First-Generation Dream

How a kid from suburban Virginia grew up to be the Southeastern Farmer of the Year.

By Boyce Upholt | Photos By Will and Deni McIntyre

The Millses were no farming family. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, they lived in a quiet midcentury subdivision a few miles outside of Danville, Virginia. “Houses in front of you, houses beside you, houses behind you,” Robert Mills remembers.

But in 1986, in eighth grade, Mills signed up for an ag production class. He always had loved the outdoors—hunting, fishing, baseball—and within weeks he decided he’d found his dream career.

His parents laughed. “That’s a great dream to have,” he says they told him. “But we don’t have land; we don’t have equipment; we don’t have capital.” Mills was like most young people: Being told he couldn’t do something only made him want it more.

Today, Mills is one of the most prominent farmers in southwest Virginia. At Briar View Farms, on 2,200 acres, he runs a cow/calf operation with 300 “mama” cows, grows three types of tobacco and owns a poultry house that produces 34,000 pullets each year.

Such achievement, especially for a first-generation farmer, speaks to Mills’ grit and sharp instincts. Such qualities were a big reason why Mills was named the 2017 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.

An Early Start

His career began with an award, too: To earn an award from the FFA, 13-year-old Mills decided to engage in a “supervised agricultural experience.” He found a 15-acre farm on the edge of his subdivision, where the retired owner let him raise sweet potatoes.

Logan, Holden, Cindy and Robert Mills.

Mills paid no rent. “The farmer was just glad to see this kid interested in farming,” Mills says. Borrowing his father’s garden tractor, Mills tilled, planted, maintained and harvested a half-acre.

True to form, the young farmer poured his profits back into the endeavor—buying a bush hog, then expanding into white potatoes. Soon he was farming 6 acres and had a contract with a local grocery store. The experience was no longer supervised. “It was all me,” Mills says. “I had my own little checking account.”

At the age of 15—before he could even drive—Mills secured a line of credit and bought his first tractor. By the time he left for college, he was farming 100 acres, growing field corn, which he ground and sold back to area farmers for feed.

After two years in an agricultural program at Virginia Tech, Mills took a job at a farm-supply store. Then he became the conservation specialist for Pittsylvania County, Virginia. In 1995, he married his wife, Cindy, and, while he was working full time, began to farm tobacco, the major local commodity crop.

He had been looking for land of his own, but never found anything in his price range. Then, in 1998, his parents ran into an old acquaintance, who said she was selling her mother’s farm. Within two days, Mills had visited Callands, Virginia, a half-hour from home, and made an offer. He and Cindy moved into a mobile home, and, running the same tractor he’d bought as a 15-year-old, Mills began to clear the 80 acres.

Careful Investments

In 2001, Mills made a bold move: He bought a poultry house, one of the first in the region. That’s when he quit his salaried job to farm full time.

Many people told him it was risky. And perhaps it was. “We took on a lot of debt really early,” Mills says. He’d just bought the farm, and now he’d put another $400,000 into the poultry house. “Our debt load had gone well above a half-million dollars,” he says. “I was renting farms and building fence faster than I could put cows on ’em. I was updating our farm equipment.”

Still, he says he made decisions carefully, taking small steps as he upgraded his equipment—which he knew would become more efficient, price-wise, as his acreage expanded. After a decade, his finances turned toward the black.

Only then did he finally move his family—which now included two sons, Logan and Holden—out of the mobile home and into a newly built house.

Diversity helped Mills succeed. The local soil type limits what commodities Mills can grow, but he produces three types of tobacco—conventional flue-cured, organic flue-cured and dark fire-cured—as well as winter wheat, pearl millet and hay. His poultry house delivers paychecks throughout the year. He’s currently experimenting with hemp, as well, in partnership with Virginia Tech and a local bioenergy company.

His timing worked, too. Many farmers in Callands were retiring. Soon after he arrived, a neighbor stopped by the farm and, admiring his methods, asked if Mills wanted to rent more land. Over two decades, Mills has expanded to rent from 29 landowners, covering 2,200 acres. Most sit contiguously, so, while he has to run his cattle across highways, he can treat the land as one large plot.

Stars In The Skies

Stephen Barts, a county Extension agent, began pushing Mills to apply for the Farmer of the Year award in 2015, after noting his rare success as a first-generation farmer. “Robert’s managerial ability, his decision-making process, his desire to diversify his operation, his willingness to be on the leading edge—to me it showed that he is some of the best that Virginia agriculture and Southeastern agriculture have to offer.”

Two years later, when Mills agreed to apply, he found the process of reflecting on his career a reward of its own. After he filed the application, he began to call back old mentors and thank them for all they did.

These days, Mills is somewhat surprised to play the mentor role himself. “I’ve never thought of myself as an expert in anything that I do,” he says. “The only thing that I’m sure [of] is that when I make a mistake, I try not to make it again.” Still, he travels often to speak to aspiring farmers—and especially enjoys connecting with others who are themselves first-generation farmers.

He believes it’s essential that young farmers pay attention—watching for the life-changing opportunities. “What is that one commodity you can produce?” he asks. “What is that one decision you can make to take what is part time and turn it into a full-time career?”

He knows at least one farmer he’s helped inspire: Last year, his oldest son, Logan, now a high school senior, committed to returning to the farm after two years at Virginia Tech’s agriculture program. “This is the only thing I want to do,” Logan says.

The Mills family’s lifestyle is humble. “But there’s no money in the world that could buy the experience and family life we have here on the farm,” Mills says. He still remembers the first night on the farm, when he stepped outside and realized how many stars were in the sky.

“I’m glad that my sons get to experience what it’s like to live in rural America and to experience that peace and tranquility, and the beauty that’s all around us.”

Click here to read about the 2018 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.