Throughout a career of more than 50 years, Bill "The Farmer" Meadows touched the lives of everyone around him with his work ethic, his vibrant personality and his infectious charm. His relatives, peers and loved ones felt his loss strongly when he passed away Tuesday, Feb. 28.
Along with his wife Betty Lewis Meadows, Meadows founded Meadows Farms Nurseries & Landscape, an independent garden center chain with about 20 retail locations across Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. Meadows Farms ranked No. 5 on Garden Center magazine's 2016 Top 100 IGCs list. The company is currently led by Meadows' son Jay, who serves as president.
Bobby Lewis, vice president of Meadows Farms and Meadows' nephew, shared several fond memories of growing up and working with his uncle. Like many members of his family, Lewis has been involved with the family business since childhood.
"A lot of the family started at 6 or 7 years old, working in the produce stands and evolved into nurserymen as we got more into plants," Lewis says. "The thing that comes to mind more than anything else is having fun. [Meadows] was always about having fun himself, his employees having fun. We certainly worked very hard, but he wanted to make it fun and he had such a knack for people and could pull off making it fun even when it was real hard."
Bobby Lewis (left) with his uncle, Bill "The Farmer" Meadows
In addition to being an industrious and hard-working entrepreneur, "The Farmer" is remembered for his way with people.
"His people skills were amazing," Lewis says. "He could talk to anybody and talk about business with anybody, whether they wanted to hear it or not, and he was passionate about what he did. He really, sincerely enjoyed talking to people and getting reactions. He was just a really fun guy."
Lewis says his Aunt Betty, Meadows' wife, was also instrumental in building the successful foundation on which Meadows Farms now stands. The two were steadfast partners in business and in life, Lewis says.
"[Betty] wasn’t as flamboyant and certainly didn’t voice herself as much, but she certainly was very much a part of the business and the decisions, and she worked just as hard as Farmer," he says. "And their relationship was just such a great example of what a relationship should be, where they were such different people and had such different personalities but they were so in love and respectful of each other. They never seemed to lose that spark, they never seemed to hold a grudge."
More than anything, Lewis says he remembers his uncle for his steadfast positivity and quirky sense of humor. He recalls one growing season, when he and Meadows attempted to grow a block of 1,000 one-gallon leyland cypress trees. Meadows was very particular about planting all of the trees in perfectly straight rows, and when the harsh winter killed them all off by spring, "The Farmer" had a unique response.
"Of course, I was just mortified," Lewis says. "As is often the case in what we do, sometimes you learn on the fly. We were looking at it together and [Meadows] was very quiet. I looked up at him and he says, ‘Well, I’ll tell you one thing. They may all be dead, but they’re in straight rows.’ He got this smile that made me feel so much better. That’s the kind of person he was – he knew we’d done our best.”
Despite the painful loss, Lewis says he and the family are grateful for the volume of supportive messages they have been receiving from employees, friends, customers and colleagues in the industry.
"We have been just truly amazed at the response we’re getting back from the public ... it’s just been phenomenal," Lewis says. "I think Jay is extremely proud of his parents, just that they could affect so many people. Some of the comments we’re getting are so nice – quite a few where Farmer just really affected their lives for the long-term. We’re all very excited about that."
Photos courtesy of Bobby Lewis.
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The official obituary for Meadows:
His life was a colorful tapestry, made up of thousands of threads, woven by the hands of all those whose lives he touched – family, friends, neighbors, students, employees, golfing buddies and waitresses alike. Born in the mining town of Crab Orchard, WV., Farmer “did life” with his childhood sweetheart, Betty Lewis Meadows, whom he married in 1953.
After high school, Bill joined the US Army, then graduated from Marshall University and American University on the GI bill. In 1959 the couple came to Fairfax County, VA, where Farmer was a teacher and coach in the Fairfax County Public School system for 10 years, and Betty worked as a librarian. Looking for an opportunity to supplement his teacher’s wages, as well as the earnings of his students, Bill developed a plan for the students to peddle tomatoes door-to-door in the community. This led to the start of Meadows Farms Produce in 1960 (and the forever-nickname of “The Farmer”) which later became the wildly successful garden center chain Meadows Farms Nurseries.
Over the course of 50 years The Farmer opened 40 different retail locations, and spearheaded many innovations and expansions, gradually whittling down to the 19 current retail stores and the design-build landscape company which services the entire DC metro area and employs hundreds of managers, laborers, and designers.
In addition to the landscaping business, Meadows designed and built the Meadows Farms Championship Golf Course in Spotsylvania County and also tried his hand as a gentleman Farmer of Santa Gertrudis cows, before his (reluctant) semi-retirement at his waterfront home in Fredericksburg, VA. Farmer embraced life the way he embraced the people in his life – with the “you only go around once” gusto of someone who truly loved being alive.
When people reflect on him, their memories sometimes assume a “larger than life” perspective. They often start by saying, “I’ll never forget the time….” and then go on to relate a story in the most picturesque terms, often using what is fondly called “the Farmer stretch” – a story-telling method using the most outlandish exaggerations to make a point.
Farmer is survived by Betty, his wife, business partner, and BFF for more than 60 years. [Their story was captured in the 2003 autobiography, Nearly Perfect]; sons Jay (Doreen), Rocky (Holly), daughter Kate (Dural), grandchildren Miranda, Monica, Mason and Hunter, and is pre-deceased by children William Jay and Cindy Lou, and grandson Chase.
Farmer was a multi-faceted chameleon, sometimes appearing as an overall-clad “aww shucks” bumpkin or a nouveau-riche Jed Clampett-esque hillbilly-millionaire; at other times he was the shrewd businessman, the philosophical humanitarian, or the “over-grown kid”. He was so many things to so many people, but almost always he is described as “unforgettable”. Though not renowned for especially big feet, no one will ever again fill the Farmer’s shoes.
In Lieu of flowers, contributions can be made in Farmer’s name to the Cure Alzheimers Fund at http://curealz.org/in-memory/bill-farmer-meadows