In farming with her husband, Rick, Sherry Saylor was elected Chair of the American Farm Bureau Women’s Leadership Committee in 2014 and will be concluding her service on the national committee at the end of January 2021. Elected to the American Farm Bureau Women’s Leadership Committee in 1990, she has been a member of the Farm Bureau since 1974 and formerly held the position of Arizona Farm Bureau Women’s Leadership Chair. She serves as an ex-officio member of the same group and an ex-officio member of the Arizona Farm Bureau Board of Directors, Chair of the Arizona Farm Bureau AgPAC Committee and recently served on American Farm Bureau’s Board of Directors and on the American Farm Bureau Foundation Board.
If she sounds like a busy professional, she is. During it all, she finds time to enjoy her precious grandchildren Moses, Lancey, Carson and Jace.
Sherry and Rick are partners in R&S Farms, a diversified row crop farming operation located in Buckeye, Arizona. They grow primarily alfalfa. Representing the 80 percent of farm women that work full-time off the farm, Sherry’s career endeavor is as a school guidance counselor for Buckeye Elementary School, where she has worked for 36 years.
Sherry graduated from Westmont College with a BA in Sociology and Education and received her Master’s in Counseling in 1996.
Many of us like to say we take our cues on leadership from Sherry. She is certainly an inspiration to many in the Farm Bureau family. In fact, she’s becoming an institution. She is someone “devoted to the promotion of a particular cause…” and that cause is agriculture. No industry could have a better advocate than her.
I had a conversation with Saylor at the beginning of her national chair role with the Women’s Leadership Committee. As she wraps up her national leadership role, it’s just as appropriate to reconnect.
With such a long-term volunteer leader commitment, it’s only natural we should ask her about leadership and volunteerism in one of America’s purest grassroots organizations, the Farm Bureau. Calling herself a Farm Bureau addict in the best sense of the word, Saylor sheds light on what it means to take the power of grassroots leadership and use it to advance an “essential industry.”
Arizona Agriculture : You’ve been in volunteer leadership roles in Farm Bureau for decades starting with Young Farmers and Ranchers. What was your driver for so much engagement over the years? And why did you stick with it?
: I fell in love with the first farmer I met and then I fell in love with the Farm Bureau and agriculture! When we moved to Buckeye in 1974, I had no idea what farming was all about. I often say that the Farm Bureau saved my life because it provided a community of amazing individuals who in turn allowed me to become a part of their tribe!
Getting involved with Young Farmers and Ranchers was the first step, and then transitioning into Women's Leadership helped me continue my journey. I began to learn about this amazing industry I was privileged to be a part of. I started going to any conference and training that was offered, and I found it empowering to be able to speak with confidence about agriculture at the local, state, and national level. Farm Bureau gave me the opportunity to make a difference by training and educating me about the issues facing farmers and ranchers. As the leadership guru Simon Sinek has pointed out, we all need to know our "why!" Our collective why is that we desire to provide food, fiber, and fuel to this world to sustain people in the days and years to come! I still am passionate about what I do because I believe deeply in the role the American Farmer plays in our society!
Arizona Agriculture : You’re winding down your career as the Women’s Leadership Committee Chair for American Farm Bureau Federation. Talk about this. Mixed emotions? Are you ready to pass the baton?
: After 40 years of involvement with Farm Bureau and the last six as Chair of the American Farm Bureau Women's Leadership Committee, it is with mixed emotions that I will no longer be involved at the national level. Most certainly I will miss the relationships I have established through the years at our D.C. office and the chance to visit various state Farm Bureaus.
But I do believe in the fluidity of leadership. I said when I was elected Chair that I would serve six years and I'm keeping my word! We have amazing women on our national committee, and I feel certain that the quality of work will continue. I've had a wonderful run at the national level, and we have accomplished a great deal with the help of our talented staff and our" boots on the ground "volunteers. This sixth year has been especially hard since we have had no travel and no in-person meetings---not the way I wanted my last year to be---but we have found the silver lining as much as possible offering zoom conferences and trainings which have allowed more women to be involved.
Arizona Agriculture : Having asked you this previously but it’s so important, what do Women in Ag bring to the leadership table that makes it distinct?
: I am absolutely passionate about helping women "find their voice" when it comes to being spokespersons for farmers and ranchers. In our recent Women in Ag survey, 95% of the women respondents said they were involved in advocating for their industry. We just hosted our second D.C. Advocacy Fly -In for women leaders. We schedule this to coincide with National Ag Day (when there is not a pandemic!) and it is giving women more opportunity to connect with their congressional delegations. One of our most popular programs, Communication Boot Camp, continues to give women even more confidence as they speak publicly with the media and elected leaders. We now host two of these trainings per year and have trained 240 women to be articulate spokespersons in the public arena. Women make up most of the GO TEAM, and they are the majority of volunteer educators in our ag in the classroom programs. We hold a seat on the American Farm Bureau Foundation and sponsor 10 teachers to attend the National Ag in the Classroom Conference each year.
This is a perfect time to step up and tell our story and more and more women are finding the courage to do just that. We need to embrace this opportunity especially since women make up about 39% of primary farm owners. We have also made a concerted effort to connect with other women in ag groups such as Dairy Girl Network, FarmHer, Agri-Women, CattleWomen, Executive Women in Agriculture, Sigma Alpha etc. I have yearly hosted a network call or in-person meeting with representatives from these groups which has been productive on many levels. I believe women in ag enjoy getting together, training together in a safe environment, and then sharing that knowledge with those in their sphere of influence. Women in ag bring a unique perspective to the dialogue about food, and I feel other women consumers tend to trust them since they share the same values for their families.
Arizona Agriculture : I can ask the same question about Young Farmer and Rancher since you and Rick both served in that program when you first started out in agriculture. What makes the young farmer and rancher program so distinct?
: The Young Farmer and Rancher program were what initially drew us into the Farm Bureau family. Farming and ranching can be very stressful, and even isolating, so having other individuals to "do life with" is so important. The community that occurs when you are in a high-stress occupation can be lifesaving. Having other young men and women who are experiencing the same challenges you are, brings a certain comfort and even confidence. The icing on the cake is that so many of the experiences offered in the YF&R program are fun. The need for balance is so critical and being able to combine work and play is healthy and good! The training and educational opportunities are enormous in YF&R---so many of our present board members and leaders at the national level got their start in YF&R. Building those leadership opportunities is critical at that age and will pay dividends in the future for sure.
: Why does Farm Bureau need the three core programs: YF&R, Education and Promotion and Women’s Leadership? Does this segmentation build unity?
: Grassroots volunteers are what make Farm Bureau an incredibly effective organization. Having three core programs that volunteers can align themselves with is also an effective way to utilize the talent that is in rural America. When I think of Women's Leadership, Promotion and Education, and Young Farmers and Ranchers I believe we can safely say we are United in Purpose. All three committees may have a different emphasis in terms of furthering the cause of agriculture, but the end goal is similar.
We created a Venn Diagram this year to show how we interface with one another. We describe Women's Leadership with the acronym LEAD: Leadership development, Engagement with the Consumer, Advocacy, and Do it Daily. P&E focuses on consumer education but not advocacy. YF&R focuses on building strong leadership in our younger farmers. All of us have the end goal of keeping agriculture a viable and healthy industry. I love that we have choices in the Farm Bureau about where to be involved. The more committees or working groups we have in the Farm Bureau provide increased opportunities for involvement of our members. The more opportunities for involvement will help spread the story that much more effectively. The bottom line is that we all work together for the common purpose of a united and healthy agriculture.
Arizona Agriculture : In the last conversation article I did with you, you mentioned that community and opportunity need to exist for a grassroots organization like Farm Bureau to really make a difference. Farm Bureau is pretty good at creating this environment, but societal norms today make it a bit challenging. What counsel would you give to ensure these elements continue to exist within the Farm Bureau world?
: The challenges facing an organization like Farm Bureau are indeed daunting. When you think that the number of farmers is decreasing in our country it leads us all to reevaluate how we are maintaining our community and our effectiveness outside our tribe of farmers and ranchers. A recent statistic I read indicated that 60% of men work off the farm and 80% of women do. Time pressure is a big hurdle for many of our volunteers. We will have to be even more creative as we plan meetings and training in the future, being responsive to the environment so many of our members find themselves in. Social media will continue to be a huge force, and we have learned that much can be accomplished virtually. However, nothing will take the place of building deep and trusted relationships in the days to come. I still believe the Farm Bureau needs to value and affirm the grassroots at the County level. We need to continue formulating policy from the local level to the state and ultimately the national level. That is our strength, and we need to build on it.
: You’re often exposed to the next generation of up-and-coming leaders. What distinguishes them and what advice would you give?
: The next generation of up and coming leaders are highly educated. They are action-oriented and don't want to delay making a difference. I love that they are a dedicated and committed group and care deeply for agriculture. Many of them will not be in production agriculture, but they will work for many of the supporting industries. They want to be a part of the Farm Bureau family, and we need to find a way to utilize their passion. We are all in this together---the farmer, rancher, seed salesman, scientist, equipment engineers, water experts etc. It's going to take a concerted effort to keep our industry healthy and sustainable. I think the challenge of the Farm Bureau will be to make everyone feel welcome and valued as we seek to meet the challenges of the next decades. The advice I would give to the "younger set" is to honor those who have gone before( learn from those whose shoulders you now stand on) , celebrate the wonderful volunteers of the present( in other words play well with others!) , and plan for the future with an open and creative mindset.
: So, are you going to hang up your volunteer leadership hat? What’s next?
: I am a Farm Bureau addict in the best sense of the word! I love this organization that has given so much to me and our family. I am looking forward to having more time to invest in my own state as a volunteer leader. I would love to spend more time educating our youth with the wonderful resources we have in our Ag in the Classroom program. I will always be willing to speak up for farmers and ranchers in any venue that is available. I hope to continue to advocate with our elected leaders at the local, state and national level. I would also like to continue to do some motivational speaking on the topic of leadership if the opportunity or need is there. Basically, I want to stay involved in the Arizona Farm Bureau as well as the American Farm Bureau in any way that is helpful to spread the wonderful message of agriculture.
: Are you excited about what’s ahead and why?
: I am excited about the future because I believe this is a great time to engage with the consumer about who we are as farmers and ranchers. We live in a time when people actually care about what we do and how we do it. We can be transparent and open about the best management practices we utilize on our farms to help produce the abundant and high-quality food that we do. Innovation and technology continue to change how our farms look ---but what hasn't changed is that the majority of farms in this country are family owned. What hasn't changed is the commitment to excellence that America's farmers and ranchers possess. We share the same values with the consumers we serve when it comes to wanting high quality, safe, and nutritious food. With access to social media and all the communication options available there is no better time than the present to engage with those we serve.
: Anything you want to add?
: If I had to sum up in one word my Farm Bureau career it would be GRATITUDE. I have been so blessed to have such amazing people pour into my life. I have been given unlimited opportunities through the last 40 years to grow as a person and as an agriculturalist. Most of all I appreciate the relationships that I have been able to enjoy---friends that are like family.
My life verse is Psalm 37: 4 “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart." God has indeed given to me above and beyond what I could have ever imagined the last 4 decades. When Rick and I started farming together 47 years ago I never dreamed I would get to be the Chair of the American Farm Bureau Women's Leadership Committee.
When former Executive Jim Klinker and Field staff person Bob Wilson invited us to our first YF&R training I had no idea how deeply I would become connected to this organization. When Beryl Rousseau, former Women's Chair, gave me the opportunity to share my newfound knowledge at a Farm-City Luncheon I never realized how much I would enjoy advocating for farmers and ranchers. From that point on I have embraced the community of Farm Bureau and the opportunities it has afforded me. I will be eternally grateful for those who allowed this "city girl" to become part of the Farm Bureau Family. I will always be #FarmBureauProud!Join Our Family