By Marlee Moore
Jonathan Sanders was surrounded by thousands of young farmers at an American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) conference when he leaned over to fellow Alabamian Jerry Allen Newby and said, “I want to serve on the national Young Farmers & Ranchers (YF&R) Committee.”
The bold seed planted in 2018 came to fruition in February when Jonathan and wife Sara were named to the committee during AFBF’s YF&R Leadership Conference in Louisville.
“Our primary goal is to build a network of unified voices across the nation talking about the importance of agriculture to our generation,” said Jonathan, 30, who grows peanuts, cotton, corn, cattle and timber in Coffee County’s Roeton community. “Most other states don’t have the level of involvement we have in Alabama. I want to use our experiences to help grow YF&R.”
The Sanders family joins a slate of farmers ages 18-35 representing every region of the U.S. The committee, whose 16 positions are filled by individuals or couples, is responsible for program planning, including YF&R competitive events and the Harvest for All program, which tracks YF&R food donations.
The youngest of six children whose parents are Alabama Farmers Federation leaders, Jonathan’s childhood was peppered with county and state Federation meetings. The Sanders’s daughter, 2-year-old Ivey, is already a meeting regular. The couple is expecting another daughter, Elliott, due in late March.
Jonathan grew his Federation experience with the Auburn University Young Farmers. After graduating with a degree in horticulture, he joined the Coffee County Young Farmers, eventually becoming chairman. Two terms on the State Young Farmers Committee followed, including a year as chair and an ex-officio seat on the state board. As a board member, he attended the AFBF Convention in Austin, Texas, where he was a voting delegate representing Alabama’s 340,000 member-families.
“My experiences taught me to listen to others; recognize strong leadership, gifts and talents in fellow farmers; and make decisions with others — not just for others,” Jonathan said.
Sara, a special education teacher at Ariton Elementary School, serves on the county Young Farmers Committee. The couple routinely recap their days with each other, a move helping Sara “experience” successes and challenges in Young Farmers programs.
The Sanders family said they strive to encourage Farm Bureau’s next generation of members, reach beginning farmers and amplify the organization’s voice.
“We all farm but bring different experiences to the table,” Jonathan said. “If we build strong relationships, we can help tackle issues our fellow farmers face.”
Federation President Jimmy Parnell, who nominated Jonathan and Sara, said the couple follows exceptional Alabama farmers who served nationally. Other representatives, who all served as committee chairmen, were Jim Brady, Perry County, 1963; Townsend Kyser, Hale County, 2008; Will Gilmer, Lamar County, 2010; and Jon Hegeman, Calhoun County, 2015. Jonathan can run for chairman in 2023.
“Jonathan has infused energy into our organization through a commitment to growing the Young Farmers program,” said Parnell, a Chilton County farmer and 1998 State Young Farmers Committee chairman. “He strives to increase an understanding of farming, the agricultural industry and Farm Bureau wherever he goes. Jonathan and Sara will serve AFBF with the same dedication and determination displayed in their leadership with the Alabama Farmers Federation.”
Despite his experience attending AFBF and YF&R conferences, Jonathan said he’s still learning how the committee practically helps county and state members.
“If my understanding isn’t strong — and I’ve attended conferences and meetings with national members — then I believe members’ understanding at the grassroots level is weak,” he said. “Strengthening communication between state committee leaders and national YF&R leaders is critical. When our state and national missions align, we are a better asset for members.”