By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
Jimmy Parnell, is the new president, CEO and Chairman of the Board of ALFA. He is a native of Stanton, Al., and a graduate of Auburn University in agricultural business and economics. He served on Alfa’s board of directors from 1999-2008; was chairman of the Alabama Farmers Federation Young Farmers State Committee in 1997; and has been president of the Chilton County Farmers Federation since 2006. In 1999, he and his family were named Alabama’s Outstanding Young Farm Family.
Parnell, 48, is fifth-generation farmer and a partner in his family’s beef cattle farm and timber business. In 2006, the Alabama Forestry Association named him Alabama Logger of the Year. He has served in numerous leadership roles for business, environmental, agricultural organizations that include Central Alabama Farmers Co-op board of directors, Chilton County Water Authority, Chilton County Soil and Water Conservation District, National Cattlemen Beef Association and the Alabama Forest Fund.
This year he was elected to lead ALFA into the future, we were privileged to speak with Mr. Parnell, at the ALFA headquarters in Montgomery. The Following is a partial transcript of out conversation.
APR: If you would please tell us a little about yourself, your backround and anything you would like to share?
Parnell: I’d be glad to. I was born and raised in Chilton county. My family has been there for multiple generations. I think my family was there when they took the first census in Alabama. I don’t remember what year but a long, long time ago.
I come from a small family. What I mean by that is that there are not thousands of Parnells in the world, we are a relatively small little group.
The family has always been in the timber business and had a farm for multiple generations. They always had cotton, cows, corn and pigs, normal little farms in Alabama. But the men in the family have always worked in the woods. Some of the family members are in sawmills, some logged. So that is my heritage, what I come from.
As a child, loved to farm, maybe more than normal farm kids because I knew that is what I wanted to do is be involved in agriculture from my earliest memories. I grew up trading and selling eggs, goats, chickens and working in the garden.
My parents taught me to work early and think. They gave me a lot of opportunities to figure out things.
I was born to a young family, Mother and Daddy were teenagers when I was born so we kind of grew up together. Because of the closeness in our age we kind of reversed roles a little bit. What I mean by that is Daddy loved to work and he would send me to take care of business. I grew up kind of being the lead person in the businesses. By the time I was 12 I was doing payroll and paying the men, handling the landowners, that was just me. That is kind of my background. Thought one time that I wanted to be a veterinarian and started college along that track and decided there was no way I could go to college that long. I changed majors to Ag, Business and Economics. Graduated from Auburn with a degree in Agriculture and Business. The whole time I was at Auburn I was running the farm and businesses at home. I was at Auburn during the week and as soon as I could get out of class on Thursday evening or Friday, I headed home in time to pay men Friday evening. I was not the normal college kid, I guess. I don’t guess I have ever been normal.
I like what I do and I love working. I love being involved with people in agriculture and people in general. I just like people. I like to visit with people and understand them, hear what they have going on.
APR: What made you decide to run for president of ALFA?
Parnell: I had been on the board here for 9 years as an elected person, one year as Young Farmer Chairman prior to that. Even before that I was involved in the organization as a young farmer. Many years ago Mr. Doug Ritney who, at that time, was executive director federation, I was back here in one of these offices visiting with somebody about an issue, he came in and just as nonchalant as you can imagine he said, “Someday, you are going to be president of this organization.” That was the first time that it ever crossed my mind. It seemed impossible to me but he planted a seed. I had other comments throughout the years from other individuals, so I guess the seed was there and it just kind of grew over the years. I ran five years ago against an incumbent and didn’t make it. I have had it in my mind for a good while now, worked hard and got it done this time.
APR: If you could, give us an idea of how you see the future of ALFA. You all do a lot of different things.
Parnell: Basically, there are two different organizations. You have the Federation that is involved in political issues and agriculture issues and basically anything that affects people in the state of Alabama. That side of the house, that is sort of their marching orders is to see after the things that are conservative goals of our membership.
Then we have the insurance side of the house. We are modeled after Farm Bureau, we were a Farm Bureau and changed names and now we are back to Farm Bureau but the same concept. It is all over the country with the two organizations.
In the insurance side, I am focused on growing our business, servicing our customers better, trying to say “yes” to our customers rather than “no.” With all that has been going on in the state over the last few years (what I mean by that is the weather issues), we have been saying “no” a lot. I want to reverse that and learn how to say “yes,” find a way to service those customers. That is my goal there.
We have an excellent organization and we are going to build upon the good people. That is our best asset, our greatest asset is our people. We have people in every county in Alabama that are, for the most part, the kind of guys and ladies that you see at church. They are on a committee at church and they are at the little league ballgame, they might be on a town council, they are the heart and soul of their communities. They are good people that are respected by their neighbors. That is how we sell insurance, by being there and building those relationships. We want to build on that and allow people to do more that they are good at.
We are focusing on running the business better in order to allow them to sell more insurance. We have to cut expenses, make good decisions. We have to do all of the things that it takes to run a business properly in order to be able to service the customer. That is our goal on the insurance side. I would like to see some growth.
On the federation side we would also like to see growth. Basically there is a mutual interest among the two. If one grows, maybe the other one will. That will allow us on the political side to be more active if we have growth in membership on our Federation side. We are very optimistic there that we can make this happen, that we can better represent the farmers and agriculture in the state of Alabama while at the same time represent the conservative beliefs of the majority of the people of Alabama.
APR: With the Republican legislature and a Republican governor in the state, there are even Republican journalists if you can believe that, there is more of an emphasis on things that are conservative. However, everything that appears it is going to be conservative is not necessarily going to be. We all come at it from a different perspective. We all have the same goals. We are not real different, we are very similar in the way we view things. We have tried to explain to people, if you are not from the South you don’t get it.
Parnell: I agree, they can’t comprehend.
APR: Are there any particular things that are on your mind about the upcoming session?
Parnell: We’ve done our homework. We think there are several bills that concern us or are of interest to us. One is this concept of efficiency in government where you have one or [at least] fewer organizations that are involved in law enforcement, kind of a unification of that.
There is more than one bill out there. The thing that interests us is that each of the individuals that are talking about this and promoting these bills are all interested in some ag investigators. We have lost all of our ag investigators. There used to be the Department of Ag. We think they are a vital role. Not knocking any other branch of law enforcement, they are all good people and they are doing a good job, but they do not understand that if somebody tells the average deputy in Alabama, he lost an Angus cow, they don’t know what color that cow is. You need somebody with some ag background to pursue these kind of ag investigations.
A lot of issues, cattle rustling is at an all time high or at least a recent all time high because the price is a little higher when it comes to cattle. We have suffered for several years with copper theft on farms. They can come in and take out a 10 foot piece of electrical wire off of a center pivot and it doesn’t seem like a big deal but it is thousands of dollars once you replace the whole wiring.
That is the kind of things that we are talking about.
A huge issue across the state is 4-wheeler or ATV theft. For some reason the regular law enforcement just don’t seem to get their arms around issues like that. We feel like an ag investigator would be more oriented. It is farm equipment on most farms.
APR: Is it that under the consolidation, you want the ag investigators to come back?
Parnell: We want ag investigators.Each proposal is talking about an ag investigator. Also the Commissioner of Agriculture is looking for a way to get ag investigators back. We think we may be able to get what we want out of one of these deals. Hopefully we can get somebody that is focused on agriculture investigations.
APR: So it is not really the consolidation that you are interested in?
Parnell: We are interested in anything that will save money for the state of Alabama but we are particularly interested in those ag investigators being available to protect the people.
APR: I received a call the other day where somebody was concerned that there is nobody to check scales and gas pumps.
Parnell: That is definitely an issue. It is hard for the Commissioner of Agriculture to do currently with his budget constraints. He has some ideas on that that are interesting. He is talking about privatizing Weights and Measures. We all need to make sure we get a full gallon of gas if we buy a gallon of gas.
Jeff Helms: We are actually pretty encouraged that everybody talking so far about the law enforcement consolidation has at least mentioned and acknowledged the need for ag investigation, whether it is Senator Marsh with his plan or the Governor with his plan or the Commissioner trying to get funding in the legislature, they all understand the need is there. That is the first battle, to make sure that everybody understand that there is a need.
Parnell: That’s a positive move for us and we are going to work with all of them to try to find the right blend. I don’t think we are going to disagree on any of it particularly if they are trying to help us.
Also, one thing that our membership is interested in is the payback bill for the trust fund. We have a positive feeling that is going to be the first piece of legislation. That’s important. They said they were going to do it. I look forward to it being done, where we have a commitment in place that we are going to put this money back that we borrowed out of that trust fund. If you and I had written that bill we would have included it. It should have been in there and I think they all realize that. They are trying to fix it.
Last year, we promoted, and it passed, a bill that gave some tax credit for farmers putting in irrigation systems. We think that is very important to the South. When you travel through the Midwest, and even the Farwest, where it is so dry. They have put in irrigation out there for the most part with government money, years ago. A type of infrastructure with government money and the farmer did it on his farm. It also includes some upgrades [to existing systems] to save water. We want to continue to promote things like that. Things that help our farmers.
There is a huge demand in the South for corn. All of these poultry farms need it. Last year was a fair year in the South. I am told that with a pretty good crop of corn we generated three days of feed for the chickens in Alabama. So there is a lot of room that we could market ourselves if we could grow more corn irrigation is going to be essential.
As far as infrastructure, we feel that we need to be looking at some of our rural roads. Farm-to-market roads were built by our grandparents and we are still using those roads and they are beginning to show it. At some point we have to figure out a mechanism to improve some of these rural roads. Some of them are getting in bad shape. We may have that problem of getting something to market if we don’t address that.
The other thing that is a big issue with us is career tech and proper funding for career tech. It not only effects agriculture, it effects the whole state. We need people with skills to do work. We talk about unemployment and it is a big problem. The biggest problem is that a lot people don’t have a skill set to go to work. If they had a skill set they could get a job. We think career tech is a vital role in that. I don’t know at what the age but at the right age, this kid in early high school needs to think, “Well, I am probably not going to college. What could I do?” He might learn how to weld, he might learn how to do something else. There is a whole range of skills for people that are interested in working.
Mr. Parnell, is an engaging man, who appears to have a firm grasp on the helm at ALFA. We wish him and the company great success, for a bright future.