This Family Farm Takes The Prize

Robert Saunders may have accepted the award for Southeastern Farmer of the Year, but he is quick to share it with the family and team around him, and offer a few keys to their prize-winning success.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole

Since we met Robert Saunders, the Sunbelt Ag Expo Southeastern 2022 Farmer of the Year, he’s been looking for the right spot for a family portrait. The truck ride across Nelson County—where the farms and fields that make up the Saunders Brothers operation spread—is part tour, part location scouting.

“How about on top of this hill?” Robert says, stopping beneath a live oak on a rise that overlooks greenhouse after greenhouse of Saunders nursery products: annuals, perennials, flowers, shrubs. This is just up the road from the Saunders Brothers Farm Market, which Robert calls “the public face of the operation.” A few miles away are orchards of peaches, nectarines, Asian pears and apples.

Saunders nursery products: annuals, perennials, flowers … (scroll/swipe) …and shrubs.

The view from the top of the rise is nice, but Robert is more concerned about fitting the family in the frame and making sure we understand that Saunders Brothers is more than just him. He and his brothers—Jim, Tom and Bennett—are the third generation in the business, and now their kids are bringing new ideas to the operation.

When he was encouraged by friends and colleagues to prepare an entry for the prestigious Sunbelt Ag Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year, he admits he was “competitive… I wanted to win this thing.” But, he says, it’s “not about Robert, it’s about the Saunders Brothers. And it’s not about the four Saunders Brothers, it goes out to the 150 people that work for us every day.”

Robert Saunders is the general manager… (scroll/swipe) …of the massive Saunders Bros. operation.

“We’re part of something that has been successful for 100 years,” says Tom. The business is in a “tremendous expansion phase,” Robert says, and Jim notes that the brothers are making a huge effort to bring people into the business “not named Saunders.” But Robert says both relatives and work family need to “be hungry,” continuing to innovate, just like the generations before them.

Just like their father.

Super Shrubs

Boxwood is the foundation of a landscape. Paul Saunders knew this, even if he was a bit ahead of his time. “My dad was propagating boxwood as a 4-H project in 1947,” says Robert. Paul’s father, Sam, founder of the family business, was skeptical. “My grandfather was saying to my dad: ‘Where are you going to sell 50 boxwood?’”

Twenty years later, Paul was planting Saunders boxwood in Jackie Kennedy’s first rose garden at the White House, and that’s now a Saunders tradition; during a 2020 White House garden renovation, Saunders boxwood again brought the green to the landscape.

And now the sturdy, woody shrub is the foundation of the Saunders business. “We’ve taken boxwood to the point that we’ve started a genetics company,” says Robert. Bennett runs the genetics side of the company, and says they’re trying to develop new boxwood that will solve problems for consumers. The Saunders own two boxwood patents—NewGen Independence and NewGen Freedom—and are still working on disease and pest resistance for new varieties.

Besides the White House, Saunders shrubs are ensconced at the Smithsonian, the prestigious Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, and Mount Vernon. Consumers can buy those same boxwood at the farm market, as well as garden stores and small shops along the East Coast, but not at big-box stores. And while you can buy vegetables at the Saunders Brothers Farm Market, they’re not Saunders-grown. Why? That answer leads to Robert’s advice for family farm success.

Keys to Farm Success and Growth

Maintain focus. “We realized we couldn’t grow produce that was as good as we could get from a local source,” says Robert. So while Saunders Brothers wants to provide variety in the market, they focus on growing what they grow best. Robert recalls a similar, more difficult decision—selling off a cattle herd in the early 2010s—that lined up with the focused philosophy. “Don’t try to do everything,” he advises.

Hire the right people. “The labor side is huge for what we are,” says Robert, who notes that in Nelson County, unemployment hovers around 3%. “There aren’t enough people to do what we do,” he says. So the farm relies on the H-2A program to bring in “the meat of our workforce,” he says. “That program is vital to the survivability and success of Saunders Brothers … it’s just impossible” without it, he says.

Turn challenges into opportunities. “We’ve seen world wars. We’ve seen COVID come and go. Droughts. Floods. We weathered those storms,” says Jim. And today, the signature plant is threatened by blight. Anyone making any contact with boxwood at Saunders Brothers wears protective clothing. Visitors walk through shoe washes. Boxwood blight is for real, but Bennett says they “found out very quickly that certain varieties had resistance … We woke up one morning and said, ‘Hey boys, this is bigger than us. Let’s see if we can sell these genetics.’ And so we’re in the beginning stages of turning that challenge into an opportunity.”

Discovering the Massey Ferguson Difference

One of the prizes that comes with the Farmer of the Year honor is use of a Massey Ferguson tractor. “We chose the 4707 because we needed a good strong utility tractor,” says Robert. They immediately put it to work. “We’re discing with it. We’re bush-hogging with it. We’re doing planting with it. We’re pulling wagons on both farms with it,” Robert says.

“You’ve got a very versatile tractor, from being able to put it in different environments, whether it’s flat ground, rolling terrain like you see at the Saunders Brothers orchards,” says Chris Younger of Boone Tractor in Bedford, Virginia.

Use of the MF4707 afforded the operation an opportunity to compare to other brands the farm uses. “I feel like this tractor does a lot better on fuel efficiency than some of the other tractors we’ve got right now,” says Robert. “They’re having to fuel up once every couple of days, where with a lot of their tractors that they currently have, they’re having to fuel every day. You don’t have to worry about DEF, just straight diesel fuel. It creates an overall lower cost of ownership,” says Younger.

“It’s a super straightforward tractor,” says Robert. “I jumped on that tractor today and immediately I knew what I was doing with it. It was a very simple tractor to move and use. I’m afraid we’re going to run over the hours too fast for working it so hard,” he laughs.

“It's a super straightforward tractor.”Click To Tweet

A Team Effort

Hard work is a family value. The four brothers and the next generation of Saunders have roles that keep them so occupied across the Saunders enterprise that the family portrait Robert envisioned from the start only comes together mid-afternoon, in the highest heat and harshest light of day. We settle on a greenhouse, where the light is softer and the fans create a breeze.

“It went from my grandfather, to my dad, to the brothers, and then it moves to the next group,” Robert says of the family gathered for the photo. “And I want this thing to continue to move forward.” His wife, Pat, who grew up on a family farm in West Virginia, is watching the success, and the succession, in real time. “They just really want to honor their father, and they want it to work. I think that’s important,” she says.

The Farmer of the Year honor turned out to be a bright spot in a difficult year, as patriarch Paul passed away in March before Saunders Brothers won the award in October. “On behalf of the team, and everybody, and my dad who passed away earlier that year … it was an incredible moment.”

As his family smiles for the camera, Robert shares the moment with them. “All of those people are the ones this thing is about,” he says. “I was just the guy who was there to catch the ball at the end.”