YOUNG FARMERS: 50 Years Later, They’re Still Forever Young
Like the photos on the dusty, yellowed pages of the Alabama Farm Bureau News from 1957, Marvin Kelley’s memory has faded a bit. But even at 68, Kelley says that, in his mind’s eye, he can still see the pamphlet which contained a resolution that he read from on the floor of the Alabama Farm Bureau Federation’s 35th Annual Meeting Nov. 12-14, 1956, in Biloxi, Miss.”I can see it, but I can’t see it well enough to read it,” says Kelley, then a young 4-H officer from Etowah County who had just turned 18 when he read the resolution that changed the course of today’s Alabama Farmers Federation — a resolution that gave birth to the Young Farmers Division, a group that marks its 50th anniversary as it gathers Feb. 2-4 at Huntsville’s Embassy Suites. While Kelley can’t remember the resolution, at least a portion of it is revealed in the Jan. 7, 1957, issue of the Alabama Farm Bureau News: “Be it resolved that the Alabama Farm Bureau Federation plan a youth program for the young people of Alabama within the Farm Bureau organization.”That program, first called the Farm Bureau Young People and patterned after the American Farm Bureau’s national program, also launched the first Talent Find contest and the first Talk Meet, a competition once discontinued but since revived as the Discussion Meet. Kelley, in fact, was its first winner for his patriotic discourse on democracy.A year later, another Young People’s program was launched as Miss Jewel Walters of Tuscaloosa County became the very first Farm Bureau Queen, a title now known as Miss Alabama Agriculture.The Young People program has undergone numerous changes in the five decades since — not the least of which was its name change and expansion of its original 18- to 28-year-old age limit to today’s 17 to 35. Yet, through it all, one thing has remained constant: its mission to train tomorrow’s agricultural leaders. So successful has it been in that mission that today a former Young Farmers chairman, Jerry A. Newby, serves as the Federation’s president and CEO of Alfa Insurance, all while keeping a hand in the family farm operation in Athens.”It opened up a whole new world for me,” Newby said of the program he chaired in 1977. “I had never been away from home, and it gave me the opportunity to see the rest of Alabama and become friends with other young farmers, as well as learn what we need to do to continue farming. It gave me the opportunity to do many things I could only dream about, and helped me to be a better person. I have visited and learned from farmers all across our state and the nation, and have met influential people and built friendships with them — all because I became involved in the Young Farmers program.”Executive Director Mike Kilgore, who served as director of Young Farmers from 1974 until 1980, says the Young Farmers’ influence is also felt on the Federation’s Executive Board where Secretary-Treasurer Steve Dunn and Vice Presidents Jake Harper, Dean Wysner, Hal Lee and Ricky Wiggins are all products of the program. Helping fuel the program, Kilgore said, was an agricultural boom in the 1970s. “We were blowing and going then,” Kilgore said. “Soybeans were $10 a bushel; Earl Butz was the Secretary of Agriculture, and he was saying, ‘Let’s plant fence row to fence row.’ The government was encouraging agriculture anyway it could, and a lot of young people were going into farming. So we had a lot of young farmers then.”One of those farmers from the mid-’70s was Doyle Phillips. One of many Federation board members who were part of the Young Farmers program, Phillips and his wife Sylvia won the Outstanding Young Farm Family competition in 1977. Their son, David, was Young Farmers chairman in 2001.”Being chosen was one of the most important things in my life and career,” said Doyle Phillips, a former president of the Clay County Farmers Federation. “It’s opened so many doors for me that might not have been opened for me otherwise. It’s been a part of the success in everything that I’ve done. At that time, just being acquainted with all the other Young Farmers meant a lot because we were all struggling, and it helped knowing that there were other people there like us.””We were so isolated here and weren’t involved with that many people,” recalls Sylvia. “It was amazing to me to see the love that they had for the young people. It really touched us, and we really enjoyed the time that we were in Young Farmers. Looking back now I see that was one of the best times of our life.”When Kelley looks back, however, he can’t help but laugh at how an 18-year-old kid could have played such a key role, particularly since he never was a full-time farmer. “I thought it was needed,” said Kelley, the first Young People’s chairman. “Fifty years ago, after a boy or girl graduated high school and got out of 4-H, times were tough and most of them, who could, left the farm. I thought there should be something that encouraged them to stay on the farm.”Before they could launch the program, however, the American Farm Bureau Federation mandated that at least eight county Federations sign up. The first was Fayette County, but others soon followed.The task of organizing those counties fell upon John Dorrill, then a 28-year-old field man who became the first unofficial director. “There were some people who thought we’d be competing with some FFA-sponsored groups, but we didn’t hurt them, and they didn’t hurt us. There was room for everybody. We didn’t have a full-time staff working on it, so that was a limitation. I was working 17 counties, and I couldn’t do enough. You’d get one county going, and then they’d help another county.”Dorrill, who retired from the Federation in 1999 as executive director, credits Vice President J. Lewis Harper, as being the “spark plug” who got the program going. “He’s the one who got it rolling,” said Dorrill. “He was the force. I was just his right hand.”Regardless of who started it, one thing’s clear — Young Farmers is now touching new generations of farm families.Take, for example, current Young Farmers Director Brandon Moore, once a farmer himself. A couple years after taking on the job, Moore was shuffling through some old archives when he uncovered an Outstanding Young Farm Family entry from 1976 that looked very familiar.He quickly realized that the couple staring back at him was his parents, Mike and Karen Moore of Madison County. And on their knee, 8-month-old Brandon.It was the first time Moore learned that his parents were a part of his job long before he was.