James Tolar is no stranger to hard work; and he’s no stranger to nearly all the farmers in Alabama. His friendly smile and eager handshake have carved him a place in the history of the Alabama Farmers Federation as one of the longest serving vice presidents with 28 years to his credit.Born in Tullahoma, Tenn., Tolar’s parents, Albert and Catherine Tolar, were in the dairy business. In 1946, the family moved to Perry County where they bought 160 acres of land and several Holstein cows. The farm prospered, and eventually the Tolars were milking 400-500 head a day from their herd of 600 cows.But Tolar wasn’t sure farm life was for him, and following graduation from Livingston University with a major in business administration and a minor in history and political science, he went to work in Birmingham as a bond underwriter trainee.”I loved that job, but I couldn’t wait to get back to the farm on the weekend,” he recalled. “I missed being out in the open, and I didn’t have anything to do on the weekend. I couldn’t afford to play golf, so it seemed only natural for me to come home and work on the farm. There was always plenty to do.”Eventually, he came back to the farm and for five years he milked by himself, saving and planning for his future. His father became ill, and Tolar bought the cows and equipment and eventually inherited some of the land. Over the years, he acquired more land and equipment and at one time had 5,000 acres of row crops that included soybeans, hay and grain sorghum.”I got out of the soybean business just before it bottomed out,” Tolar said. “Thankfully, I still had the dairy, and I had a fertilizer and seed business along with a lime quarry.”He founded Tolar Fertilizer and Lime Co., which helped the soybean business in the Black Belt by providing lime to farmers at a reasonable price.In 1996, arthritis forced Tolar to sell his dairy herd. Now, he operates a beef cattle farm. “I made a good living over the years,” Tolar said. “I’ve pretty much made money in every business I’ve had–some more than others, but I’ve been blessed that way.”His keen business sense and political savvy allowed him to serve the Alabama Farmers Federation well over the years, too. But this year, he said it was time to let someone else steer the ship for a while.”I’ve been in the organization a long time,” he said. “I started going to the Perry County Farm Bureau board meetings in the late 1960s, and in the early 1970s I was elected president of the county.”In 1970, Tolar and his family were chosen Alabama’s Outstanding Young Farm Family and in 1975, he was elected vice president of the Alabama Farm Bureau in a statewide election, even though he had never served on the state board. Tolar also was elected as the first State Soybean Committee chairman and continued to serve as vice president of the Federation. He has served under three very different presidents, all of whom he has fond memories of and whom he said brought unique leadership skills that helped shape the organization into what it is today.Tolar describes former Alabama Farm Bureau President J.D. Hays as a very precise man. “If he told you something, that’s the way it was,” he said of Hays. “He helped in forming the commodity committees that we have today.”Former Alfa Farmers President Goodwin Myrick is remembered by Tolar as the “best people person I ever knew” and as “a good businessman and a great storyteller.”Alfa’s current President Jerry Newby is described as “the best leader I’ve ever served under and the most conscientious and hardest working president we’ve ever had.”With so much history connected to the Farmers Federation, it’s hard to believe Tolar also spent countless hours serving in other organizations. He formerly served as president of Associated Milk Producers, Inc., was a director for Central Bank of the South, served as vice president of the Uniontown Grain Elevator, Inc., was vice president of Southern Milk Sales Co-op of San Antonio, Texas, and is a former director of the Sunbelt Federation of Milk Co-ops.During his time as vice president, Alfa grew from an $80 million company to a multi-billion corporation. Tolar attributes that to good agents and good communications with county boards.Over the years, Tolar has seen state politics shift from leaders with a farm background to those who know nothing about agriculture. Now, it’s more important than ever for the Federation to maintain a strong political presence to ensure farmers are not left out of decisions that will shape their future, he said.”I can remember when current use laws were written, and that’s probably helped us as farmers more than anything else I can remember, politically speaking,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to know you helped participate in such history-making events, and I’m proud to have helped in some way. I always felt like I was representing the farmers, not just myself.”Nowadays, Tolar likes spending time with his five sons and their families, and he likes driving his motor home on vacations. He still enjoys an adventure now and then, and plans to take his youngest son on a cruise through the Panama Canal later this year.Those who know him well say Tolar is a master at people skills. He can meet someone once and remember their face and name months later, shaking their hand as if greeting a long-time friend.”At one time, I knew just about everyone within the organization by name,” Tolar said. “I’ve traveled all over the state to county meetings and gotten to know a lot of them really well over the years. I’m not a good public speaker, but I really like people, and people have been good to me.”In presenting Tolar a special Federation leadership award at the organization’s 82nd annual meeting last month, Federation President Jerry Newby described Tolar as “a dear friend to me and one of the best friends to agriculture.””He is everything that you could ask or want a friend to be–loyal, honest and dependable. I feel he has shown these same qualities in the way he has served the Alabama Farmers Federation,” Newby said. “As a leader in this organization he has worked tirelessly and consistently for our organization to be more productive and stronger.”He is a man of courage, and he has always put the best interests of the Alabama Farmers Federation first. All of the Alfa family will miss James Tolar’s leadership and service. I will certainly miss him,” Newby added.Jake Harper, who recently was elected as the new southwest area vice president, said he has always admired Tolar’s leadership and friendship. He described Tolar as a “genuine and caring” man.”Tolar has always been in touch with what people were feeling and wanting to get done,” Harper said. “That’s the sign of a good leader. Tolar has always taken the time to look at individual situations, not just the big picture, and make good decisions.”Harper said Tolar also is known as a peacemaker within the organization–another strong leadership skill. “I’ve seen him smooth a lot of feathers and handle tough situations well,” Harper said. “When I was on the State Young Farmers Committee years ago, Tolar gave me good advice and helped guide me. He just has a way of steering folks in the right direction.”Baldwin County Farmers Federation President David Bitto echoed Harper’s sentiments.”It has been a pleasure to work with Mr. James Tolar. His wisdom and guidance will be missed,” Bitto said. “James has given of himself without reservation. He is always thinking about his fellow man and the betterment of agriculture. He was always on the right side of the issues–not always taking the popular position, but the correct one.
Legacy Of Leadership