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She farms, makes wine and dreams

Larry McDermott

Life on the Farm


It hit Sofia Lilly while she was doing pre-med work in college. Doctors work inside. Farmers work outside.


 “I wanted to be outside, where I could taste and smell and see life and nature,” she said, summing up a life change that has put her back on the family farm, Overmountain Vineyards in Polk County, and at the forefront of its diversification and experimentation.


Lilly will kick off this season’s Friends Of Agriculture breakfast in Rutherford County next Wednesday at 7:00 a.m. at the Farm Bureau, 153 Reservation Dr., Spindale. The Polk County ag breakfasts begin September 18 with Helen Blackwell, a county extension agent who focuses on 4-H and youth development.


Polk County’s breakfasts are held the third Wednesday of each month while Rutherford County’s are on the second Wednesday of each month.


These free breakfast gatherings, sponsored by the Farm Bureau, start on farmer time—7:00 a.m.—but you don’t have to be a farmer to go and enjoy the good food, much of which comes from local farms. The breakfasts serve up education, an exchange of ideas, opportunities to meet farmers and enjoy mutual community support and respect.


The camaraderie of being with fellow farmers is elixir to Lilly.


The annual grape harvest will be in full swing at Overmountain Vineyards when she talks to the Rutherford County group about her family’s farm and the future of farmers in general.


Lilly grew up at the vineyard. She will be the first to tell you that if it weren’t for Lita and Frank Lilly, her parents who started the farm 25 years ago and later its winery, she wouldn’t be where she is today.


“I’m stepping into a farm. I know that,” she said. “But agriculture isn’t what it used to be. Very few young people can afford to go into farming, no matter how badly they might want to. The big investors in ag scare me and make me worry about the future of farming.”


Overmountain Vineyards is a legacy farm, and Sofia wants to guide it in directions that will ensure its future.


The 70-acre family farm is about much more than five varieties of grapes and an array of fine wine. It has become highly diversified, growing blueberries, figs, Bartletts pears, stemmed flowers and vegetables while raising chickens, keeping honeybees and managing a sizable composting operation. 


And, Lilly has embraced agritourism with aplomb.


“Agritourism is incredible. We are creating a story for people who have never been on a farm. We teach them what it means to grow things, to be in a natural setting, to use their senses and take it all in,” she said. About one-fourth of the 7,000 visitors last year did not come for the wine.


Overmountain Vineyards now has two villas rented through Airbnb so overnight guests can wake up to the sounds and smells of a farm. “Our visitors are now coming from far and wide,” she added. A food truck is on the farm every other week.


But the heartbeat of the family farm is the vineyard, where the work is anything but easy. The hours can sometimes be too long for Lilly to enjoy fly fishing, one of her passions. She is an avid angler, putting her in the fastest growing demographic in flyfishing.


Her normal 60-hour week changes to an 80-hour week when the grape harvest begins. Over the course of a single season each vine is touched 13 times.


As the grapes are being harvested this week, the size of the wine tasting room is being doubled. The family plans to increase their current production of 2,000 cases to 3,000 to expand distribution in the state.


The farm challenge for Lilly, a renaissance woman, is to “keep the feel, to make the work purposeful and fun.”


She’s up for it.


Larry McDermott, a retired journalist, owns a 40-acre organic farm in Rutherfordton, where he grows blueberries, keeps bees and raises horses, dairy goats, chickens and turkeys. Email: hardscrabblehollow@gmail.com or see farm happenings at www.facebook.com/hardscrabblehollowfarmllc