BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech alumnus Robert Saunders has been named the 2022 Swisher/Sunbelt Southeastern Farmer of the Year.
Saunders is the general manager of Saunders Brothers Inc., a multi-generational farm in Piney River, Virginia, that he operates along with his brothers and fellow Hokies Tom ’81, Bennett ’83, and Jim ’85. They grow woody ornamentals, annuals, perennials, boxwood, grafted trees, peaches, nectarines, apples, and Asian pears on their farm.
The Saunders family’s most recent accolade was announced last week at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Georgia, where Robert Saunders represented Saunders Brothers and the Commonwealth of Virginia as the 2022 Virginia Farmer of the Year. Robert Saunders is just the fifth Virginia farmer to earn the Swisher/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year recognition.
The Saunders Brothers farm has roots that are deep at Virginia Tech. The university has issued degrees to 36 of Robert and Pat’s family members including brothers, sisters, nephews, and nieces. Also, Saunders Brothers currently has five other Hokies as a part of their team in sales and production.
“On behalf of the entire Saunders family, I am both honored and humbled to be named the Southeastern Farmer of the Year,” said Saunders, who graduated from the university in 1986 with a degree in agricultural engineering. “The success of the farm would not be possible without our dedicated employees and the community members who have supported us from day one.”
The Saunders family farm, nestled on the “sunrise side” of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Nelson County, was established in 1915 by Saunders’ grandfather and his four brothers. Robert Saunders and his three brothers returned to the farm to join their father, Paul ’54, throughout the 1980s to continue its operation, one that has grown substantially in size and production throughout the decades.
According to a news release published by the Sunbelt Ag Expo, when Saunders returned to the farm it was much different. The nursery was beginning to grow, and he spent most days building greenhouses, designing and building irrigation systems and reservoirs, potting, managing crews, and loading trucks. His wife, Pat Saunders ’87, who earned a bachelor’s degree in housing, interior design, and resource management, taught art in public schools and cared for their growing family of three daughters and two sons.
Saunders took over sales and oversaw the expansion of the sales team and shipping department to match growing inventory. He remained the farm’s sales and shipping manager for nearly 25 years while fulfilling his passion as its resident engineer.
“I do not consider myself a typical horticulturist or orchardist,” Saunders said. “I am a problem-solving farmer, working alongside my three brothers, two children [Annie ’16, Price ’20], three nephews [Tye ’15, James ’17, Marshall, who graduated from Clemson University in 2012], a highly motivated management team, and an incredibly dedicated group of employees.”
Robert oversees the farm’s daily operations. The fruit operation covers 160 acres. The wholesale nursery operation consists of approximately 100 acres of container production and 180 acres of field production. More than 1,100 products are shipped to garden centers, landscapers, and re-wholesalers throughout the mid-Atlantic region — including to Virginia Tech’s campus. The Saunders family also operates a roadside farm market, where they sell their plants and produce along with canned items and other homemade goods.
Saunders was nominated for Farmer of the Year consideration by Grace Monger, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Nelson County.
“Environmental stewardship and advancing agricultural technology have always been at the forefront of the Saunders Farm as it evolved from a subsistence farm to the large-scale, diverse horticultural operation of today,” Monger said in her nomination letter. “Employees are treated as family members, which creates a uniquely supportive workplace culture. The collaborative and community-based attitude of Robert and his family toward farming is at the heart of his success.”
Saunders emerged as the Virginia state winner following a competitive process with multiple strong nominees. In Georgia, he competed against state winners from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee on his way to winning regional recognition.
The award recognizes a commitment to excellence in the agriculture industry, which includes efficiency in farming practices, sound management and financial practices, and quality environmental practices.
“Saunders Brothers is a special operation with a unique culture, and we are incredibly proud of the family’s well-deserved recognition,” said Dan Goerlich, Virginia Cooperative Extension associate director and state coordinator of the Farmer of the Year program.
–Zeke Barlow, Virginia Tech