— MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The new president of the Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa Insurance is fine with where the sister organizations are politically. It's the huge drop in insurance customers he wants to change.
Chilton County farmer Jimmy Parnell was elected Monday to lead the state's largest farm organization. With that position came the leadership of one of the state's largest property and casualty insurance companies.
Insurance customers at Alfa are called members because they become members of the Farmers Federation. The membership has declined from 467,664 in 2005 to 384,148 in June — an 18 percent drop.
"I want to focus on running the main part of the business, which is insurance," Parnell said in an interview.
He said increased competition, including Internet-based insurance companies, contributed to the decline, along with rate structures and other policy matters at Alfa.
In a world where more people are conducting business online, Parnell said Alfa will continue to stress its personal service, with offices in all 67 counties, and will find ways to say yes to more people.
With less than a week on the job, he's not sure what all that will entail.
"We've got a lot of figure out. But that's going to be the bottom line: We want to say yes to our customers," he said.
The Alabama Farmers Federation started in 1921 as a voice for farmers and got into the insurance business in 1946 to help rural residents.
Parnell, 48, said he grew up in the organization, working his way through the Alabama Young Farmers program to become chairman. He served on the federation's board of directors from 1999-2008 and has been president of the Chilton County Farmers Federation since 2006.
In 2008, he ran against incumbent President Jerry Newby and lost. This year, Newby decided to retire at 65. Six candidates originally entered the race. Three dropped out, and Parnell beat Democratic state Rep. Richard Lindsey, a cotton farmer from Centre, and company vice president Ricky Wiggins of Covington County when delegates voted in Montgomery. His term is for two years.
Looking back at 2008, he said, "I felt I was talking about some changes that needed to be made at that time. People just didn't realize that, and now they are ready."
While Parnell is ready to make changes in the insurance side, he doesn't expect any major changes in how the conservative organization approaches political issues in Montgomery or Washington. He said it will continue to focus on issues of interest to farmers and on tax issues that affect all Alabamians, particularly keeping inheritance taxes from increasing.
Farmers have to pay such taxes on inherited land, which can quickly add up if they own a valuable parcel.
"You can be a real small farm and have a million dollars in real estate," he said.
For years, the federation has been a major contributor to political races and has backed many of the Republicans who now fill all offices elected statewide in Alabama.
Before being elected president, Parnell helped his father and two younger brothers run a cattle and timber business that is spread over a few thousand acres in Chilton and surrounding counties.
Parnell said he and his wife and two children will continue to live in the Chilton County community of Stanton rather than moving to a home in Montgomery that Alfa provides for its president. He's also confident his father and brothers won't let him escape all the hard work of farming simply because he has an office job now.
"They'll call me when it's time to do something hard," he said.