Jimmy Parnell grew up knowing what it meant to work literally until the cows came home. As a child at his family’s Chilton County cattle and timber farm, Parnell was regularly surrounded by cows — along with chickens, goats and all manner of livestock. In fact, to celebrate Parnell’s first birthday, each of his grandfathers gave him a heifer calf as a present.
“So I’ve been in the cattle business since I was a year old, ” Parnell says with a chuckle.
A half-century later, cows and farming are still integral parts of Parnell’s life. In addition to helping run the family farm — an enterprise he shares with his father and two brothers — Parnell is the current president of the Alabama Farmers Federation, as well as the president, CEO and chairman of Alfa Insurance.
In many ways, this was a logical path for Parnell. He is a fifth-generation farmer who slipped into the business as easily as putting on a comfortable pair of work boots. To him, working on the farm was simply a natural thing to do.
“One of my earliest memories is sitting in my grandmother’s lap with chickens all around us, ” Parnell says. “She raised chickens, processed them and sold them to grocery stores and restaurants. As a small child, it seemed like there were thousands of chickens all around us. So I don’t remember people. I remember chickens.”
Each day, Parnell woke up early enough to work for a few hours in the field or garden or whatever needed tending, before getting ready for school. He often sold eggs and goats to the neighbors, and when Jimmy was 12, his father put him in charge of paying the hired hands.
“I was deeply involved in handling all aspects of the family business when I was still real young, ” Parnell says. “The business side of things just kind of came naturally to me. I was a natural trader and have had entrepreneur thinking all my life.”
Still, when Parnell enrolled in Auburn University in the early 1980s, he originally planned to study to be a veterinarian. But this was also a time when the farming industry was going through a major upheaval, with high interest rates and the growth in large corporate farms forcing numerous small farmers out of business.
“Agriculture was in a crisis that had started in the late 1970s, but it really got ugly in the early ’80s, ” Parnell says. “A lot of individuals were going broke. It was just hard times in agriculture. It was something that was affecting everyone.
“I decided I needed to be more involved in the business side of agriculture and changed my direction early in college to agriculture business and economics. I was pretty rare among my friends and colleagues at Auburn, because I was the only one who knew absolutely that I was going back home to the farm.”
After graduating from Auburn in 1985, Parnell returned home and set about making sure his family’s farm could survive. He said it helped that his grandparents had all grown up during the Great Depression, and he had learned at an early age how to be smart with money and downright frugal when needed.
“I was raised by people who had gone through real hard times, so I felt like I was more prepared for the kind of situation we were going through then, ” Parnell says. “We were relatively small farmers, and we were very conscientious of not getting too exposed. We didn’t carry a huge amount of debt. That was a big help for getting us through. And we learned to not complain or get down-and-out about the negatives, but to look for the positives.”
Working closely with his father and brothers, Parnell says they were able to make some changes that enabled both their timber and cattle businesses to weather the economic storm of the 1980s and actually grow and thrive.
“We had to try some creative things to make that growth happen, ” Parnell says. “We adapted technology as it became available to the timber business and utilized that to leverage our abilities. We found a way to fill needs. If a paper mill or saw mill said they needed something done a certain way, we didn’t automatically say it couldn’t be done. We set about finding a way to make it happen.
“We kind of did the same thing in the cattle business. We had maybe 100 head or so of brood cows when I got home from college. We would just raise calves, wean them and sell them. We changed the direction of that part of our business. We started buying cows through stockyards all over the Southeast. We’d add some weight to them and get them really healthy and then ship them to feed yards in the Midwest but retain ownership before selling them to the packer. So we basically took the expense of the middle man out of the equation.”
Along the way, Parnell became active in the Alabama Farmers Federation, becoming chairman of the Young Farmers state committee in 1997. This allowed him to sit in on board meetings and learn about both the business of farming and the history of the AFF from people who had been with the organization for decades.
“A lot of the individuals who were involved at that time were late in their careers, and they spent a lot of time with me explaining the history of the organization and how it had worked, ” Parnell says. “So I really got the whole breadth and scope of the organization. That was also when I started learning about the insurance side of things. It was all a learning experience that helped prepare me for the role I’m in today.”
As AFF president, Parnell says one of his primary goals is to help state farmers become better at business so they operate their farms more profitably. Meanwhile, as president of Alfa, Parnell is overseeing a widespread replacement of the company’s technology system, an endeavor he says “is probably the largest project ever at Alfa.”
But even though Parnell is more of a business executive than a true farmer these days, he says his love of land and livestock remains as strong as ever.
“There’s something innate in some people that we just love livestock and we love growing things, ” Parnell says. “There is a huge satisfaction from being involved in that process, and realizing that you’re really helping other people by providing their food source. It’s as natural as breathing to us. It’s just what we do.”
Cary Estes and Robert Fouts are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Estes is based in Birmingham and Fouts in Montgomery.
text by cary estes • photo by robert fouts