After two weeks in an eighth grade vocational agriculture class, Robert Mills, Jr., decided he wanted to become a farmer. He defied everyone who told him he couldn’t do it.
Mills says his dream came true. At Briar View Farm, he is now a successful first generation farmer from Callands, Virginia. He grows four types of tobacco, has an Angus-cross beef herd and raises pullet breeder chickens. His life is a testament to the positive impact that agriculture education and FFA can have on young people.
As a result of his success as a diversified farmer, Mills has been selected as the state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 17 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
His farm has 2,244 acres with 1,650 acres rented and 594 acres owned.
Diversity characterizes his tobacco operation. Last year, Mills grew 67 acres of conventional flue cured tobacco yielding 2,800 pounds per acre, and 20 acres of organic flue cured tobacco yielding 3,000 pounds per acre. He also grew three acres of dark fired tobacco yielding 2,400 pounds per acre.
In addition, he grew a five-acre tobacco plot as a potential biofuel. He harvested both the leaves and the tall stalks, squeezed out the sugars and packed it as if it were silage. This tobacco yielded 20 tons per acre.
“I was surprised my organic tobacco outyielded my conventional tobacco,” says Mills. His organic tobacco commands a premium price and undergoes a third party audit to verify that no prohibited pesticides are applied to the crop. He sells both conventional and organic tobacco to the Japan-based JTI company. This year, he’s adding three new tobacco curing barns with automatic controls.
He’s growing about 15 acres of soybeans for hay. He grows pearl millet for forage and grain on 30 acres of otherwise idle land. He also shares sweet corn from his garden with his landlords.
His winter wheat on 120 acres last year yielded 55 bushels per acre. He plants wheat as a cover crop after tobacco, and often cuts it for round bale silage or hay. Last year, his wheat was custom harvested for grain. Wheat prices and his forage supplies determine how he harvests wheat.
The chickens on his farm are pullets, and are often called parent breeders. He raises the pullets for Perdue Farms from the time they hatch until they reach 22 weeks. At 22 weeks, they are shipped to eastern North Carolina where they lay eggs that will hatch and become broilers raised for meat. He raises 34,000 pullets each year.
Mills has about 300 beef cows. His herd includes about 75 bred heifers and 275 feeder calves. Though his cattle are scattered in three counties, he uses a 90-day breeding schedule. He keeps 250 fall calving cows on seven farms and 50 spring calving cows on four farms. When calves are weaned, he either sells them or puts them on feed to carry them to heavier weights, depending on prices.
“I have a unique story,” says Mills. He grew up in a subdivision in Danville, Va., and grew vegetables as his first FFA project. At 14, he bought a Bush Hog rotary cutter and at 15 he bought a used Ford tractor. At the time, his mom worked at a bank that gave him a line of credit to buy equipment. He also worked for nine years at a commercial farm near his home.
He expanded his vegetable farming to five acres, and then started growing dark fired tobacco and later buying cattle. “I started with zero capital and took a risk with each loan,” he recalls.
Mills served as Virginia FFA state president in 1991-1992. He attended Virginia Tech University and received an associate degree in agricultural technology. He bought his first farm in 1998 and started farming full time in 2001.
He worked off the farm before he farmed full time. He first managed a Royster-Clark farm supply store, then worked as a conservation specialist for the Pittsylvania Soil & Water Conservation District.
His life took a turn for the better when a Perdue Farms representative showed him how chickens could bring in as much money as he earned with his conservation work. Getting the poultry house was the key that allowed Mills to stay home and farm every day of the year.
As a former conservation specialist, Mills takes pride in his conservation practices. These include crop rotation, cover crops, field borders, grassed waterways, terraces and stream crossings. He plants grasses and trees along streams “Our goal is to completely exclude cattle from our waterways,” he adds. He also follows a nutrient management plan that is updated every three years.
Recently, he was elected president of the board of directors for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He has also been appointed to the Board of Visitors for Virginia Tech.
Mills has been active in Pittsylvania County Farm Bureau, Callands Young Farmers, Pittsylvania County Cattlemen’s Association, Pittsylvania County Soil & Water Conservation District, USDA-Farm Service Agency county committee and Olde Dominion Agricultural Foundation.
In Virginia Farm Bureau, he was a discussion meet winner, and received the Young Farmers Achievement Award and Environmental Stewardship Award. His farm received a clean water award by the Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation. He has served on the state board and on several Virginia Farm Bureau committees.
He’s a board member of the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, and an advisory board member for the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. He serves on a Farm Credit nominating committee, and is a member of the Virginia Tobacco Growers Association.
His wife Cynthia works off the farm as an information technology resource teacher for Pittsylvania County Schools. She is responsible for computer systems at three schools. Cynthia also handles the bill paying and payroll for the farm. She is active in Virginia Education Association, Pittsylvania Farm Bureau Women’s Committee, and has also been active in Virginia Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer Committee.
Robert and Cynthia are active in Hollywood Baptist Church. They have two sons, Logan, 16, and Holden, 11. Logan wants to farm and that motivates Robert to continue expanding their farm. Both boys are great mechanics, and Holden wants to be an on-the-road John Deere mechanic. “Holden has his own tool shop in my shop,” says Robert. “In fact, he has more tools than most farm shops.”
Robert has been a public speaker for most of the past 25 years. He tells young people to follow their dreams. He says, “Kids today don’t need to hear that they can’t do something.”
Robert D. Grisso, Jr., with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in the state. Mills was nominated for the honor by Stephen Barts, Extension agent in Pittsylvania County. Barts admires how Mills succeeded as a first generation farmer and how he diversified his tobacco enterprises.
As the Virginia winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Mills will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply, a smoker-grill from Hays LTI and a Henry Golden Boy “American Farmer Tribute Edition” rifle from Reinke Irrigation.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 28th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,080,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Virginia include: Nelson Gardner of Bridgewater, 1990; Russell Inskeep of Culpepper, 1991; Harry Bennett of Covington, 1992; Hilton Hudson of Alton, 1993; Buck McCann of Carson, 1994; George M. Ashman, Jr. of Amelia, 1995; Bill Blalock of Baskerville, 1996; G. H. Peery III of Ceres, 1997; James Bennett of Red House, 1998; Ernest Copenhaver of Meadowview, 1999; John Davis of Port Royal, 2000; James Huffard III of Crockett, 2001; J. Hudson Reese of Scottsburg, 2002; Charles Parkerson of Suffolk, 2003; Lance Everett of Stony Creek, 2004; Monk Sanford of Orange, 2005; Paul House of Nokesville, 2006; Steve Berryman of Surry, 2007; Tim Sutphin of Dublin, 2008; Billy Bain of Dinwiddie, 2009; Wallick Harding of Jetersville, 2010; Donald Horsley of Virginia Beach, 2011; Maxwell Watkins of Sutherland, 2012; Lin Jones of New Canton, 2013; Robert T. “Tom” Nixon II of Rapidan, 2014; Donald Turner of North Dinwiddie, 2015; and Tyler Wegmeyer of Hamilton, 2016.
Virginia has had two overall winners, Nelson Gardner of Bridgewater in 1990 and Charles Parkerson of Suffolk in 2003.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit the Mills farm and farms of the other nine finalists during the week of Aug. 7-11. The judges this year include farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., who was the overall winner in 2011; Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist from Greenville, Miss.; and beef cattle rancher Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, Fla., who was the overall winner in 2009.