By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau Communication and Organization Director: Just re-elected to another two-year term, Sherry Saylor has been Chair of the American Farm Bureau Women’s Leadership Committee since 2014. 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 serves 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. In the midst of it all she finds time to enjoy her precious grandchildren Moses, Lancey and Carson (grandbaby number four is on the way).

Sherry, and her husband, Rick, are partners in R&S Farms, a diversified row crop farming operation located in Buckeye, Arizona. They grow primarily row crops in addition to 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 31 years.

Sherry graduated from Westmont College with a BA in Sociology and Education and received her Master’s in Counseling in 1996.

Her husband, Rick, is a 3rd generation farmer. They have two children and three grandchildren. She and Rick are active in church and community activities and she speaks for the Christian Women’s Club in the Southwest.

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 will always consider her a mentor. So here, I asked her a few key questions about her current leadership position on the national level and about the future.

Arizona Agriculture: What’s been the most rewarding part of this leadership experience as chair for the National Women’s Leadership Committee?

Saylor: My first term as Chair of the American Farm Bureau Women's Leadership Committee has been both humbling and energizing. Humbling in the sense that I get to work with an amazing group of women leaders across this country and energizing for the same reason! The most rewarding part has been the opportunity to visit and speak in about 10 states so far seeing firsthand the grassroots in action.

Truly the activities of the women all over this country are outstanding as they share the message of agriculture in unique and creative ways. Learning about the various issues in different regions of the country has been eye-opening as well. At the end of the day, though, we are all farmers and ranchers doing our best to feed, clothe, and fuel this world. I am even more Farm Bureau Proud after seeing what we are accomplishing from a national perspective.

Arizona Agriculture: What’s next on your agenda as chair for the next 2 years since you’ve been reelected?

Saylor: My agenda is really not mine alone, rather a collaborative effort of the 10 women leaders on the national committee. Our primary goal is to engage women by offering opportunities to develop communication and leadership skills, empowering them as strong effective leaders in agriculture. We focus our efforts in 3 areas: advocacy, agricultural literacy, and leadership development. Ultimately we want to give women the skills to tell their story and be strong consumer influencers. One of our premier programs, Communication Boot Camp, has trained about 150 women in the last 10 years.

Most of these women also serve on the GO TEAM (grassroots outreach) and are truly making a difference in the industry. We hope to continue our efforts in training and equipping our members to be even more competent in the areas of political advocacy and consumer education.

Arizona Agriculture: What do you feel you are more equipped to do today now that you’ve served on the national level for American Farm Bureau?

Saylor: I definitely feel I have gained increased knowledge of the issues by being a member of the American Farm Bureau Board of Directors. For example, at our last meeting we heard from the top executives from Monsanto and Bayer concerning the merger. It was a real privilege to be able to dialogue with them in person.

Exposure to the most recent research and information has equipped me to be a better spokesperson on the myriad of issues facing agriculture. I have also gained so much by being around some of the best minds in our industry -- just absorbing and learning from those seasoned individuals.

Arizona Agriculture: What do Women in Ag bring to the leadership table that makes it distinct?

Saylor: U.S. Farm and Ranch Alliance (USFRA) and other focus groups have determined that women agriculturalists are some of the most trusted resources for information concerning food and perceptions of the food industry by the consumer---especially millennial moms. What a great opportunity that presents to us to fill the gap, so to speak, and share with those who are willing to listen!

Women are also becoming managers of their own farms in increasing numbers. In a recent survey that our committee conducted the majority of women indicated that they wanted to take more leadership roles in the industry and that they felt they were capable and ready to do so. I am passionate about leadership training and our committee has made it a high priority. Now more than ever we need to be able to "tell our story" with confidence and competence. The consumer wants to hear from us! This is our time!

Arizona Agriculture: In this leadership role, what challenges you the most?

Saylor: Communication has to be one of my biggest challenges -- making sure I am connecting with all the state chairs, coordinators, and members. Technology has actually been a help in this area. Since I was elected, I have conducted quarterly conference calls with the state chairs and coordinators. I do this from D.C. right after the American Farm Bureau Board Meeting. It is a great way to share the most recent information and also personally respond to questions and concerns. We have recently been providing a webinar format which has been helpful as well.

Getting information to the individual members can be a challenge since we have to rely on the states to pass on what we give to them. I think we are on the right track by making frequent personal connections by each of us on the committee. Hopefully every woman in Farm Bureau will know they are welcome to come along side us and make a difference for our industry.

Arizona Agriculture: We often talk about the “Farm Bureau family” and the true grassroots structure of this organization. How can we make this focus and structure even better?

Saylor: For any group to be successful I think you need two components:  community and opportunity. The Farm Bureau family provides a community of like-minded farmers and ranchers to interact with. Farm Bureau also provides opportunities to promote agriculture. In one of our programs, Our Food Link, we have a number of ideas and activities that members can participate in to help others know the importance of farming and ranching. With an organization as large as the Farm Bureau this has to happen first at the local level, then state, and finally the national. If community and opportunity are provided in this way from the grassroots to the top, I think most members will feel they have a voice and that together we can make a difference.

Arizona Agriculture: What are we not talking about in Farm Bureau that we should be discussing?

Saylor: I think we need to find ways to reach out to other groups and like-minded individuals to become partners with us. I think sometimes in Farm Bureau we have often become siloed in how we operate.

The number of farmers in our country is declining, but I feel there are other groups and individuals who share our values and core beliefs. We need to find ways to connect and bring these people on board. Long term, that will be the only way we will be sustainable. Our committee has really made an effort for each of us to attend a conference that is not Farm Bureau sponsored just so we can connect and interface and learn from others. Survival will depend on our ability to grow our group in sometimes unconventional ways!

Arizona Agriculture: You and Rick came up through the Farm Bureau family through the Young Farmer and Rancher program. What are your words of encouragement for the next crop of young farmers and ranchers?

Saylor: For the young farmers and ranchers just beginning their journey I would say that they are blessed to be entering what I would call a second green revolution. Innovation will be the name of the game. They will embrace new technology and precision agriculture --- truly an exciting time to be farming on so many levels. I would encourage them to stay involved in Farm Bureau so that even though they may be small in numbers they can make a difference with a unified voice and message. They are the generation of farmers that need to continue to be transparent in what they do as they communicate with the consumers of the 21st century.

There may be days of discouragement like the times we are in now with low commodity prices, but we know this will pass and good days will come again. Never take for granted the great privilege it is to be a farmer and rancher. What a blessing to be able to be the backbone industry of the world. Being a farmer or rancher is like being a rock star; very few get the opportunity to make such a noble contribution to the world!

Arizona Agriculture: Are we being cross-generational enough in Farm Bureau to make our efforts that much more powerful? And if not, how do we fix this?

Saylor: I think we can always improve in the area of being more cross-generational by creating more opportunities for involvement for all our members. That is why I love FUSION---the leadership conference that brings the YF&R, Women’s Leadership, and the Promotion and Education Committee in one place to be trained together, challenged together, and inspired together to be an army of volunteers for agriculture. There is room at the table of Farm Bureau for everyone whether you are 9 or 90! I just returned from Louisiana sugarcane farmer Denny Hymels fast food farm where she grows all the crops that make tacos, hamburgers, and hotdogs. It was great to see 4-H kids, FFA, Young Farmers and Ranchers (YF&R), and men and women of all ages working together to provide an amazing learning experience for the youth in their county. I love that our Arizona Farm Bureau board has a good number of young men and women as serving on the board. I think our state has done a great job in making all our members feel they have a voice in the organization.

Arizona Agriculture: Why has Farm Bureau been so important to you and Rick?

Saylor: Words don't do justice to how grateful I am to Farm Bureau and all I have received because of my involvement. I was a 23-year-old city girl who knew nothing about agriculture when Farm Bureau took me in and gave me a community and an opportunity to learn. Jim Klinker invited us to a YF&R meeting in Flagstaff and I was hooked pretty quickly. From YF&R, to Women's Leadership, County Leadership, State Leadership, and National Leadership--it has been a great journey. When I think of the training and knowledge that both of us have been given it is overwhelming. I am so grateful to those who have invested in us personally. Doing life together with other farmers and ranchers has been so gratifying. Farm Bureau is so respected on the local, state, and national level and I am Farm Bureau Proud to have had the privilege to be a part of this amazing organization.

Arizona Agriculture: What’s the next big thing in Farm Bureau leadership?

Saylor: Shared leadership and servant leadership are the most effective ways to be successful. True leaders need to be individuals who serve others and don't worry about who gets the credit. I also believe leaders who are successful are willing to share in decision making and in carrying out the goals of the organization. Leaders who surround themselves with a great team of committed individuals will be more productive than someone who wants to do it all themselves. Even though I am the chair of my committee I lean on and value the expertise of the other nine women.

The beauty of shared leadership is that we can be a stronger voice together and ultimately be more effective. I think the Farm Bureau does an outstanding job of training their leaders and giving them the skills to be articulate spokespersons for the farming and ranching community.

Editor’s Note: with some updates, this article first appeared in the 2016 November/December issue of Arizona Agriculture.

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