Virginia Cooperative Extension has recognized Virginia Tech alumnus Robert Mills Jr. from Briar View Farm in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, as the 2017 Virginia Farmer of the Year.

Mills joins nine other individuals as a finalist for the overall Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 17, at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Georgia.

Mills is a first-generation farmer who has made a name for himself as an innovative and diversified producer. Briar View, his Callands, Virginia, farm spans 2,244 acres. Mills grows four types of tobacco, oversees an Angus-cross beef herd, raises pullet breeder chickens, and produces vegetables and winter wheat.

Mills is a member of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, the university’s governing authority. In recognition of its land-grant mission, Virginia Tech established a standing position on its Board of Visitors for the president of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ board of directors, a position held by Mills. Agriculture is the number one industry in the commonwealth and has a $70 billion annual impact.

“We are pleased to be able to recognize Robert Mills this year,” said Bobby Grisso, associate director of agriculture and natural resources for Virginia Cooperative Extension. “He is an entrepreneur and a leader who has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to agriculture.”

Mills was nominated for this honor by Stephen Barts, an Extension agent in Pittsylvania County. Barts admires how Mills succeeded as a first-generation farmer and how diversified his operation has become.

“Robert’s intensive management of all aspects of his operation has been vital to Briar View’s success,” Barts said.

As a former conservation specialist, Mills 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.

The Danville, Virginia, native made his first foray into agriculture by purchasing used farm equipment with assistance from his mother, who helped the teenager secure a line of credit. The young entrepreneur worked for nine years at a commercial farm near his home. Mills earned his associate degree from Virginia Tech in agricultural technology and bought his first farm in 1998. 

“I started with zero capital and took a risk with each loan,” said Mills, who now has about 300 beef cows.

His agricultural awards, affiliations, and leadership roles are numerous. Mills received the Virginia Farm Bureau Young Farmers Achievement Award and the organization’s Environmental Stewardship Award. He has served on the bureau’s board of directors and on several of its committees. He also serves as an advisory board member for the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

His wife, Cynthia, works as an information technology resource teacher for Pittsylvania County Schools. She is active in the Virginia Education Association, Pittsylvania County Farm Bureau Women’s Committee, and has also been active in the  Virginia Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers Committee. The couple has two sons, Logan, 16, and Holden, 11.

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 being honored for their “excellence in agriculture.”

Ten states participate in the program: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. In the previous 28 years of the award, more than $1,080,000 has been awarded to state and overall winners.

Each state winner receives $2,500 and an all-expense-paid trip to Expo along with various other prizes. The overall Southeastern winner receives $15,000 and other prizes from the sponsors.

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.

—    Written by Amy Painter

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