By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau: Among other things, this Arizona farmer reflects on her visit to the Ukraine in the 1990s just after the fall of the Soviet Union wondering what will happen to this precious country as Russia moves toward aggressive domination in the region. 

An Interview with Sherry Saylor, Co-owner of R&S Farms

Tell us about your farm.

Rick and I are third-generation farmers here in Arizona. I married into the farm. When we came into the business, the Saylor family had just purchased the farm in Buckeye because of urban sprawl. We are farming about 400 acres which is actually considered one of the smaller farms. I’m one of the 80% of women who work off of the farm. Between Rick and me we can make it work. It’s really fun.

Sherry and Rick Saylor, Buckeye, Arizona far family. 

On our farm we grow cotton, alfalfa (because we have a lot of dairies around us), barley and wheat. We grow the Durham wheat that you make pasta out of. We are also growing new white wheat this year for bread for the local market.

What changes have you seen in your lifetime as it relates to farming?

The biggest change I’ve seen is the technology advances in the last 40 years. From machinery to land leveling to drip irrigation to improved seed varieties and certain crops making farming less labor intensive it’s meant that Rick can pretty much manage 400 acres by himself with the exception of occasional seasonal help with harvest.

Farming has become increasingly high-tech in terms of how you plant, what you plant and the way you plant. It’s exciting because it’s become more productive than it ever has. The nice thing about Arizona is that we can more than double production compared to other parts of the country because of our wonderful weather.

I’ve also seen farms get larger, even though ours is smaller. This is due mainly to economies of scale and how generational farm families have been able to grow to that next generation. Even though they are still family owned they’ve gotten larger to make it work.

Why did you choose to go into agriculture?

For the Saylor family and so many other generational Arizona families, farming is a tradition. Rick grew up on a farm and loved it. He went to Arizona State and majored in Agriculture economics and then went to work for DuPont because at the time he graduated, the farm was not large enough for him to jump right in as a full partner. This was probably a good thing since he went to work for DuPont and sold agricultural products in South Carolina - which is where we met. He learned a lot of the business end of farming and the agricultural input end of farming due to the nature of DuPont. During that time is when he discovered that he wanted to get back to the family farm in Arizona. It allowed him to discover that in his heart he really wanted to be a producer; a farmer and not just in agriculture business.

So, when we got married we talked about it and eight months after we were married we moved out here. His father sold a piece of property that was close to Phoenix and reinvested in the Buckeye farm and we both decided to get into farming.

Obviously, I didn’t know what I was getting into but I fell in love with it rather quickly - just loved the community, the people and the feel of the land. It was exciting to put seed into the land and harvest a product six to nine months later.

It was a bit of a culture shock since I was a city girl from South Carolina. As I’ve often said the only thing I knew about cotton is that it was in the top of the medicine bottles. When I came out here, it was a steep learning curve since traditionally so many grew up in it and I was the odd man out. But this is where Farm Bureau helped me out a lot. I immediately got involved in this community of other farmers and ranchers and there was a lot of education and leadership development through the Young Farmer & Rancher program; women’s Leadership Committee and Farm Bureau training in general really helped me get the bug to share the story of what we do and why we do it.

Will anyone in your family -younger generation -pursue farming and/or ranching?

The likelihood that our family farm will move into the next generation is not as great because our farm is so small. We only own 80 acres and the rest is leased. Because of the encroachment of the city and the potential to lose an agriculture lease, it’s become more difficult to economically make it. My son-in-law is in charge of the water district in our community so I think that there will always be a connection to the farm.

On the other hand, if we choose to keep the 80 acres there will always be a Saylor out there working that. We’ll grow alfalfa if nothing else. My son and his wife are teachers.

But that’s the wonderful thing about farming in the United States because we’re so productive people can choose to do a variety of things. My children (daughter, Amy, and son, Scott) value their farming heritage and still have a great connection to the land.

Would you ever consider growing an emerging crop or changing your farm or ranch model?

We are going after other opportunities, for example, the different variety of wheat for bread that I mentioned earlier. We’re always open to other opportunities. The bottom line, will it pencil out at the end of the year. In the future with new technologies and innovations, the expectation is that we’ll discover other things to pursue. We’re definitely open to that on our small farm.

What are your community activities? Why are you involved?

I’m involved in the Way Out West Drug Coalition; as a school counselor this organization fits with what I do on a daily basis. The goal of the organization is to prevent underage drinking.

Rick and I are both involved in our church in teaching and the music programs.

Rick has also served on our local school board. We’re both very invested in the educational opportunities in our community.

I’ve served on some town committees, like revenue committees; and, of course Farm Bureau. Our involvement spans 40 years in Farm Bureau, first with young farmers and ranchers. That was one of the first things we jumped into when we moved back to Arizona.

What is one fact/experience/achievement no one knows about you?

Most people probably don’t know that I went to the Ukraine. I’d consider that a pretty unique experience. I went with the American Farm Bureau Women’s Leadership Committee. It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life because I got to go there right when the Soviet Union split up into the independent states. I was able to be the first American in three different schools in the Ukraine and to actually interact with these students. I was raised in the generation that the Russians are our enemy and all of the sudden we were on the same soil and realizing that we really were the same; people with the same needs and desires.

It was quite an exciting time because they’d been in collective farms for so long and they were transitioning to a more competitive open market system. Ironically, they’re struggling there again because of the current political climate. But when we were there, they were very excited to have us. They wanted to find out how we did business in America because they’d been in a very stringent, communist system. It was interesting on a number of levels because on one end they have this very rich soil they call “Black gold” but they don’t have the agriculture infrastructure we do.

So, we were able to go over there and help on a certain level; at least give guidance on how to think about a free market system and understand the concept of private property.

Also while there, we discovered that churches had been made into museums during the Soviet Union’s domination. They were now opening them back up to churches. So it was interesting on a spiritual level too. I was in the middle of a farm meeting one day and this lady raised her hand and asked, “Do you believe in God? We’re trying to find our way back to God.”

It was a unique experience to be in a country that was trying to find itself. I think it still is. It will be interesting to see what happens to the Ukraine as we see Russia trying to move back into that country.  

In terms of an achievement, I did get chosen one year as the middle-school counselor of the Year in Arizona in 2002. I don’t do my job because of the money obviously; I do it because I’m really passionate about what I do. I really love the kids. I also love my involvement here and the fact that you can make a real difference in young people’s lives. This is my 29th year here at Buckeye Elementary School as their school counselor. It’s quite a part of who I am. Every day I come to work I just love it.

What do you think you do really well? Explain.

If I do anything well, it’s that I love the kids and I want to establish a personal relationship with every child that walks in my office or is in my school. You need to love people; care about them. When people come into my office and share their heart with you or a big part of their life that’s a huge responsibility and I consider it a privilege. I don’t take it lightly. It’s exciting to see them become productive citizens. It is tremendously worth it to invest in these young people.

Overall, I have to say my two passions are agriculture and education. These are the two things I hope to always give my best to.

Why are you a farm bureau member?

Farm Bureau has been everything to me from an agricultural standpoint. I’ve often heard it said that you need community and organization to be in a positive group. That’s what we have in Farm Bureau. We have an amazing community; it’s a real family - from young to old - everybody has a place at the table. I just love that aspect of Farm Bureau. I love to see the young leaders coming up and I love to see the older generation still hanging in there. And, everybody needs community.

Secondly I love organizationally how Farm Bureau is set up. It’s grassroots. Everybody has a voice to be heard. Plus, there is an opportunity for everyone to be involved.

So if you have community, organization and opportunity - which I think those three things Farm Bureau provides - I believe you have a successful organization. Because of that, we’re still the largest farm and ranch organization in the world. Farm Bureau does an amazing job of representing the agriculture community.

How will the next generation of farmers have to operate?

I think the next generation of farmers and ranchers will have to be more transparent than my generation. The consumer wants to know who grows their food, how they are growing their food and if it’s being done responsibly. People have always trusted us and so we sat on our tractors and did our work. But now people have become more engaged in their food and where it comes from.

This is actually a great opportunity; a good thing. It’s an exciting opportunity to show what we do, how we do it and why we do it. The fact is, we do farm and ranch with integrity; we just haven’t always let people know about it. It’s important that the consumer has confidence that we are producing a safe and nutritious source of food. We need to communicate that from farm to table the consumer can be confident in the quality of the product we produce.    

So, ultimately, this next generation of farmers must be business savvy, technologically astute and continuously communicating with our more engaged consumers.

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