The most ideal way a writer could begin the storytelling of a decades-old farm just may be from the front seat of a slightly worn four-wheel-drive pick-up truck on a crisp fall afternoon.

On this particular day, the smell of freshly picked apples filled the air and the inside of Robert Saunders’ truck, one that proudly, and unsurprisingly, wears some dried mud and a few scratches, as well as a license plate etched with “4EVER VT.”

Downed windows welcomed the aroma and offered a clear view of the sprawling Saunders Brothers farm, located on “the sunrise side of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains,” as they like to say. They, being Robert ‘86 and his three brothers, Tom ’81, Bennett ’83, and Jim ’85, are the primary owners and operators of this multi-generational farm that was established by their grandfather, Sam, and his four brothers.

The farm has evolved into a large-scale and diverse horticultural business, formally called Saunders Brothers, Inc. A roster of employees that runs about 150 deep grow, sell, and ship woody ornamentals, annuals, perennials, boxwood, grafted trees, peaches, nectarines, apples, and Asian pears on more than 400 acres of farmland.

Several of the workers are Virginia Tech graduates, as are many in the Saunders circle.

The Saunders’ family tree, like those that dotted the hilltops that breezy October morning, is richly decorated with maroon and orange. Virginia Tech has issued degrees – ranging from engineering to horticulture – to 32 members of their family, dating back to the 1950s. In addition to the brothers and many of their spouses and children, more than a dozen Hokies are now a part of the Saunders Brothers team.

“This place has Virginia Tech written all over it,” said Robert Saunders as he drove past beds full of hydrangeas and rhododendrons being prepared for the winter months ahead.

As general manager, Robert Saunders oversees the farm’s daily operations. Last fall, he represented his family and the commonwealth at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Georgia, where he and the farm were named the 2022 Swisher/Sunbelt Southeastern Farmer of the Year.

Saunders said he and his family were humbled by the recognition, one that’s been years in the making – 108 to be exact.

Rooted in family legacy

“Humble” is a candid word to describe the start of the Saunders Brothers’ legacy.

Although the farm, located in the small Nelson County community of Piney River, Virginia, is now equipped with modern-day farm conveniences, such as high-tech tillers and timer-controlled irrigation systems, this writer’s curious set of eyes steered by a well-suited tour guide can easily spot and sense its storied history.

Rusted farming equipment, decades-old homesteads, and well-worked fields dot the sprawling landscape that has expanded extensively since the late Paul Saunders planted his first boxwood.

Saunders Brothers came to life in 1915 as brothers Sam (grandfather), Dick, Doc, Will, and Massie (great uncles) created a farm partnership, with tobacco as the primary cash crop. Times were tight for the large family through the Great Depression, but high peach prices during World War II helped them pay off debt. As family members left the farm, Sam, Dick, and Doc stayed behind and evolved the business’s bounty.

The family’s original house is located on a part of the farm called “Harewood,” now inhabited by Bennett Saunders and his family. Next to the house is the Saunders’ Family cemetery. How many are buried there, Robert Saunders hasn’t a clue, but he is quick to point out a headstone with which he is very familiar: that of his father, Paul Saunders.

Paul Saunders, son of Sam, is responsible for the farm’s now booming boxwood business. In a history of the farm authored by Paul, he wrote:

“I propagated my first boxwood in the spring of 1947 (as part of a 4-H project). A multi-talented science teacher and my mother showed me how to make cuttings for propagation. Intrigued, I chose the north side of the red clay, piney-thicket hillside near our current office as my propagation site. An 11-year-old friend helped me with the project. We stuck 77 slips into the red earth, which was cooled by its northern exposure and shaded by the pines. We watered them every few days from the little spring that was at the bottom of the hill. From this almost impossibly primitive beginning, 25 of the plants rooted. I was truly excited, and at the age of 13, bought out my partner.”

Paul and his wife, Tatum Saunders, together had seven boys. He earned his degree from Virginia Tech in engineering and encouraged their children to do the same.

“My father loved Virginia Tech with an absolute passion,” Robert Saunders said. “To him, there was no other school.”

Six of the brothers, at one time or another, worked alongside their father on the farm, contributing the skills they learned and the degrees they earned from Virginia Tech.

Paul Saunders passed away in 2022, leaving Robert (general manager), Bennett (Saunders Genetics “NewGen” general manager), Tom Saunders (container production), and Jim Saunders (human resources manager) as the current owners. Paul Saunders worked and lived on the farm until he died, a long-standing wish fulfilled, his sons said. Tatum Saunders still lives on the farm in a house next to Robert Saunders and his wife, Pat ’87.

On this particular afternoon, she was having lunch with five of her grandchildren, James ’17, Annie ’16, Marshall, Tye ’15, and Price ’20, the fourth generation of Saunders’ to join the family business.

Built with community in mind

Years ago, the four brothers took a True Colors™ test, a popular form of a personality test that categorizes personalities by four different colors.

“Each of us were a different color,” Robert Saunders said. “Not a surprise there.”

Their multi-colored personalities match their varied skill sets.

Tom Saunders was the first to return to the Saunders Brothers farm in the early 1980s with a horticulture degree. Bennett followed with a degree in agricultural economics. Robert was next. He, like his father, earned an engineering degree. Jim, an animal science major, was the last to return after serving for several years as a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent.

Together, they have turned Saunders Brothers, Inc., into a thriving, community-centered business. A key to their success, Jim Saunders said, “We don’t talk business at the dinner table.” Those conversations are saved for weekly working lunches.

The farm’s fruit operation covers 160 acres. Beyond common apple varieties like Gala, Honeycrisp, and Golden Delicious, the brothers are continually growing and testing new types. Some are so new or official names yet. Others, like the customer-favorite, Piney River Gold, are gobbled up at the roadside market where the brothers sell their produce, plants, canned goods, ice cream, and a very tasty chicken salad sandwich. The market once served as the farm’s sole packing shed. In the summers, it was a gathering space where employees along with members of the Piney River community would pack produce and pick a few tunes.

The wholesale nursery operation consists of about 100 acres of container production and 180 acres of field production. The green thumbs of Bennett and Tom Saunders have helped the farm gain notoriety as the first boxwood genetics company in the United States. Like the apples they grow, the brothers are also testing superior varieties of boxwood, or varieties that have a lower likelihood of disease and pest problems and are easier for growers to produce.

More than 1,100 products are shipped annually from the farm to garden centers, landscapers, and re-wholesalers throughout the mid-Atlantic region, including to Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus.

To help manage the massive operation, dozens of employees are on hand 24-7-365 days a year. The plants may hibernate for the winter, but the Saunders Brothers farm never gets a deep sleep.

Rest occurs at lunchtime when employees take solace with lunch boxes at a comfy table or bench around the market building, surrounded by customers who scout out the produce and plants they harvested.

About 100 seasonal employees are hired through the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program. They live and work on the farm from mid-February through the end of November. Many of these workers have been returning to the farm for the past 25 years. 

The help of the surrounding Piney River community is also integral to the operation. 

“They are some of our most loyal customers and employees,” Robert Saunders said. “They have supported us from the very beginning.”

As head of human resources, Jim Saunders reads through a lot of applications and asks a lot of questions to job candidates, a common being, “Why here?”

“Piney River is a very small town and not a lot of people live here,” he said. “There’s a Walmart 40 minutes away and one stop light in all of Nelson County. But they respond with, ‘I’ve heard about who you are and what you do, and I want to be a part of it.’”


Two Saunders brothers in their office
Jim (left) and Robert Saunders stand in the office of their late father, Paul. The office is filled with family photos and Virginia Tech memorabilia.

Family at the core

Come mid-afternoon, the Saunders Brothers farm is full-on activity. A large building up the hill from the market is the main headquarters. Tractor trailers roll in and out, filled to the brim with product.

Years ago, Robert Saunders was in the middle of the controlled chaos, directing Joe to do that and Fred to do that, and so on. More recently, he’s taken a step back from that role, mainly because his employees have mastered the craft.

“It’s like clockwork to them,” he said. “We’ve got so many good people, and I’m not required to be here every day. It happens this way now because of our steadfast customers and employees.”

During normal business hours, Robert Saunders is oftentimes in the main office. Jim, Tom, and Bennett are also busy with their various tasks, but they welcomely take a break to talk about family.  

“It’s one of our most important core values,” they said. 

The others are faith, integrity, and passion.

Down the hall from Robert Saunders is an office, empty of human life yet still very much alive.

As the writer sets foot in the office of the late Paul Saunders, still intact and mainly untouched since his passing, one is immediately transported to the past and reminded of the farm’s promising future.

Family keepsakes line the walls, along with plenty of Virginia Tech memorabilia.

Framed photographs, rows and rows deep of family and extended family, may be the most ideal way to end the storytelling of the Saunders Brothers farm.

Virginia Tech alumnus Robert Saunders ’86, representing the entire Saunders family, was named the 2022 Swisher/Sunbelt Southeastern Farmer of the Year in November at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Georgia.

He is just the fifth Virginia farmer to earn the Swisher/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year recognition.


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