As a boy, he dreamed of becoming a farmer. As a man, Robert Mills Jr. knows a thing or two about the sacrifice, drive, and initiative it takes to realize that dream.
This year, his 30 years of hard work and perseverance were recognized when Mills was named Farmer of the Year.
Earlier this month, Mills, a member of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, was named the overall winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Georgia. He was selected for this honor over nine other state finalists.
The national appointment followed Mills’ designation as 2017 Virginia Farmer of the Year last summer. Mills was nominated for this honor by Stephen Barts, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Pittsylvania County who admired Mills’ success as a first-generation farmer with a diversified operation.
The Farmer of the Year Award recognizes excellence in agricultural production and farm management, along with leadership in farm and community organizations. The award also honors family contributions in producing safe and abundant supplies of food, fiber, and shelter products.
“I started farming at an early age with basically no financial resources,” said Mills. “For me, this is unbelievable. We see ourselves as a small family farm. It’s humbling to be recognized for something that is a way of life for us. We have been blessed by this opportunity. We did not expect it.”
Mills has made a name for himself as a driven, innovative, and diversified producer.
Briar View, his Callands, Virginia, farm spans 2,244 acres. He grows four types of tobacco, oversees an Angus-cross beef herd, raises pullet breeder chickens, and produces vegetables and winter wheat. As a former conservation specialist, Mills also takes pride in his environmentally sustainable farming practices, including the use of cover crops, field borders, grassed waterways, terraces, and stream crossings. His farm earned a clean water award from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
“Robert’s intensive management of all aspects of his operation has been vital to Briar View’s success,” Barts said.
Despite the demands of managing a diverse and expansive farm, Mills’ affiliations and leadership roles are numerous, and he has earned multiple agricultural awards. He is an ex-officio member of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, the university’s governing authority, by virtue of his role as president of the board of directors for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In recognition of its land-grant mission, Virginia Tech established a standing position on its Board of Visitors for the president of the VDACS. Agriculture is the number one industry in the commonwealth and has a $70 billion annual impact. Mills also serves as an advisory board member for the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
The producer and entrepreneur is an impassioned advocate for young people, particularly those with a dream.
“I have tried to be an inspiration to young people,” said Mills, who has traveled extensively across Virginia and the nation to deliver speeches about the significance of farming and the importance of pursuing one’s aspirations, no matter what the challenges. “Many young people are told they cannot accomplish things. People give you all of these reasons why you shouldn’t do something.”
“My message is that if you believe in it enough, and if you are passionate about it, there is nothing you cannot accomplish. Do not take no for an answer.”
After receiving his Farmer of the Year Award, although he had not prepared a speech, Mills delivered poignant and emotional remarks, leading with a quote from the Future Farmers of America creed. “I believe in the future of agriculture, with a faith born not of words but of deeds — achievements won by the present and past generations of agriculturists; in the promise of better days through better ways, even as the better things we now enjoy have come to us from the struggles of former years.”
During the speech, he went on to share that he was inspired to pursue farming after taking an agriculture class when he was in eighth grade. When he made this decision, his parents and others told him he could never do it.
Yet, his determination proved naysayers wrong, which is why he now offers himself as an example to young people who face obstacles in reaching their goals. His life is testament to the positive impact that an agricultural education and the dogged pursuit of a dream can have in shaping success.
During a photo session following the Farmer of the Year awards ceremony, Mills noticed a group of young people in the audience. He paused to speak with the young FFA and 4-H girls and boys about their hopes and aspirations. He also shared that they provided the inspiration for his acceptance speech. Given his own story, it is no surprise that he is so impassioned about supporting youth.
Mills grew up in a suburb of Danville, Virginia. He grew his first vegetables at age 13, bought a tractor at age 15, and began working for a farmer while in high school. He grew his first tobacco in 1995, bought his first farm in 1998, began raising cattle in 1999, and transitioned into farming full-time in 2001.
“I started on a small scale, growing vegetables. My dad would drive me around to deliver them,” said Mills.
Later, he attended Virginia Tech, and graduated from the Agricultural Technology Program in 1994.
“After graduation, I began growing tobacco and the farm started to take off. I began a cattle herd while working part-time,” said Mills.
In 2001, a visit from a Perdue representative, and the adoption of poultry, was a turning point for Mills and his family. The producer was then able to transition into full-time farming.
“When you look at the whole picture, my farming career has been 30 years in the making since that first seed was planted,” said Mills. “Things have really progressed in the last 15 years. We were able to increase from 165 acres to more than 2,000.”
Mills has a serious message to deliver.
“People take farming for granted because every time you go to a store like Walmart, food is there in abundance, and it’s relatively inexpensive,” he said. “The reason we have a safe, affordable food supply is because of our farmers. Not just on the farming side, but on the forestry side as well. Think about trees, livestock, crops – all of these things that are always there for us. They are available because of farmers.”
Mills wants consumers to think about what it took to get their food, shelter, and clothing. These resources, so easily taken for granted, require sacrifice. Producers, he points out, work hard to ensure Americans are able to live a comfortable life.
Thomas Porter Jr. of Concord, North Carolina, served as this year’s senior judge. He said that Mills impressed the judges with his determination to farm and with the diversity of his tobacco crops.
“Robert Mills has an amazing story to tell, from his beginning in farming up until the present,” said Porter. “He is an avid advocate for agriculture and is very active in community and agricultural affairs. He truly has a passion for what he does and is very deserving of this most prestigious honor.”
Mills’ wife, Cynthia, works as an information technology resource teacher for Pittsylvania County Schools. She is active in the Virginia Education Association, the Pittsylvania Farm Bureau Women’s Committee, and has also been involved in the Virginia Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers Committee. The couple has two sons, Logan, 16, and Holden, 11. Logan has begun working with his father on the farm.
As the Southeastern Farmer of the Year, Mills will receive a $15,000 cash award plus $2,500 as a state winner from Swisher International. He will also receive the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, and several other prizes.
Mills will place his plaque on top of the entertainment center in his home. He plans to display each prize in a prominent location “to remind us of the opportunities we have had, the sacrifices, and the rewards.”
Since its inception in 1990, the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award has evolved into the most-prestigious honor in the Southeast and nation with 236 agribusiness leaders honored for their “excellence in agriculture."
— Written by Amy Painter