It’s a stunning fall day at Darnell Farms in Bryson City, North Carolina. The sky is bright blue and autumn leaves light up the mountains, but this idyllic morning is far from calm for the Darnell family.
More than 2,000 people came here yesterday for hayrides, pumpkin picking, and other autumn adventures. Afton Roberts was up until two in the morning scaring visitors in the haunted corn maze, but she’s full of energy as people arrive at her family’s farm today.
“I came in to a crowd of cars out here, and of course my nerves start bubbling when we start seeing that out here, but we love it. We love seeing people and we jumped out of the vehicle and started talking. People wanted samples so I started pouring apple cider and just making sure everybody’s accommodated because even though we got about six hours of sleep last night we want everybody to be happy,” she says.
Darnell Farms is an agritourism destination, and also a working wholesale farm. Afton, her brother Nate, and her father Jeff Darnell grow heirloom tomatoes for Ingles grocery stores and are expanding their wholesale strawberry business this year.
Afton beams with pride as she talks about how her father started the farm. “It all started with my dad who was a little bit of a rebel, honestly,” she says. “He was a caddy in Highlands and just a poor mountain boy who was trying to make a little money and he just saw how people were buying up all the farmland and starting to develop, so when he was about 18 he wrote an article to the newspaper and said that he was going to be the first conservationist and he was going to start farming full-time.”
Jeff Darnell started by growing strawberries in his mother’s yard. She was a piano teacher in town, but he had his eyes on the country soil. With the goal of conserving farmland, he began growing tobacco and tomatoes for his school teachers, and his business expanded from there.
“He was an innovator before his time who created two machines, his son and daughter to follow behind him to make us do it, which I would not change for anything in the world. It’s been a great experience, a hard experience, it’s been some really rough years, but thankfully with people who have really pushed the local movement with produce, there’s always a story behind it. There’s a story behind every little thing you get. There’s someone that has the dirt underneath their hands and so that’s how we got to this,” says his daughter Afton.
In addition to wholesale farming, Jeff Darnell loved talking to people and teaching them about history, science, and agriculture. In the mid-1990s Darnell Farms became one of the first agritourism destinations in the region.
“He wanted people to be more informed so he started having school groups come down. It was more than just giving someone a hayride. He’d jump off the tractor and he’d get real excited and all pumped up and start talking about all these major Cherokee figures who were once right here on this land. He got to where he had so much fun talking about it that people started coming. They’d spread the word. And I think every bit of this has become where he wanted people to be educated. So that’s how we became an agritourism farm,” Afton explains.
Afton and her brother Nate have been a part of the family farm all their lives. “I can’t even remember not being on the farm at all. We called ourselves free-range children. We were always just out barefooted on the farm all day long. I can remember just walking through the fields all day picking tomatoes that were still hot, just as a kid,” she says.
Now that Afton and her brother are grown up, they’ve taken on more responsibilities. Nate spends late nights and early mornings in the fields. Afton focuses on marketing and connecting with customers. They strike a balance between agritourism and wholesale farming by working together as a family.
On this brilliant fall day, Afton races between the farm store and kitchen to help customers find the perfect heirloom tomatoes. Nate chops wood for the campfire by the river and jumps on the tractor to give mile-long hayrides through the fields. Their father Jeff Darnell doesn’t sit still for a minute, either. “In fact, yeah, I see him right now,” Afton laughs. “He’s over there in the corner unloading pumpkins and talking to people. That’s his forte.”
Jeff Darnell says he loves having people visit his farm. “Well, I think it’s wonderful. You meet so many nice people. We had some people from Long Island this morning and Manhattan. Then you meet people from Florida and France. You meet people from around the world,” he says.
He’s eager to convey his passion for learning on the farm. “I think you can turn kids on to math, science, physics, and quantum mechanics. There’s nothing that I can think of that you cannot apply with a farm. I want the young kids to understand the power of knowledge.” he says.
When people come to visit, the Darnell family offers them more than tomatoes and pumpkins. They also share their Southern Appalachian traditions and culture. “Mountain people are very hospitable,” says Afton. “A different kind of Southern hospitality comes in with Swain County and I think it’s very welcoming to people.”
Autumn is a great time to experience agritourism. Find Darnell Farms and other family farms to visit in ASAP’s Local Food Guide, www.appalachiangrown.org.
Re-run aired: November 5, 2018