CALLANDS, VA – “There’s no reason why I should be a farmer,” Robert Mills said. “It never should have happened.”
Mills didn’t grow up on a farm. He grew up in a subdivision outside Danville, VA. But a dream grew within him – a dream that he would be a farmer.
The dream came true. Today, Mills farms 2,000 acres (800 owned) in Pittsylvania and Henry counties, raising tobacco, pullets, cattle and grain. In 2017, he was named the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.
Mills decided he wanted to be a farmer when he was 13, and he started then – growing vegetables on a one-acre piece of land using a 1952 Ford 8N tractor. After graduating from Virginia Tech, he took a job managing a Royster-Clark farm store. Then he worked as a soil and water conservation specialist for Pittsylvania County. He farmed on the side too. He began growing tobacco in 1995, with 1.77 acres of dark tobacco.
In 1999 he bought his 80-acre home farm, Briar View Farms. He pulled up to the farm with his wife Cindy and showed her what he envisioned: a house over there on the rise, a shop down there, cattle fields to the north.
“‘I’m glad you see it,’” he recalls her telling him. “‘All I see is locusts and briars.’” And that’s how the farm got its name.
Today Mills grows 125 acres of tobacco, including three acres of Connecticut wrapper, seven acres of dark tobacco and 20 acres of organic flue-cured. (The rest is conventional flue-cured.) The black cow/calf herd numbers 300 and produces several truckloads of backgrounded cattle every year. His eldest son Logan (also a Tech graduate) works full-time on the farm and has built up the grain operation, expanding from 150 acres two years ago to 600 acres today. Although tobacco is the crop which permitted Mills to expand his farm, what allowed him to jump into farming full-time was the pullet house.
“The dream I had as a 13-year-old came true on October 12, 2001,” Mills said, “when I became a full-time farmer.” The pullet house provides enough stable income for Mills to farm full-time. He raises two parent flocks of pullets a year for Perdue. (He originally raised grandparent flocks.)
“Years later I looked back and realized it was all perfectly timed,” Mills said. “My years at the farm store taught me about fertilizers and chemicals. My years with Soil and Water taught me about best management practices.”
His willingness to take risks has also led Mills to some novel decisions. He was the first fiber hemp grower in Virginia, operating on a provisional license. “Hemp works well on a tobacco farm,” Mills said. “You don’t need much additional capital input.” Hemp is cut with the same knives as dark tobacco, is hauled in the same leaf trailers used in tobacco production and is cured in box barns (after the tobacco season is complete).
Mills is contracted will all three big tobacco companies. His organic tobacco is sold to JTI, which it uses for its American Spirit products. In recent years, Mills reported, there was a softening of demand for organic tobacco as vaping rose in popularity. But lately that trend has reversed and there is a rising demand for organic tobacco as the vaping industry faces its own hurdles.
Briar View Farms grades its dark tobacco on the farm and sells the wrappers as part of a cooperative to a cigar shop in Maryland, bundled in traditional 60-pound bales. The dark tobacco which isn’t sold as wrapper is sold to Lancaster Leaf, which also buys Mills’ Connecticut wrapper.
“Last year 60% of the Connecticut crop graded as wrapper,” Mills said. “This year, though, we had hail at layby. We’re looking at 25% wrapper, 25% binder and 50% straight strip in the Connecticut crop this year.”
Connecticut plants are shorter, with 12 leaves per plant. The leaves must have zero holes to grade as wrapper. To maximize the top grade, Mills sprays the plants every Monday from the second week after transplant right up to harvest.
The specialty tobacco is stored in pole-tiered barns. A total of 14,000 sticks of dark tobacco and cigar wrapper are cured in big barns as well as seven traditional small log barns.
Being diversified into different tobacco products has boosted the profitability of the tobacco operation. It’s very labor intensive, though, requiring 10 full-time seasonal laborers. To justify that labor, though, Mills can’t just grow the specialty tobacco – he has to grow conventional flue-cured as well.
The farm has pipe irrigation on 90 of its 125 tobacco acres. Last year was dry and the farm was using irrigation every month during the growing season. This year had more rain, and the farm only irrigated eight days, but moister conditions have led to disease, including brown spot, angular leaf spot and even Fusarium wilt, which Mills had never had on his farm before.
“I told Logan that the difference between farming now and farming 20 years ago is nowadays you can’t afford to make a mistake,” Mills said. “I’m 49 and I’m working harder, working longer hours than I ever have, and my profit margin is lower than ever.”
That’s due in large part to the sharp increase in inputs which is affecting all farmers. Mills tries to balance his risks by seeking premiums wherever he can. In his cattle operation, for example, he weans, vaccinates and backgrounds his own cattle. Having uniform lots like his will bring a premium at the packers. (Mills primarily ships to Iowa.) His herd is primarily autumn calving.
These days, the biggest competition for farmland in Southside Virginia is not urban development but the solar industry. And the tobacco industry is shrinking as the population ages out. “We’ve lost 1,000 acres of tobacco in Pittsylvania County in the last year. Growing tobacco is a lifestyle,” he said. “You get engrained in it. You love it. But it’s hard to generate the income to invest in all the capital improvements you need.”
Mills is an advocate for the Virginia farming community. He serves on the Virginia Farm Bureau Board of Directors and serves on or has served on many ag boards in the Commonwealth.
“You don’t chose to farm,” Mills said. “God chooses you to be a farmer. And with that comes a responsibility – to your family, to your nation, to the world. The end users have faith that I will keep doing what I do.”
by Karl H. Kazaks