By Marlee Moore
Dubbed the Alabama Farm Bureau Young People’s Program in 1956, today’s Young Farmers Program remains a training ground for the next generation of leaders.
The group has developed scores of leaders for Alabama agriculture, including statewide elected officials, legislators, and Alabama Farmers Federation board members and presidents, including current President Jimmy Parnell and his predecessor, Jerry Newby.
Fayette County organized Alabama’s first Young People’s county committee in 1957, shortly after the state program was formed to develop leadership skills in 18- to 28-year-old farmers in 1956.
Successive groups formed in Walker, Calhoun, Houston and Montgomery counties in 1959. Throughout the years, young farmers in all 67 counties have been active. The Young People’s Program was renamed Young Farmers in 1968.
County voting delegates elect State Young Farmers Committee members during the annual meeting business session each December. The committee has 10 elected district and at-large representatives, plus the Outstanding Young Farm Family (OYFF). Farmers from 33 counties have led the committee as chairman.
Since its inception, young farmers have participated in statewide contests. A 1957 Alabama Farm Bureau News advertisement offered involvement opportunities for young farmers, including Talk Meet and Talent Find.
Today, farmers ages 18-35 compete in state contests; winners represent Alabama in American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) contests.
The OYFF contest honors farmers for excellence and advancements, plus Farm Bureau involvement. The first OYFF was Robert and Martha Gardener of Tallapoosa County in 1963. Prize packages evolved from plaques and bragging rights to include over $60,000 in prizes. Farmers from 37 counties have scored the OYFF title.
Marvin Kelley of Etowah County won first place in Alabama’s inaugural Talk Meet in 1957. He was also the first Young People’s Committee chairman. Talk Meet, now called Discussion Meet, was revamped when the Federation voted to rejoined AFBF in 2005. It encourages a committee-style discussion centered on agricultural issues.
Alabama’s first Excellence in Agriculture contest was in 2006. Amy Belcher of Montgomery County won the competition, which examines agricultural and Farm Bureau involvement for those whose primary income is earned off farm.
Past contests included the Miss Alabama Agriculture pageant. Jewel Walters of Tuscaloosa County was named the first winner in 1958. The final queen, Casey East of Pike County, was crowned in 2008.
Initial Young People’s Program advertisements supported projects focused on safety, citizenship, community beautification, health and recreation leadership. County members were encouraged to participate in demonstration projects showing how farming affects consumers.
Today, county committees complete an annual report detailing activities, meetings and participation. Project examples include work days at nonprofits, food drives, touch-a-tractor events, sweet corn donations, wild hog rodeos and more.
The first Young People’s Conference was in summer 1958 at Cheaha State Park. Over the years, conference activities varied — from seminars to leadership activities to farm tours. But the goal remains the same: encourage idea-sharing, relationship-building and fellowship.
Conference attendance reached 400-plus in the ‘90s, dipped for a time, then rose to over 400 again when the group met in Mobile in 2020.
Four Alabamians have chaired what is now AFBF’s Young Farmers & Ranchers (YF&R) Committee. Jim Brady of Perry County led the way in 1963.
After rejoining AFBF, three Alabama leaders served as national YF&R Committee chair: Townsend Kyser of Hale County, 2008; Will Gilmer of Lamar County, 2010; and Jon Hegeman of Calhoun County, 2015.