Overbay family built on past to create its future
CHILHOWIE, Va. — Virginia Middlefork Farm in Smythe County is home to a family that has made a success of farming by embracing life and change since the land was purchased in 1949.
Andy Overbay, a Smythe County dairy Extension agent, and his wife, Andrea, a Chilhowie High School biology teacher, run the farm today.
“Ours is a history of periodic reinvention from a vocational point,” Andy said. “I think that because we were willing to roll with the punches, it allowed us to not change who we were, what we stood for and where we made our stand.”
The family had a long run in the dairy business but Andy said before the dairy his parents made changes.
“The total past of our family shows that when changes were called for, we made them,” he said.
He traced that past to the time when his mom, who will be 91 in June, and his late father both worked at Vance Company in the county. She was head bookkeeper and he was a mechanic and salesman.
“Dad started there in 1943,” Andy said. “Mom in 1947 or ’48. She and Dad married in February 1949.”
Andy noted that the Vance Company, a local chain in southwest Virginia did over a million dollars annually in the 1950s.
“It was a major employer in the area with stores from Bristol to Pulaski,” Andy said. “They dealt mostly in hardware and home appliances but also had a fertilizer plant and tractor dealership in Chilhowie.”
Andy’s father bought the farm’s original 107 acres in 1959, mostly as a tax shelter.
“Post World War II and the Korean War, taxes were very high until tax reform of the early 60s,” Andy said.
Andy’s parents started their family during this period with their first son arriving in 1959. He is now a veterinarian in Kansas. Andy followed in 1963.
When the dealership where his father worked closed in 1967, Andy recalled he worked briefly in another International Harvester dealer in Bristol.
The Overbays also investigated an offer to take over a dealership in Buffalo, NY.
“After he and Mom visited the area, they decided that the hills were home, and they would make a go of it here.” Andy said.
Andy’s father did custom farm work after hours, mostly picking corn or baling hay.
He also had horned Hereford cattle and 100 sows in a farrow-to-finish operation.
“When the dealerships closed, Dad decided to go into the dairy business for one reason,” Andy said. “He and Mom were used to a regular paycheck and dairying was the only farm enterprise of that time to offer that kind of pay schedule.”
The family’s entry into the dairy industry is one of the things that contributes to Andy’s work as an Extension agent today.
“What skills do you have that directly benefit the farm?” was a question his dad often asked, Andy said.
“It is a point I bring up to people who contact me today about getting into production agriculture,” he said.
He continued by explaining that his father was not a cow man. His experience growing up was working on a neighboring farm’s water powered grist mills.
Andy identified his dad’s skill as being making do with what he had. A tour of the farm buildings around his home bears testimony to that skill. Andy pointed to a wide variety of buildings and implements his dad had crafted.
This included a whirling windmill centered with the wheel of a school bus.
“Over the years, he reported, many of our farm implements came out of our shop, hand built by Dad using scrap metal from the local junkyard and his welder.
Our first gooseneck trailer, a V-ripper, dump beds for trucks, all hand-made, not purchased.
His firs dairy parlor stalls were built by him on site.
Andy attributed his father’s success as a dairyman to his kind-heartedness and patience with the cows.
The dairy industry also was booming at that time, another factor that helped the farm.
His mother seems to have had a way with cows. Andy estimated that she raised over 3,000 dairy calves in the calf barn on the farm.
His father often pointed to a single event that helped him succeed.
“He often credited being denied a bank loan early in his farming career with being instrumental to his success,” Andy said. “He wasn’t happy, but it also set him on a course to save towards what he wanted to do and not owe anyone anything along the way.”
Virginia Middle Fork Farm’s dairy herd left in 1998.
“Change is hard,” Andy said. “Andrea and I know. We cried big tears when the cows left in September 1998. We really didn’t have a clue what we were to do. We just knew we weren’t going to do or weren’t able to do. What we weren’t able to do was find reliable, affordable help on the farm. But that also proved to be the compass we used to find our way.”
In talking with friends, the Overbays found they were not the only ones who could not find adequate farm labor. They decided not to try.
Believing that the success of any farm or business means having or making something someone is willing to pay you for and to pay you enough to meet the financial needs of your family.
“What we did realize was that if we were strategic and patient, just as Mom and Dad had been early in their 30s, things would be just fine,” he said. “In reality, our background set us up for success. We knew long hours and hard work. We knew how to do with very little financial reward.”
The couple found a new product in the fall of 1998.
They switched from cows’ milk to their time and abilities.
A positive factor was that each one of them had graduated from Virginia Tech in 1985 with degrees in dairy science.
“Our labor was worth more than we could generate on the farm,” Andy said. “I worked in ag lending for a brief period before joining Extension.” Andrea substitute taught for a year until a full-time biology teacher position came open.
He credited their extended family in the Virginia Tecg Dairy Science department with helping them secure the positions they have held for the past 20 years.
Their daughter, Hillary Overbay Snodgrass, has since joined her mother on the school’s faculty as a second language teacher in an area where immigrant labor is an important part of the farm labor force.
“My journey helps me dealing with people who are new to farming or struggling with changing gears on and off the farm,” Andy said. “I share with them that they need to bring more to the table than their appetite. Your farm deserves you to be an expert at something. My dad and I brought our mechanical abilities. Andrea was a cow whisperer.
“All of us or are tightwads. So it works. Hard work is great but it isn’t enough.”