Time is so valuable; time might be our most valuable possession because it has a finite limit. It can’t be manufactured or remodeled. It is spent and it is gone. While I recuperate from hip replacement surgery, I have some time to reflect on some topics that aren’t as easy to capture on paper regarding farming.

Overbay andy
Extension Agent / Virginia Cooperative Extension
Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has 40-plus years of dairy and farming experience.

As an extension agent, our mission is to provide unbiased, research-based information to producers and homeowners that will result in increases in profitability, stewardship or sustainability. Of these, the one that seems to be the most desired driver is profitability, and understandably so. If you are generating profits, you have options in your future. Without profits, choices are limited or nonexistent.

To the end of increasing profits, I am often asked, “What should I do? What should I grow?” That is a perplexing question, but I think I have found the answer. It depends. I say that not to be funny or brush off the issue. As a professional farmer for over 20 years, I fully understand the pressure that one feels when your family income and your business income are identical … and limited.

But history shows us that the industry isn’t the total answer. My wife and I operated the family dairy farm as our sole source of income successfully for the first 13 years of our married life. We came into a good situation created by my parents who worked very hard and were frugal with their money. Our family dairy was not something that existed as a family heritage generations back in our pedigrees. My dad and mom started our dairy business in 1968 and converted to a Grade A operation in 1970.

The 1970s were known nationally as the “Golden Age” of dairy farming. If you wanted to start a dairy in the 1970s, loans were readily available. Milk prices were strong and stable (the exact opposite of today), and an industrious person could create their own version of success on the farm. Dad and Mom succeeded in the dairy industry because luck and profits were on their side. They had faith that things would work out, and they did very little to jeopardize their success. Farming was and is risky, but risks can be controlled by not being reckless.


The Golden Age did not fully protect dairies from financial disasters. While it was rare, dairies did fail. The causes of those failures were much the same as today; income didn’t keep pace with spending. Spending didn’t always indicate mismanagement, although that was possible. Spending could be driven by unforeseen disasters – weather, disease, personal or family health issues – but the outcome was the same as self-inflicted missteps. Without profits, the future was bleak.

Agriculture today in the U.S. doesn’t enjoy the slam-dunk industry choice like dairy farming was in the 1970s. There is no magic bullet, so let’s just set that aside for a bit.

I have always found the thoughts of legendary coach John Wooden insightful. Coach Wooden (who, by the way, preferred the term “teacher” to coach) grew up on a small farm in southern Indiana and credits much of his wisdom to his father, just as I do. Over the years, Wooden developed a “pyramid of success.” His words are like much good advice: simple and grounded in common sense.

In a TED Talk available on YouTube, Wooden shared some of the traits needed for success: industriousness, enthusiasm, working hard and believing in what you do. To these, Wooden added that faith and patience are keys to success. Faith is the belief that things will work out as they should … should. What should happen does not equal what we hope will happen. Wooden found that we often hope that things will work out the way we hope they will, but we fall short because efforts on our part fail to make sure that we have done all we could to bring that result about.

Effort does not always generate success, but nothing of any circumstance is to be found without earnest effort on our part. A good analogy in agriculture is found in a field of corn. Fertile ground can bring forth a great harvest, and the same field without rain, without proper weed control or with just bad luck can also have a crop failure. Infertile soil, soil too low in pH, phosphorus, nitrogen or potassium, will never bring forth a bumper crop. The ingredients just aren’t there.

Success in farming is not easy; it never was, nor will it ever be. There is no clear-cut road to success. All we can do is make sure we do all we can to be successful within the boundaries we control. We can improve our skills, our relationships and our savvy in marketing and production.

Dad taught me that doing your best is a habit. It doesn’t matter if you are sitting in a classroom, shooting basketball or planting corn; doing your best is essential. Doing your best may not be enough, but at least you have removed those variables.

I have written several times about my father. I want to call on another dad that I know well to close out this article.

My wife’s dad, Mr. Darrell Echols, farmed and worked in a bank in Ronceverte, West Virginia. At his bank retirement, he addressed the gathering and shared that on his headstone he only wanted one phrase, “He did his best.” He shared that he wasn’t the smartest person, so he had to devote more time to study and preparation. He wasn’t the most talented person, so he had to start the workday earlier and stay later. He evaluated his situation and worked on things that were within his control.

Mr. Echols was and is successful, but that success wasn’t ensured. With a little luck and a lot of grace, he succeeded by lowering the hurdles that confronted him by training himself to clear those hurdles. He did his best – day after day. Changes came at him, but he adjusted and moved forward. He did not blame others for his shortcomings; he simply overcame. What should we do as we farm into the future? Do likewise: Do our best. We may not succeed at one thing or another, but in the end we will be successful.  end mark

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience. Email Andy Overbay.