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On Dec. 3, 2012, College of Agriculture alumnus and fifth-generation Chilton County farmer Jimmy Parnell eked out a victory to become president of the Alabama Farmers Federation and, subsequently, president and CEO of Alfa Insurance Companies.
The federation, with 400,000 members, is the state’s largest farm organization; Alfa Insurance, which the federation founded in 1946 to provide fire protection for rural Alabamians, has more than 1 million policies in force in 11 states.
Politically speaking, the Alfa presidency is a powerful position: The late Goodwin Myrick, who was elected to 10 consecutive two-year terms, was dubbed one of the most formidable figures in Alabama politics in the 1980s and ’90s, and immediate past president Jerry Newby, who served in that role for 14 years, was included on a 2009 list of the 12 most influential people in Alabama.
Parnell, who, with wife Robin, has been actively involved in the organization since 1988, is well aware of the high-profile, political nature of his new position but makes it clear that isn’t why he ran.
“I wanted to be president of the Alabama Farmers Federation because I believe I can make a difference,” the 48-year-old says. “I feel I have some skills God gave me to bring people together for the betterment of our organization and Alfa. It is a big responsibility, but I’ve learned a lot through my involvement with the federation and I feel I am prepared.”
That Parnell would someday hold such a post might not have been all that obvious when he arrived at Auburn University as an incoming transfer student in the fall quarter of 1983. To hear him tell it, he must have been the most unsophisticated individual ever to set foot on a college campus.
“You cannot possibly imagine a more country, more backward boy than I was,” he says.
What his friends and classmates likely saw, however, was a level-headed, sincere, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy who was a pleasure to be around—when he was around, that is.
“The whole time I was at Auburn, I went home every single weekend but two,” says Parnell, who earned his bachelor’s degree in agricultural business and economics in 1985 at age 20. “I guess I was more focused on what was going on at home than at school. I was the student who left Auburn on Thursday night every time possible and rushed home to help on the farm and help run the business.”
The farm, located in Chilton County’s Stanton community and now Parnell Inc., was a cattle and timber operation that his daddy, James H., had started in 1960.
“Our place was small, mainly me and my dad, and Daddy was struggling to grow it,” Parnell says. “I was needed.”
True enough. When Parnell says he’s been a part of the farm “all my life,” he isn’t exaggerating. The firstborn of his then-teenaged parents’ four children, he declares he was driving a tractor by the time he was 5 and, by age 12, was managing the farm’s payroll.
“I’ve always been a business-minded person,” Parnell says. “As far back as I can remember, I was trading goats and chickens and eggs and whatever else came along. I was just made that way.”
But for him, that natural business acumen was not enough. He wanted a college degree.
“I made up my mind when I was knee high that I was going to college, and there was absolutely no question where I was going to college,” he says. “I was going to Auburn.”
He had already knocked out a few basic courses at a junior college when he transferred to Auburn in September ’83. He enrolled as an animal sciences/pre-vet major with the goal of becoming a veterinarian, but not far into his Auburn career, he started second-guessing that vet school dream.
“I knew pretty quick that I was not cut out to spend eight years in school,” Parnell says.
“But that kind of put me in a bind because I didn’t know what I wanted, or what I wanted to do.
“I was a kid in a crisis.”
It was the late Lowell Wilson, then an ag economics professor and one known throughout his 28 years on the Auburn faculty as an exceptional teacher and adviser, who helped him through that time of uncertainty.
“I was taking one of Dr. Wilson’s classes—in fact, I wound up taking five of his classes while I was at Auburn—and I sat and talked to him after class one day, and things started falling into place,” Parnell says.
What he wanted, he realized, was to farm, and for that, a degree in ag business and economics just made sense. That proved to be a very wise decision.
“The business and management concepts Lowell Wilson and others taught me are things I’ve used ever since,” Parnell says.
After receiving his bachelor’s in December 1985—“I got through quick,” Parnell says. “I was in a hurry.”—he officially assumed a role in the family farm and set out to make the place bigger and better.
And grow it he did—to an enterprise that today includes about 600 brood cows, a beef stocker operation and a timber and logging business that cuts 40 to 80 acres of timber and produces 100 loads of logs a day to sell to timber mills. Parnell Inc.—a partnership involving Parnell, his father and younger brothers Jeff and Joseph—employs 60 people.
Politics first appeared on Parnell’s radar screen in the early 1990s, when he was selected to participate in the Alabama Agriculture and Forestry Leadership Development Program, or LEADERS, a joint project of the College of Ag, Extension and the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences that ran from 1984 to 2006 and was designed to help young farmers and timber producers hone their leadership skills and their understanding of the legislative and political processes.
“For the first time, I saw what politics is all about,” Parnell says. “And what I saw showed me that we (ag and forestry) needed people involved.”
He didn’t just preach that message; he practiced it, largely through his stepped-up involvement and leadership in the Alabama Farmers Federation. With wife Robin, whom he has known since childhood and with whom he soon will celebrate his silver wedding anniversary, he revived the Chilton County Farmers Federation’s young farmers’ group and in 1997 served as State Young Farmers Committee chairman.
Two years later, the Parnells and their two young children, James Robert and Anna Grace, were named Alabama’s Outstanding Young Farm Family.
He served on Alfa’s Board of Directors from 1999 to 2008 and was elected Chilton County federation president in 2006. But for many years, he had been contemplating a bid for the statewide leadership position, and around the time his term on the board ended, he went into campaign mode. An avowed “people person,” Parnell started traveling the state, on a mission to build relationships with farmers statewide, and in December, the mission was accomplished.
Dennis Evans, an Auburn ag economist who headed the LEADERS program for many years and first met Parnell through the program, says he has followed Parnell in the years since and has watched him steadily grow as an industry leader. Evans was not surprised Parnell won the presidency.
“I look for Jimmy Parnell to do great things in the new job,” Evans says. “A steady, solid individual with a sensible head on his shoulders will do well in this very important leadership position in our state.”
Ditto, says College of Ag sophomore James Robert Parnell, who, like his dad, is majoring in agricultural business and economics and who, like his dad, plans to return to Stanton and full-time farming with Parnell Inc.
“I think he will do a great job being the new federation president,” son says of father.
“Anyone that knows my dad will tell you he is truly passionate about the federation and, more importantly, its members. I think this comes from his love for agriculture and wanting to make a positive difference.”
James Robert was involved in his dad’s campaign efforts every chance he got, and says he’s already thinking of one day following in his father’s political footsteps.
“I’ve been interested in politics for many years and definitely see myself being involved in politics in the future,” he says. “It's just too important to not be involved. Agriculture is a crucial part of our economy and there needs to be more people involved who understand that.”