Jimmy Parnell loves to see things grow.
As a beef cattle and timber farmer, the Chilton County native nurtured and grew his family’s business to employ 60 people. As a young couple, he and his wife, Robin, revitalized the Chilton County Young Farmers Committee, turning it into a training ground for future leaders. Now, Parnell is bringing that same passion for growth to his role as president of the Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa Insurance.
“I’ve faced a lot of challenges in life because we built a business,” Parnell said. “I didn’t inherit a business the size it is today. We grew it as a family. It’s taught me to build things. I love to see things get bigger and better. The Farmers Federation is at a point in time when we need to do that — get bigger and better.”
Parnell said, as a young man, he never dreamed of being president of the state’s largest farm organization. That was until former Federation Executive Director Doug Rigney made a prophetic statement to Parnell, who was the State Young Farmers Committee chair at the time.
“Jimmy, one of these days you are going to be president of this organization,” Parnell recalled Rigney saying.
Other predictions about Parnell’s leadership potential would follow, but it was his love for Alfa and the Farmers Federation that eventually convinced him to seek the presidency.
“I wanted to be president of the Alabama Farmers Federation because I believe I can make a difference,” Parnell said. “It’s not that I’m so great, but I feel like I have some skills God gave me to bring people together for the betterment of our organization and Alfa.”
Parnell, who was driving a tractor by age 5 and managing the farm’s payroll by 12, credits his parents, James and Sandra, for preparing him for leadership. The work ethic they taught him helped him earn enough credits to graduate from high school by his junior year and pushed him to graduate from Auburn University with a degree in agricultural business and economics by age 20.
As president of Alfa, Parnell said he is focused on taking care of agents, employees, members and policyholders. He considers the organization’s people its “greatest asset,” and is challenging them to work together to improve the corporate image.
“We’ve got to become the most respected insurance company in the state again. We’re going to have to earn that one step at a time,” Parnell said. “We are going to have to find ways to say ‘yes’ to our customers. There’s a way to do everything. Sometimes, you have to step back and refocus. We are at that point with the insurance company.”
As a farmer, Parnell understands the challenges facing production agriculture, and he’s committed to using the Federation’s strength to affect public policy and strengthen consumer confidence in the food and fiber system. He said farmers are facing increased input costs, government regulations and taxes. That’s one reason he is focused on growing membership.
“A larger membership equips us to do more of the things to protect the farmers of the state of Alabama and the citizens of the state of Alabama,” Parnell said.
Parnell farms in partnership with his father, James H., and his brothers, Jeff and Joseph. Their sister, Amy, is a CPA in Selma. The farm includes about 600 brood cows and a beef stocker operation of as many as 2,500 head per year, plus a large timber and logging business.
This year, the Parnells’ beef business is a little smaller because a tornado slashed through the farm in early 2012, demolishing their barn and cattle working facilities. Their timber business, however, remains strong despite a sluggish economy.
“We work in about a 50-100 mile radius of the town of Maplesville,” Parnell said of the family logging company. “Our goal is to produce 100 loads of wood or logs each day. We cut somewhere between 40 and 80 acres of timber every day in central Alabama, and merchandise that timber to mills as needed.”
With such a large business to run — and now his added responsibility as president — Parnell relies heavily on his best friend and wife of nearly 25 years, Robin.
“We met as really young children,” Parnell recalled. “Her dad moved to this community as a preacher, and he started visiting my parents and got us to come to his church.”
Robin has a successful career of her own as an instructor at Troy University at Montgomery, where she teaches advanced nursing. She has a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Pensacola Christian College, a master’s in nursing and adult health education from Troy University at Montgomery and a doctorate in nursing administration from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
When the Parnells started a family, Robin chose to stay home and be a full-time mom for several years.
“That’s a decision I’ve never regretted,” she said. “But as our kids got older, I wanted to use my skills as a nurse to make a difference. I’m blessed to have a job I love.”
What does she admire most about her husband?
“That’s easy,” Robin said. “It’s the way he takes time for everyone he sees – not just at Alfa events, but in our community or at church… everywhere we go. He’s not trying to prove anything; he genuinely loves people, especially farmers, and he wants to know them and what’s going on in their lives.”
The Parnells have two children. James Robert is in his second year at Auburn University majoring in agricultural business and economics, and Anna Grace is a 10th-grader at Autauga Academy. Parnell says for his family, farming isn’t just an occupation; it’s a way of life.
“Some families go play ball together or do other sports, but my kids show calves, and that’s something we all do together,” Parnell said. “There’s nothing like the time we spend together in the barn. It has kept us close.”
The Parnells say the Farmers Federation also has kept them close. From the moment former Federation Area Organization Director Tommy Martin pulled up in their front yard and asked them about restarting a Young Farmers program in Chilton County, the organization has been part of their lives.
The couple led their county Young Farmers group, and Parnell went on to serve two years as vice chairman of the State Young Farmers Committee and one year as chairman. The Parnells were named the Federation’s Outstanding Young Farm Family in 1999, and he served nine years on the Federation board of directors. Since 2006, he has served as president of the Chilton County Farmers Federation.
“I learned a lot in this organization,” Parnell said. “I don’t think I could be an effective president if I didn’t understand and appreciate this organization.”
As for the future, Parnell aims to grow Alfa and the Farmers Federation by building on the values that made the organization great.
“We’ve got to refocus on the principles that got us here,” Parnell said. “I think we need to inject common sense back into our decisions.”