ALABAMA A&M and AUBURN UNIVERSITIES
For more information,
contact Donna Reynolds, Extension Assistant Editor
AUBURN, JAN. 16---Livestock production literally is a life calling for 39-year-old Blount County native Perry Debter, who has helped manage his family's famed herd of Hereford cattle since high school.
The same holds for Chilton County cattleman Jimmy Parnell, who raises cattle on timberland that has been in his family since before the Civil War.
Both men yearn to pass along their inheritance to future generations, but given the wide array of challenges facing livestock producers, they concede this won't be easy.
For Debter, one of the biggest challenges is an increasingly hostile consumer public which views beef as unsafe and cattle farming as a threat to the environment.
"It's the public perception that bothers me most," says Debter. "People don't realize how safe our food supply is whether it's beef or produce."
This point was driven home to Debter during a recent study tour of Washington State taken with other Alabamians employed in agriculture.
"Many of the people we talked to on the trip seemed to think that if you produced cattle, you simply were abusing the land," he recalls. "That isn't right: we work with nature, not against it."
"My grandfather was very strong with soil conservation, my father was, and so am I," he adds. "Farmers are conservationists by nature. That was the way I was raised."
The speaker making the most impression on Debter during the tour was an environmentalist adamantly opposed to timber harvesting. Listening to the speaker, Debter says, drove home the fact many opponents of farming aren't willing to compromise.
"He made it quite clear in his speech that he wasn't going to budge," Debter recalls. "As far as he was concerned, it was entirely up to the producers to change their lifestyles and the way they did business -- not the environmentalists."
Another pressing concern for cattle producers is fluctuating consumer demand for beef.
"Poultry at least has a steady supply, and it's increasing every year," says Parnell. "But with beef, we're either oversupplied or undersupplied.
"We're never hitting it just right, because we're not as integrated as poultry, and there's a delay in our capacity to produce," he adds.
Debter and Parnell readily concede farmers in all facets of agriculture need all the help they can get, and they're among a growing number of young men and women taking part in the Alabama Agriculture and Forestry Leadership Development Program, appropriately nicknamed "LEADERS." The aim of "LEADERS" is to train young Alabama food-and-fiber producers to become driving forces in the public affairs arena.
Administered by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System in conjunction with the Auburn University College of Agriculture,School of Forestry and College of Veterinary Medicine, LEADERS encourages young agriculturists to look beyond the day-to-day concerns of their operations to the state, national and global forces increasingly affecting every facet of their lives.
Debter, a self-described "homebody," joined LEADERS out of a feeling of necessity.
"As far as being involved in the public arena, I'd just as soon not be," he says. "But it's not a matter of choice -- you simply have to be these days."
Parnell, a past LEADERS participant who has served as president of the program's alumni association, was involved in public affairs before joining the program. Nevertheless, he credits LEADERS with helping him grasp the human dimensions of policymaking.
"After I got involved in LEADERS, I realized congressmen and senators were made of flesh and blood just like me," say Parnell, who recently announced his candidacy for the state legislature.
"You realize through involvement in the public arena that you can have some input in decision making.
LEADERS currently is accepting applications for Class VII. For more information, contact Dr. Dennis Evans at 204 Duncan Hall, Auburn University, AL 36849, or call (334) 844-5552. Applications will be accepted until April 1.