The story below is an excerpt from our Sept./Oct. 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
For more than 100 years, a Nelson County, Virginia family has beaten the odds again and again. Their secrets? Resourcefulness, hard work, fairness with the workforce and the dedication of a new generation to maintaining and advancing the operation.
If small farming were one of the games run in Las Vegas, the smart gamblers would avoid it. It’s too obviously skewed toward the house.
The “house” being a combination of industrial mega-farms, price-conscious consumers and, most of all, Mother Nature.
“ It’s either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry,” a disgruntled farmer once said. “And if conditions are perfect, that’s bad, too, because then prices are down.”
Paul Saunders smiles at that, and there is satisfaction in the smile. His family has played the game for 100 years now, and mostly they have won. They remain unaffiliated with any giant corporation, and they are still doing a profitable business in the bucolic Virginia county of Nelson, where Saunders’ great-grandfather, “Big John” Massie, first settled.
Family lore has it that the Saunders Brothers empire was initially built on the unwilling backs of rabbits. By selling their skins and pooling the money, the first quintet of Saunders male siblings—Will, Massie, Doc, Dick and Sam—was able to start up a small farm. Their family already owned the land, so much of the seed money was used, literally, for seeds.
When Tye Brook, an adjoining farm, became available, the brothers somehow scraped together the money to buy it.
Later, when the Depression sent market prices for apples, tobacco and beef cattle spiraling downward, a farm-saving alternative appeared: peaches.
It was Sam Saunders, Paul’s father, who sounded the alert.
“ One day in the 1930s Daddy came home from work and told Mother the unbelievable—somebody was selling peaches for $1 a bushel,” Paul Saunders says.
So the brothers scrambled to line their hillsides with Elbertas—the “go to” peach of its day.
Somehow, the Saunders family has always found a way to beat the house. Not every year—some growing seasons have been disasters. Yet what started as a small family farm has since spread over several hundred acres and employs nearly 100 workers in peak season.
Over time, the emphasis has shifted from cattle and feed crops to apples, from apples to peaches, and from peaches to ornamentals. With peaches, the topography of the Saunders’ land has proven an invaluable asset. Bennett Saunders, who presides over the orchard part of the operation, calls it “the sweet spot.”
“ Peaches are best grown between 900 and 1,500 feet,” he explains. “Below that, and you have to worry about frost. Above that, you have to worry about a freeze. That’s why it’s the sweet spot, and a lot of our land fits right in there.”
Unlike the flat fields of a Midwest farm, the agricultural land in Nelson County has to be climbed on and broken, like a fractious bronco. Always, there are limitations.
“ My rule is never to put in an orchard in a place where I wouldn’t want my 12-year-old grandson to take a tractor,” Saunders says. “It isn’t worth it.”
Even in his 80s, Saunders shows his comfort level with the mountainous terrain, piloting his Ford pickup up and down up sharp-backed ridges and down precipitous slopes with no hesitation. There is one high spot on the farm where he likes to sit and gaze out over 50 square miles of Blue Ridge grandeur.
He sits and reflects a little more now, because his four sons are running the operation day-to-day. But he is still an opinion to be reckoned with in the regular family councils.
At one point, it appeared that the vein of Saunders men had almost played out. Only Sam remained to run the farm, the other original brothers having peeled off into other pursuits. And when Sam died of a heart attack while working in the packing shed, it was left to Paul to carry on.
Fortunately, he and Tatum, who married Paul not long after his graduation from Virginia Tech, wound up producing offspring like the “sweet spot” slopes produced peaches—seven of them, all boys.
Bennett, Jim, Robert and Tom are now partners in the operation. The others, Massie, Sam and John, all settled in the general area, the latter operating another orchard after marrying the daughter of its owner.
The Saunders kids were inducted into the farm life at an early age.
“They’d be out there on those long, cold nights when we had to light smudge pots to save the peach trees from frost,” recalls Tatum, “and they’d come in black as soot, wash themselves off and go to school.”
“You didn’t mind,” recalls Jim Saunders, “because all your brothers were doing it, too.”
And as the business expanded, the children were often drafted to play key roles in its function.
“I was running peach-picking crews at the age of 15,” says Robert Saunders, “driving farm use vehicles. Then, at the end of the day, I’d go home and do the payroll.”
All seven of this latest crop of Saunders brothers, like their father, graduated from Virginia Tech (Paul remains an avid and generous supporter of the school’s athletic program), and all but Bennett initially looked beyond the family farm for employment.
“We encouraged that,” Tatum says. “If they came back here, we wanted it to be their decision.”
So he and three of his siblings brought fresh skills and ideas home to Piney River, and all were given separate but equal responsibilities —Bennett put in charge of field production (apples, peaches and field-grown boxwoods), Tom the container nursery, Robert sales and Jim the labor force and the few remaining cattle.
“They all make the final decisions in their areas,” says Paul. “If it’s something involving a large expenditure of money, we decide as a group whether or not to go ahead with it.”