia Camper and had three children, Edward, Moncure Camper and Amelia Nuessle. He died in 1958.

Robert Farnham Croom

1931

Robert Farnham Croom led the Alabama Farm Bureau briefly — just three months — but contemporaries applauded his commitment to serving when the fledgling organization needed him most.

Evergreen’s Croom was vice president when President Edward Asbury O’Neal III was tapped to lead the national organization in spring 1931; the state executive committee chose Croom to finish O’Neal’s term, which ended at the state convention in July.

The 43-year-old Croom raised livestock, horses and cotton. He also grew peaches and strawberries and shipped his fruit to Chicago via refrigerated railcars. Croom and his wife, Alice, had three daughters — Alice Wright, Sarah Hardzog and Betty Norman.

Croom was also president of the First National Bank of Evergreen. When the bank folded due to the Great Depression, Croom moved to Washington to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He retired in Evergreen and died in 1966.

John Littleton Edwards

1931-1938

John Littleton “Litt” Edwards wore many caps. He was a magistrate, was elected to the state Legislature, farmed in Dallas County and served on the county board of education. Most notably, he was the fourth president of the Alabama Farm Bureau.

Edwards was a charter member and president of the Dallas County group before being elected to lead the state organization from 1931-1938. He was elected at age 70.

He also served on Alabama’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration Committee, was president of the Alabama Cotton Growers Co-op and volunteered on the State Rural Electrification Committee Edwards attended Howard College in Marion from 1878-79 before beginning to farm. He grew cotton, hogs, cattle, chickens and sugar cane.

Edwards married his wife, Lula, in 1884. They had one son, George. Edwards died in 1946.

William Howard Gray

1938-1940

William Howard Gray was four years removed from earning his Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API) diploma when he was elected Alabama Farm Bureau president in 1938.

The 29-year-old embarked on a two-year term that brought healing and ended a period of strife and division within the organization.

Gray was born in Madison County’s New Market in 1909 and shouldered farm responsibility at age 11 after his father died. He was API’s 1934 senior class president before coming a county Extension agent in DeKalb County, followed by stints in Mobile and Pickens counties.

He resigned as president in 1940, citing farm conditions that suffered during his time in office. When he was elected president, he milked 20 cows, grew 100 bales of cotton annually and raised 200 hogs, in addition to serving on the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank board in Birmingham.

He died in 1943 after a bout of pneumonia. As a testament to his influence, noteworthy pallbearers were former Gov. Frank Dixon, Alabama Extension Director L.N. Duncan, American Farm Bureau Federation President Edward O’Neal III and Rep. John Sparkman.

Gray was married to Glancye and had three children — Billy Gray, Leta Janel Bates and Sandra Vallely.

Walter Leon Randolph

1940-1961

A century after the group’s inception, Walter Leon Randolph holds the title of longest-serving president of what is now the Alabama Farmers Federation — 21 years.

He was elected in 1940 at age 34 and served until 1961, when he chose not to seek reelection due to illness. He’s the only president to have formerly served as staff — moving from information director to director of organization to executive secretary.

While state president, growth in membership and service to farmers boomed. Alfa Insurance was founded as Alabama Mutual Fire Insurance in 1945, and current state headquarters were constructed on South Boulevard in Montgomery.

Far-reaching state legislative programs enacted during his leadership including sales tax exemptions on production items, farm tractor gas tax rebate, earmarking of income tax for education, and financial support for research and Extension.

Before his election, the Dallas and Fayette counties farmer worked in Washington as assistant director of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration’s southern region. Randolph helped write national farm legislation, including the Bankhead Cotton Control Act of 1934, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1935, the Bankhead Price Support Act for basic commodities, and the Steagall Price Support Act for non-basic commodities, in addition to peanut marketing quotas.

He was Alabama Polytechnic Institute valedictorian in 1925 before working with Extension and Progressive Farmer magazine. He served as a member of the Farm Credit Board of New Orleans and was an original member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Policy Committee. He was American Farm Bureau vice president from 1953-1969.

Randolph married Mayfred Lunsford in 1936; they had one son, Walter Jr. Randolph died in 1974.

James DeFord “J.D.” Hays

1961-1978

Enthusiasm and optimism were trademarks of James DeFord “J.D.” Hays’s tenure as Alabama Farm Bureau president from 1961-1978.

The Madison County farmer served as county president, state resolutions chairman and vice president before his statewide election.

When elected, Hays said his goal “was to formulate and put into place an adequate financial structure for membership.” As dues increased from $5 to $19, plus $1 for political action committee ELECT, Hays boosted the Federation’s influence and impact.

Improvements included expanding field staff and commodity programs; forming the stock life insurance company; organizing the group’s first political action committee; creating Neighbors magazine; and establishing the first Southern Commodity Producers Conference, attended by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Vice President Walter Mondale.

Major legislation was won, including the property tax classification in 1972 and “lid” bill in 1978.

The University of Alabama chemical engineering graduate returned to Huntsville in 1978 with his wife, Annie Wade. They had three children, John, Jim and Martha. Hays was prominent in land development in the burgeoning metropolis and donated 650 acres for the Robert Trent Jones Golf Course. He died April 4, 1998. The family since donated over 500 acres for the J.D. and Annie S. Hays Nature Preserve in Hampton Cove.

Goodwyn Myrick

1978-1998

Goodwyn Myrick was a man ahead of his time.

The Etowah County farmer was elected Alabama Farm Bureau president in 1978. In 20 years of leadership, Myrick presided over a record increase in membership — 217,000 to nearly 400,000 — and rapid insurance company growth.

Political power boomed; voluntary political action committee contributions increased from $1 to $2, and the organization hired a full-time national lobbyist after resigning membership in the American Farm Bureau in 1981. In 1987, the state group became Alabama Farmers Federation; the insurance company was named Alfa.

Myrick met annually with county leaders in every area of Alabama; supported the “current use” law; and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in educational support for schools and universities — ironic for a man whose formal education ended after 11th grade.

He understood the significance of healthy, happy employees. Myrick installed a fitness center in the home office, built a state-of-the-art child-care facility and reduced Alfa Insurance agent turnover from 80% in 1978 to 15% by 1997.

Myrick was a dairy and beef cattle farmer who farmed in Gadsden and Talladega. He was a former Etowah County president, State Dairy Committee member, board member and first vice president. He was inducted into the Alabama Agricultural Hall of Honor, is in the Alabama Business Hall of Fame and received an honorary doctorate from Troy State University in 1993.

He had five children, Greg Myrick, Gary Myrick, Donna Hayne, Rita Thomas and Deborah Prince. He married Darlene Lyon in 1992. Myrick died Nov. 15, 2003.

Jerry A. Newby

1998-2012

Jerry A. Newby’s love of farming brought him to Montgomery as president of the Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa Insurance in 1998. That love fueled his leadership through 2012.

During his tenure, the Federation reaffiliated with the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) in 2006. The commodity department grew to include new divisions for hay and forage; wildlife; bee and honey; greenhouse, nursery and sod; equine; and sheep and goats.

Other accomplishments included growing the Agriculture in the Classroom program, developing the Ag Tag, creating the Alabama Farmers Agriculture Foundation, passing the Family Farm Preservation Act and defeating Amendment 1 in 2003.

It was a stormy period, too. Alabama notched more catastrophic storms (including Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina and the April 27, 2011 tornadoes) in Newby’s 14-year tenure than during the previous 50 years.

Before being elected president at age 51, Newby held terms as a state vice president; Limestone County Farmers Federation president; State Young Farmers Committee chairman; and AFBF Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee member. Newby still serves on the Limestone County Farmers Federation board.

His family raises cotton, corn, wheat, soybeans and stocker calves in north Alabama and southern-middle Tennessee. He and wife Dianne have three children — Elizabeth, Mary Anna and Jerry Allen.

Jimmy Parnell

2012-present

Loyal. Honest. Personable.

That’s Jimmy Parnell — a fifth-generation farmer who’s been at the helm of the state’s largest farm organization since 2012. He’s ushering the Alabama Farmers Federation into its centennial year while Alfa Insurance, of which he’s also president, celebrates its diamond anniversary.

“QUOTE,” said Parnell, 55.

Parnell and wife Robin helped start the Chilton County Young Farmers, sparking involvement in the state organization. Parnell was State Young Farmers Committee chair in 1998 and won the 1999 Outstanding Young Farm Family contest before serving nine years on the state board. He was Chilton County Farmers Federation president from 2006-2012.

Parnell oversees insurance operations in 11 states, and Alfa is Alabama’s No. 1 life insurance company. The company recently underwent a technology systems overhaul, one of the largest IT projects in the world. The Federation has over 350,000 member families.

A native of Stanton, Parnell graduated from Auburn University in agricultural business and economics in 1985 before returning to Parnell Inc., his family’s timber and cattle operation. They log in a 50-mile radius of Maplesville and have a commercial cow herd, in addition to running over 2,000 head of stockers annually.

Parnell serves on the national Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee for Trade in Animals and Products. In 2015, Yellowhammer News named him one of Alabama’s most influential leaders. Parnell also been named Logger of the Year by the Alabama Forestry Association and has served on the American Farm Bureau Federation board.

The Parnells have two children, James Robert and Anna Grace.

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