A century of cultivation

Saunders Brothers Farm. Photo: 621 Studios Saunders Brothers Farm. Photo: 621 Studios

little more than a hundred years ago, in the rural foothills of Nelson County, an ambitious band of five brothers—Will, Doc, Dick, Sam and Massie—were devoting themselves to the hard, prefatory dirty work of chasing a dream. Specifically: The men were spending their mornings and afternoons scouring the forest, field and countryside trapping rabbits. Droves of them. The skins of which they stockpiled, intent on, once the cache was big enough, selling to the local trading outpost for a respectable sum of cash.

Their plan?

Use these hard-earned funds to purchase the seeds, equipment and livestock necessary to transform the Piney River homestead their grandfather, Massie “Big John” Saunders, had settled along with his wife, Sallie, in 1833 into a working agricultural powerhouse. Of course, like many would-be, turn-of-the-century entrepreneurs bent on effecting a rags-to-riches metamorphosis, when the brothers finally cut the red ribbon on the 800-acre farm, they were well aware the odds were stacked against them. However, having as a role model a man who built the family cabin from the timber he cut, planed and cured himself, and having from day one collectively pitched in to work the land that cabin rested upon for their sustenance, a do-or-die self-reliance was the only philosophy these men knew. As such, the brothers were confident they possessed the grit and determination needed to ensure their business’ success.

More than a century later, the brothers’ dream of a prosperous future rooted in their grandfather’s beloved Piney Creek acreage has proved itself more than viable—it has become, in fact, robustly realized. Having weathered umpteen droughts, two world wars, a natural disaster (1969’s Hurricane Camille), various economic downturns, the ever-increasing mega-corporatization of agriculture and slews of other less world-crushing obstacles, under the innovative watch of second-generation CEO Paul Saunders (son of original brother Sam), Saunders Brothers Inc. remains alive and thriving, operating on a scale well beyond anything its founders could have imagined. Alongside Paul labors a crew of blood relatives ranging from four of his own seven sons, their wives, their children, various cousins, second cousins and even a couple of descendants of original (read, hailing from way back in 1915) family friends. Together, they work to grow, care for and sell approximately 5,000 bushels of apples, 20,000 bushels of peaches (much of which is designated as specialty varieties to be sold to local Virginia markets, featuring a toggled harvest season from mid-June to mid-September) and many other complementary nursery products (in the form of more than 1,000 types of plants, divided into different tiers and products including azalea, holly, mums, rhododendrons, geraniums, pansies, etc.), including many thousand boxwoods. 

Although it’s obvious a century’s worth of shifting markets, acquisitions and technological innovations have led to overhauls of the farm’s day-to-day methodologies and business strategies, the heart of the operation—its company culture and moral integrity—remains completely intact.

“When I was growing up, my daddy always advised me, ‘Be careful. Try to make a good name for yourself. Mind your reputation!’” says 82-year-old Paul Saunders. “He was as honest a man as I have ever known, and he was trying to impress upon me to be the same. He’d tell me: ‘Son, there is only one thing that you will take with you when you leave this world—your name.’”

Within the first few minutes of a chat with Paul Saunders, it is clear the man regards this philosophy of honor and integrity—giving folks the proverbial fair shake—as comprising the moral centerpiece of the Saunders Brothers operation.

“Both my daddy and my uncles always told me to give people the full measure,” says Paul. “Originally, the brothers were dealing with wholesalers and brokers who were members of the community, not to mention the local stores, so it was important they run their business based on the ideal of doing unto others what you’d have them do unto you.”

In other words, customers were in no way, shape or form to be considered in terms of the statistically convenient, but humanistically degrading language of consumerism. Instead, they were to be treated as individuals. As friends. Neighbors. Family.

Growing a business

At 82, Paul Sanders, son of original brother Sam, serves as CEO and patriarch of the Saunders Brothers farm. The farm's harvest season from mid-June to mid-September produces 5,000 bushels of apples and 20,000 bushels of peaches, along with more than 1,000 varieties of plants. Photo: 621 Studios
At 82, Paul Sanders, son of original brother Sam, serves as CEO and patriarch of the Saunders Brothers farm. The farm’s harvest season from mid-June to mid-September produces 5,000 bushels of apples and 20,000 bushels of peaches, along with more than 1,000 varieties of plants. Photo: 621 Studios

“[The original brothers] always insisted that no matter what kind of product you’re selling, you have to make sure what your customers are buying is of the best quality,” says Paul. “They told me to always be strictly straight and honest, the way I would with my own family. They impressed that upon me. And I believe that’s the way a business should be run. And I also believe that putting this notion into practice [has] led to our business’ success and its longevity as well.”

Indeed, for Saunders Brothers Inc., these sentiments have become more than an implied employee guideline or tacitly agreed upon code of conduct. To get a feel for how serious Paul and company takes the philosophy—that is, to see how it informs and has become the keystone of an entire company culture—a quick perusal of the company’s website yields the following four bullet points, plucked directly from the mission statement:

• Honesty and truthfulness are foundational to our business.

• Every team member is a part of the Saunders Brothers Family.

• To have a positive impact on our employees, customers, suppliers, community and environment.

• To be a premier supplier of superb-quality plant material for garden centers.

Considering the above, when it comes to understanding the development and lasting success of a company that has become one of the Mid-Atlantic region’s major suppliers of produce and nursery products (an operation that employs more than 100 workers), the list’s key point is the capitalized proper noun: Family.

Because Saunders Brothers began on such a small scale, serving, as Paul recollects, the immediate geographic community with the brothers functioning as participants and members thereof, interacting with customers on anything other than a first-name basis would have seemed ludicrous. Furthermore, in those originating times, when additional labor was needed that assistance was A) typically only seasonally necessary, and B) often enough provided by the teenaged sons of said community. Thus, with these traditional values and attitudes firmly entrenched, even as the company grew and began to supply an ever-expanding number of local, then state, then tri-state, then full-on East Coast-wide markets with wholesale produce/nursery products and in the process came to employ more and more seasonal (and increasingly migrant) workers, the brothers never considered adapting a sense of their company as something other than a “family” organization. By this rationale, it was natural to extend this concept to include the new relationships with new workers and business partners.

Nowhere is this ideological framework—not to mention the uncanny penchant for adapting to the demands of changing times—more visible than the very-much-against-the-industry-grain tract Saunders Brothers took when dealing with the increasingly intensive labor demands of its fruit orchards.

“For decades upon decades, the peach harvest at Saunders Brothers was circled on many local calendars,” wrote former The News & Advance columnist Darrel Laurant in a piece detailing the work history of Nelson County. “Whole families turned out with their work clothes on, often three generations’ worth… They depended on the [Saunders Brothers] harvest to provide the supplemental income that would see them through the year.”

Adapting to change

Bennett Saunders, who manages the company's field production, replaced the overhead sprinklers in the orchard with underground drip lines, reducing, by his estimate, the farm;s water consumption by upward of 75 percent. Photo: 621 Studios
Bennett Saunders, who manages the company’s field production, replaced the overhead sprinklers in the orchard with underground drip lines, reducing, by his estimate, the farm;s water consumption by upward of 75 percent. Photo: 621 Studios

In the late ’70s, an altered work climate—i.e. local teenagers developing a preference for air-conditioned jobs over intensive physical exertion amid the indiscriminate summer heat—threatened to leave a whole season’s worth of peaches unpicked.

Confronted by imminent catastrophe, for the first time in more than 50 years, the Saunders family was forced to consider doing what pretty much all the other larger-scale farms had already done: Outsource labor to migrant workers. But Saunders Brothers decided that, if it was going to make the leap, it was going to do so with the same integrity it’d always practiced.

Initially, the brothers used imported labor in the traditional manner—hiring transient crews that arrived for the harvest, took care of business, then departed in a mass exodus seeking the next orchard or field. However, it didn’t take long for Paul and his sons to recognize the extent of the newcomers’ work ethic. After a bit of discussion, they collectively decided to gamble on the notion that, if they treated these workers well and provided them with steady work and the opportunity for advancement, they might convince some of the workers to become regular fixtures.

“We paid them three dollars an hour over what any of the other farms were willing to pay,” Paul says. “Then we went around the county and fixed up some houses for them to live in, with everything they needed. If these guys were going to work for us, they were going to become a part of our family. We were looking to build lasting relationships.”

Along these lines, Tatum Saunders, Paul’s wife, began encouraging the workers to bring their families along with them, going so far as to set up childcare services for the kids, help build soccer fields for recreation, organize multiple weekly potluck dinners and provide transportation to church services and other area events.

“We started trying to really encourage them to sign on for nine-month contracts a year in advance,” says Paul. “We offered and encouraged opportunities for advancement. Then we expanded our nursery and boxwood operations, which allowed us to offer many of them year-round work.”

Unlike other ag businesses built on well-documented models of exploitation, Saunders Brothers sought to provide its workers with the opportunity to pursue their own version of the American Dream the company itself was founded upon.

“As a result,” says Paul, “we’ve been able to create loyal relationships based upon trust. At this point, most all of our workers have been with us for over 15 years, a few for nearly 30. Some have become naturalized citizens, bought houses nearby and took on a greater responsibility in the company. I feel confident in saying our employees are the most reliable in the business.”

And when it comes to withstanding the sometimes inimical twists and turns of a bad growing season, Saunders is quick to point out that team mentality can be the deciding factor between charting in the black or in the red.

Another aspect of how this family-first initiative has worked to give the company a leg up on the industry has to do with a knack for adaptive innovation, which seems to derive from a broad diversity of interests among the farm’s management. From the get-go, Paul’s seven boys were all included in the daily doings of the farm, but it was their father’s (himself a graduate and avid supporter of Virginia Tech) insistence on the pursuit of a higher education that led each of the four eventual partners to develop a particular specialty and, in turn, bring that specialty back home to the farm.

Jim Saunders runs the wholesale nursery, orchard and farm market with his father, Paul, and three of his brothers. Photo: 621 Studios
Jim Saunders runs the wholesale nursery, orchard and farm market with his father, Paul, and three of his brothers. Photo: 621 Studios

“My wife, Lyn, and I met while working in a nursery in Cairo, Georgia,” says Tom Saunders, head of the farm’s container nursery. “I was an intern in horticulture from Virginia Tech and she was a Clemson horticulture graduate working as the propagation manager.”

Once the couple decided to tie the knot and began looking for somewhere they could work side by side while putting their cutting-edge agricultural know-how to the test, returning to Piney River was an obvious choice.

“We went to work incorporating engineering advances like solenoid valves, cell-phone-activated irrigation controllers and mechanized conveying systems,” Tom says. “Additionally, we implemented encapsulated fertilizers to feed our product more predictably and efficiently.”

When another third-generation Saunders brother, Bennett, began managing field production, he replaced the overhead sprinkler units in the company’s orchards with underground drip lines, reducing, by his estimation, the farm’s water consumption by upward of 75 percent.

But this tendency toward innovation was nothing new.

Early on in the farm’s operation, with the stock market headed toward a crash and the apple, cattle and vegetable markets floundering, one of the original brothers heard a tale of a bushel of peaches selling for a dollar (at that time a whopping sum). Without hesitation, the five brothers took action, shifting their operations toward peaches. While pickings remained thin for quite some time, once the peaches (of the then-popular variety Elberta) began coming in, the farm was bolstered to new life.

When Paul officially took the helm in 1981, the orchard was expanded to encompass more than 150 acres planted with an ever-increasing diversity—presently including 30 varieties of peaches, 13 types of apples and Asian pears as well. Additionally, Paul pursued his interest of boxwood cultivation, laying the foundation for what would become one of the largest landscaping nursery operations in the Mid-Atlantic, supplying wholesalers and private clients (a list that includes the Kennedy administration’s White House) with many thousand individual plants each year. Through copious research and many trips abroad seeking new strains, Paul earned a reputation as one of the world’s foremost boxwood experts, founding the National Boxwood Trials, an organization dedicated to the research and propagation of superior specimens and horticultural expertise.

With a century’s worth of surfing the shifting agricultural tides under its belt, the present Saunders Brothers crew doesn’t see itself going anywhere. In fact, everyone is quite unanimous in their expectation: The business will continue so long as they keep their values in mind and folks keep needing to eat.

Market share

For more information about the history of the Saunders Brothers family farm, visit www.saunders brothers.com, drop by the Farm Market at 2717 Tye Brook Highway, Piney River, or pick up a copy of Paul Saunders’ memoir of life in Piney River, Down on the Farm (available online).

–Eric J. Wallace