Our Women of Integrity and Quiet Authority

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau Communication, Ag Education and Marketing Director: While we’re celebrating our Arizona agriculture women today during their annual Women’s Conference let’s focus on some pretty special “Ag” women. It’s appropriate to take a look back at women in leadership roles in Arizona Farm Bureau. At first, this idea was hard to frame. So many women in Farm Bureau leadership have accomplished so many amazing things over the years. Then I landed on Beryl Rousseau.  

Beryl and Lovell Rousseau of Rousseau Farms represent a long tradition of farming in our state and also served in extensive leadership roles in their county and state Farm Bureaus. After leafing through back issues of Arizona Farm Bureau News, highlighting Beryl Rousseau would be a worthy task.

Interviewed in 2012 in celebration of Arizona's Centennial, Beryl Rousseau, Sherry Saylor and Rena May Lawson shared stories about their Farm Bureau leadership experiences over the years and specifically agriculture women's engagement.

But first, let’s sneak a quick look at the Rousseau family tradition of farming.

Rousseau Family History

The Rousseau family tradition of farming in Arizona started in 1878 when the first family member, Charles Pendergast, came to Phoenix with a grain harvesting crew that year. He acquired several thousand acres of farmland and began growing grain and hay on the west side of Phoenix.

In 1892 L.D. Rousseau arrived in Phoenix in a covered wagon and within a few years had purchased land and begun to farm. Both men were influential in bringing the life blood of the valley to Phoenix — water.

Over the years the family has grown hay, grains, cotton and cattle -- always in Arizona.

Two Rousseau brothers, Lovell and Bill, continued the Rousseau family farming tradition with livestock and crops, diversifying and improving farming methods as agriculture developed and modernized, especially during the 1900s.

When Beryl married Lovell, a well-known tradition of Rousseau farming in the valley had already been established for some time. But their marriage solidified a commitment to industry advancement and volunteer leadership in agriculture groups such as Farm Bureau.

In 1983, Lovell and Beryl retired from farming, though the Rousseau farming name continues through their nephew, Will Rousseau.

Farming since 1979, in 1986 Will Rousseau, Bill Rousseau’s son, was growing about 1,700 acres of row crops and decided to experiment with 40 acres of carrots. Will was hooked on growing vegetables and today Rousseau Farming Company® grows approximately 10,000 acres of fresh vegetables, melons, wheat and hay.

Rousseau Farming Company® is family owned and operated by Will and Leslie Rousseau; the company had also previously had brother, David, as a partner, who is currently president of Salt River Project.

Bitten by the Farm Bureau Bug

Many of us can share interesting stories of how we came to leadership roles in our agriculture industry. Sometimes it’s a simple request made by a friend to, “get involved.” More often, it’s inspired by current leaders speaking to you about the importance of grassroots politics.

“Lovell and I went to a Western Regional Farm Bureau meeting in California. We broke up into study groups and speakers let us know what Farm Bureau was doing in Congress,” says Rousseau. “That motivated me. I thought we should be engaged [with Congress] and down at the Arizona legislature. I got very active after that and mostly on the political side of things including the legislative dinners hosted at the state Capitol.”

This same engagement inspired another leader: Sherry Saylor, previous Arizona Farm Bureau Women’s Leadership Committee Chair and current Chair of the American Farm Bureau Women’s Leadership Committee. “I will always be grateful for Beryl, who gave me my first opportunity to serve. I remember I was young and didn’t know very much about agriculture.”

Saylor followed Rousseau, which was “huge for this city girl.” “I give Farm Bureau credit for educating me and providing the knowledge base and the training,” says Saylor.

And since Saylor was elected state chair after Rousseau she fully credits her with all her future leadership engagement with Farm Bureau on the county, state and national level. “I got the bug from Beryl,” says Saylor.

In talking with Rousseau, Saylor and also Rena May Lawson at a gathering in 2012 at Rousseau’s home, the group spoke of agriculture’s tight-knit group and, how despite differences among commodities, overwhelmingly everyone works together to stand up for their beliefs.

“Our involvement is part of telling our story,” says Saylor. “We share what we do; we’re transparent, we’re gracious about it. Because of women like Beryl and Rena May I became a Farm Bureau junkie. They represent solid folks that stay with Farm Bureau. They are still out there fighting the fight. I look up to this group of women since they’re strong women. Women ready to make a difference. In every season of life they embraced every opportunity.”

And up until just a few years ago, Rousseau’s current cause was taking “urban dwellers” to Maricopa County’s Farm/City breakfasts. “I still work through issues like this in my neighborhood and any organization I’m involved in,” she says. “We have to incorporate the people who are not in farming into our experiences so they learn about what we’re doing.” 

Back in 1963, she was just getting started on behalf of Arizona Farm Bureau.

Quite a Time to Be in Leadership

Beryl Rousseau took on the Arizona Farm Bureau’s Women’s Chairmanship in November of 1963. That was the same month President John F. Kennedy’s assassination rocks a nation and troubles mount in Vietnam. Films that year include “The Birds” and “The Great Escape” and popular television programs “The Virginian” and “Lassie” air weekly. Ladies fashion clothes and hair styles include fur boots and towering hair-do’s. In music, Beatlemania begins after the release of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

When Rousseau finished an 18-year stint in Farm Bureau leadership in 1981, the United Kingdom’s Charles and Diana marry, MTV launches and IBM releases the original IBM PC. The American hostages in Iran are finally released after 14 months in captivity and we have a new president in the White House: Ronald Reagan.

Those events and issues facing agriculture shaped our concerns; drove our engagement. In the 1960s, Arizona Farm Bureau hosts Legislative dinners during February and Farm Bureau women operate on the forefront of the critical issues for these times. Though not taken up as regularly and consistently by other Women’s Committee chairs, Rousseau wrote a monthly column in Arizona Farm Bureau News for several of the years she served in the chairmanship. In one letter Beryl encourages women to get involved in their local school boards and become precinct committeemen. She talks about the International Coffee Agreement and price-fixing. Plus, the 1965 Farm Bill is a focus in a few of her columns. She advocates for a strengthening of the public school system and improvements to our educational opportunities; this included a discussion of the controversial “new” math. Ultimately, Rousseau talks often about elections and politics and how in a “free society we have responsibilities we must carry forth in order to maintain our freedoms.”

Read her columns and you’ll emerge more convicted of your own leadership contributions. Read them and you’ll understand her passion for politics and the Farm Bureau.

Speaking about an elementary textbook review project, in one column Beryl Rousseau said, “To be positive in this delicate situation, it was decided that the books should not be criticized, but that we would commend and encourage the use of only the one book which best stresses the free enterprise system, and most accurately appraises Communism, Socialism, Fascism, and Feudalism. …

 “We think this is most important work. If one wants to live in peace with himself, a prerequisite is to take a stand, and to become partisan, and work for his beliefs. May our cause always be the cause of our country.”

Speaking on the importance of politics and their role in Farm Bureau, Rousseau said, “When I think of the things we have before us I can’t help but think of the dedication we must have in order to carry out our plans so that your goals can be reached. Never think that our organization, although few in number, does not have great power. Power is never determined by number. It is determined by knowledge, dedication, determination and the will to work.”

Continuing her concerns on textbooks and controversial books on recommended reading lists, Rousseau said, “Our privilege and responsibility is one of building mind, body and spirit. This is accomplished by example, the true leader; the real power is changing hearts and conditions. What kind of example and leaders are we? Are our lives and quality of love healing the ills of our society? Are we recommending books, plays and works that are destroyers or builders? Perhaps our lives need examination to see if we are really dedicated in thought, word and action to this end. It is only in personal dedication and the sharing of all the spiritual attributes we possess that our society can be so filled with goodness that there will no longer be room or desire for any of these destructive forces, whatever the form.”

Two landmark decisions, Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), led to the US Supreme Court establishing the current prohibition on state-sponsored prayer in schools. As a result, Rousseau said in her August 1964 column, “It is traditional for Farm Bureau leaders and members to be active in educational programs of their local schools, to serve on local school boards, make independent studies of textbooks and to constantly seek to improve our educational system. Since the matter of school prayers and Bible reading affects every family in this country, relates so importantly to our heritage and tradition, and may have a profound effect upon our future way of life, I would like to devote my column to a statement presented at a House Judiciary Committee hearing by the chairman of the women’s committee of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“Mrs. Haven Smith recommended adoption of an amendment to the Constitution which would ‘guarantee the right to offer prayers in our public schools and other public places,’” explained Rousseau’s column.

Rousseau went on to quote Smith’s statement to the House Judiciary Committee regarding her proposed amendment. Of course, history documents the outcome, but it reveals the intimate engagement the women of the Farm Bureau had on these critical national issues. And while our leaders win some and lose some, they never give up.

They’ll tell you, the ones they lose are worth fighting for. “I still work through issues that should matter to us when it comes to our freedoms,” explains Rousseau. “We can’t give up.”

While visiting with Saylor, Rousseau and Lawson, I asked Saylor how she’d describe these women including her mother-in-law, Mary. “They are women of integrity,” she said.  “They have strong belief systems. They’re the kind of women that persevere. They didn’t win every battle but they didn’t give up. I would also describe them as women that are in love with agriculture. Because of that it has motivated them to keep on keeping on. In whatever role they find themselves, including behind the scenes. Beryl still doesn’t give up.”

Saylor continued. “Like my mother-in-law, Mary, she was not the one that got out in front and did a lot of talking. But she had a quiet authority about her. She would make her point known in one-on-one conversations.  She could really defend what we do as an industry and she also did whatever it would take to get the job done whether it was cutting pies at a legislative dinner or hosting a legislator. She did a lot of things that were simply gracious but would generate a chance for Farm Bureau leaders to dialogue and connect with our legislators.”

Saylor went on to describe the women of Farm Bureau as “the giants whose shoulders we stand on” because of the strong foundation they laid for the rest of us. “I will always be grateful for my mother-in-law encouraging me to get involved in Farm Bureau. I think one of the things I will always keep in my heart is when Mary told me, ‘I’m so glad you fell in love with agriculture and embraced it.’” 

Rousseau, Lawson and Saylor told us what they feel we’re doing right as an organization. “We have a great organizational structure and we have a lot of opportunity,” explained Saylor. “With those two things we can find a place for everybody. What we’re doing right is providing opportunity and doing a pretty good job of training people. What we can do better is get out of our box and make our messages more what they need to be.”

In the Tradition of Tradition

Arizona Farm Bureau, along with our other agriculture groups, will continue serving up quality food and fiber. It’s what we do. But in the tradition of tradition and quiet authority our volunteer leaders will keep pressing the issues.

Rousseau does not write columns anymore though you can read her early ones in back issue of Arizona Farm Bureau News into the 1970s. Interestingly, her byline in 1963 was Mrs. Lovell Rousseau. Reflecting the culture changes, her 1973 columns were now bylined with Mrs. Beryl Rousseau.

Yes, we’ll always see change in our futures. And perhaps these changes will be as subtle as a byline change for a publication’s column or as dramatic as prayer eliminated in our schools (though Saylor and others will tell you they regularly pray silently while walking the hallways of our schools). What won’t change is the rock-solid foundation our former women leaders established for us to stand on. Let’s hope we’re worthy of our future causes.

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the June 2012 issue of Arizona Agriculture in celebration of the state's Centennial year and agriculture's influence. 

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