In eighth grade, Robert Mills, Jr., told his parents his dream was to become a farmer. His parents said that’d be a tough road to walk. The family had no land, capital or equipment and lived in a suburb.

On Oct. 17, the first-generation Virginia farmer held the 2017 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award in his hand and proclaimed the FFA creed to the more than 600 people attending the opening-day luncheon at the 40th anniversary Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Ga.

That FFA creed “was the first words I heard when I entered my eight-grade agricultural class, coming from a suburb outside of Danville, Va., who had never had experience in agriculture. Those words inspired me to become an American farmer,” he said, “one of the proudest occupations you could ever have.”

With the FFA creed in his heart and a newfound fire in his belly, Mills took to fighting the long odds and slowly and steadily inched toward his dream. He started turning FFA projects into bigger ventures, and at 15 bought a used Ford tractor with a line of credit from the bank his mother worked at.

Now his Briar View Farm in Callands, Va., is a 2,244-acre diversified family farm, where they grow both organ

ic and flue-cured tobacco along with dark-fired tobacco and produce tobacco for bioenergy. Winter wheat is the other main cash crop, along with pearl millet and hay. He raises 34,000 pullet breeder chickens and is working now to expand his Angus herd to 400 cows.

“I was inspired today when I looked back and saw those blue-and-gold jackets. As a past state president of the Virginia FFA Association, I can tell you I wore that blue and gold very proudly, and to those 4-H members, I can see what that’s done for my boys being a member of 4-H, and seeing those young people here, these are the future of agriculture, these are the future agriculturist,” he said.

He said it is the duty off farmers and farmer leaders to support the next generation of farmers now, and to tell them “do not take ‘no’ for an answer. If you believe it, and you’re passionate about it, and it’s your heart’s desire to accomplish that goal in your life, there is no one or no adversity that can ever stand in your way,” he said.

This is the 28th year of the Southeastern Farmer of the Year program, which Swisher Sweets and Sunbelt Ag Expo started to honor and salute the American farmer and agribusiness industries. Each year, ten state farmer of the year winners from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia compete for the overall honor, but each state winner is also honored with a trip to Sunbelt Ag Expo with prizes.

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