2022 Farmer of the Year Robert Saunders Talks Legacy, Innovation and the Next Generation.
In the picturesque landscape of Piney River, Virginia, nestled on the sunrise side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you will find our farmer of the year, Robert Saunders of Saunders Brothers Farm. Saunders Brothers Farm is an agricultural legacy that has been nurtured for over a century. It is a historic farm with a testament to dedication, innovation and unwavering commitment to the land and its bounty.
As winner of the Farmer of the Year, Robert found himself in a unique position when he was recognized for his outstanding contributions to the agricultural community. When he saw who he was up against, he was wowed by the competition. “I just wondered how we would stand out in a group of incredible guys from all over,” Robert says. “The experience is humbling and on behalf of my team and my dad who passed away earlier this year, it was an incredible moment.” Robert says this win isn't about him, though, it's about the 150 people that work for Saunders Brothers Farms who give their all every day.
The Saunders Brothers Farm has deep roots that trace back to 1915 when Robert’s grandfather and his brothers first toiled the fertile soil of this Blue Ridge region. They were, as Robert affectionately describes the “dirt farmers,” cultivating tobacco, fruits and cattle. Robert’s father ended up playing a pivotal role in setting up the nursery on the farm. What initially started as a 4H project with a couple of Boxwood plants, was a just a humble beginning that laid the foundation for what would become this thriving agricultural enterprise.
Robert and his brothers found their way back to the farm after college and some trial and error in the career search. Each brother brought their unique skills and knowledge to the table, which would contribute to the farm’s expansion and diversification. Robert said, “growing up, I always thought the farm was just big enough or too big.” So, it was a bit ironic that his senior project in college was to come up with an expansion plan for Saunder Brothers Farm.
Today, the farm has grown exponentially from its early days, the bulk of their operations are attributed to their container business where they grow annuals, perennials, shrubs, evergreens, various fruit and their farm staple and what they are known for, the Saunders Brothers Boxwood. They also run a farm market, which Robert considers the public face of the business where they sell their commodities to the public.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Robert’s contributions to the family farm is his commitment to sustainability. “It’s our job to take care of the land, it’s how we make our living,” he says. Robert has spearheaded initiatives to live off the farm but also preserve its health and vitality. One such innovation is an advanced evapotranspiration system that measures the water a plant loses, which enables precise water management, giving the plant exactly what it needs and never too much or too little. This practice cut their water bill in half during the first year of use, which in turn allows them to use less herbicides and pesticides on their products as they are not leaching fertilizers out. Saunders Brothers Farm has also begun using passive ventilation models in their greenhouses instead of electrical ventilation to save on energy costs.
Through their genetics program, they have been able to patent two of their Boxwood plants and a third patent is coming soon. With these patents, they have been able to develop pest and disease resistant plants where pesticide use can be avoided. Through their production of remarkable Boxwood plants, Saunders Brothers Farm boasts Boxwood prominence in some remarkable locations. You can find their plants at the main fountain in Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia, PA, in the Smithsonian museums, at Mount Vernon, and the highest honor of all – the White House Rose Garden. Since the Kennedy administration, Saunders Brothers Boxwoods have found themselves in the notorious rose garden, but most recently in a garden remodel, were granted the honor of being the main supplier of all the Boxwood that is found in the garden.
The next generation of Saunders Brothers are beginning to step in to continue the family legacy, but Robert has a deeper goal in mind. He is determined to keep the farm thriving and instill the passion and heart in this generation to ensure they are running the farm the right way, just as his family has done for generations. Winning Farmer of the Year isn't just about personal recognition. It is about honoring the arduous work that his family and team put in, embracing the new tools and technologies that come along, and passing on a deep love for the land and its bounties to those who are following him.
Winning the Farmer of the Year award has turned out to be a much bigger deal than Robert realized. Massey Ferguson gifted the use of a tractor for one year or 250 hours, whichever comes first. He speaks passionately about the tractor’s role in their daily operations, particularly its stability when working on the hilly terrain of the farm. He marvels at the horsepower it produces which allows them to tackle the toughest jobs and get them done. “I love how straightforward this tractor is, I can hop on and immediately know what I am doing,” he says. The Massey Ferguson tractor, with its straightforward dependability, plays a vital role in Saunders Brothers Farm operations. It’s not just a piece of equipment; it’s a symbol of the families enduring legacy and a tool to inspire the next generation to carry the torch forward.