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Strawberry Jam

A produce operation evolves into an agritourism destination
Story and photos by: Glen Liford 3/25/2020

On the third weekend of the month on Saturday, May 16, throngs of visitors will converge on the farm of Nate Darnell, his sister, Afton, and their dad, Jeff, along the Tuckasegee River at Bryson City, N.C. The visitors, many of them from nearby Asheville or Waynesville, will come to the idyllic setting to stroll the fertile river-bottom fields, enjoy bluegrass music, peruse various vendor booths, pick their own strawberries, and perhaps purchase other farm-fresh produce.

They’ll also get to see how farming was done in the old days — watching local enthusiasts plow with mules — and visit with Nate and Afton or other farm employees while taking a hayride around the acreage.

This experience is not what the farm set out to be, stresses Nate, a customer of Smoky Mountain Farmers Co-op in Waynesville, but it’s the way the operation has evolved to stay competitive and profitable in the changing agricultural landscape.

Jeff moved his family from neighboring Macon County in the 1970s due to pressures from developers. Farmland, at the time, was a bit easier to come by in Swain and Jackson counties, Nate explains. It wasn’t long before the Daltons’ commercial produce operation included acres across the three counties. Today, the operation encompasses around 80 acres.

“Dad had a little bit of you-pick products, but it was mostly a commercial operation,” says Nate. “Sometime in the early 1990s, he opened up a fruit stand here on the farm because people kept coming down here. It was such an open place. We were always playing music and just picking for the fun of it, and people would stop in and hang around with us.”

The family’s hospitality drew repeat

visitors, and the seed for the family’s

agritourism venture was born.  

In less than a decade, the simple fruit stand grew into a larger produce store, and in early 2000, the family hosted their first “Strawberry Jam.” The event offered customers a chance to pick strawberries during the peak of berry season while enjoying performances from the Darnells and other talented local musicians.

“I always say we were at the beginning of agritourism,” says Nate with a laugh. “It just kind of happened by accident. We were already doing it. We love talking to people. We love playing music. It just worked well.”

The farm’s location on the river helped, too, as the scenic property was a magnet for folks who enjoyed the outdoors.

In addition to a commercial produce operation focused on primary crops like tomatoes, strawberries, and pumpkins, the Darnells also grow cucumbers, squash, hot and sweet peppers, and sweet corn. The corn has been doing well, Nate says, so they’ve increased the acreage of the cash crop over the last few years.

Nate and Afton each have their own farms that they operate, and they work together to run Darnell Farms. Today, approximately 75 percent of the enterprises’ income comes from the agritourism events. In addition to the popular spring event, the Darnells also capitalize on the fall pumpkin craze that has become so popular in recent years. The Darnells offer pick-your-own pumpkins coupled with intriguing corn and sunflower mazes for visitors of all ages. They also offer hosted hayrides driven by informed, friendly employees who answer questions about the farm’s operation and answer questions from inquisitive visitors. The fall activities are more popular than the spring events, says Nate.

“During the Strawberry Jam, we probably have 5,000 people here,” he says. “On a normal weekend, we might get 500 to 1,000, but in the fall, we are bombarded. It doesn’t stop between the last weekend in September through Halloween. We will have 2,000 to 3,000 people per day.”

Each of those visitors offer an opportunity for the Darnells to tell agriculture’s story and share their love of farming.

“They enjoy talking to us during the hay wagon ride,” says Nate. “We try to treat our customers like family. When we get to the field, we say, ‘You’ve got eight acres of pumpkins to choose from. Have at it!’ We tell them we’re in no hurry and to take their time, that we’re happy to wait on them. Some of them are like, ‘Are you sure?’”

 The whole process is a learning opportunity for both sides. The visitors are often experiencing something for the first time — the reality of a working farm.

“Some of them will leave and say, ‘I was kind of scared of that place, but now I’m not so scared,’’” says Nate. “I can see a difference in many of them when they leave.”

The exchange is important on the farmer’s side, too, says Nate, as producers embrace new opportunities to promote agriculture.

Nate frequently participates in seminars to teach other farmers how to make agritourism work and create a successful experience.

Topics like managing migrant labor, working with all sorts of people and personalities, and economic concepts like supply and demand and working in a competitive environment are vital business skills, he says.

“The first thing I tell people is you must have an appreciation for farming,” he stresses. “That doesn’t mean you need to be an expert, but you need to respect how difficult it is. Then, I tell the farmers, ‘You might want to learn how to talk to people.’

“There are a lot of farmers I know who might be the best farmers you will ever meet, but when you get them in front of people, they can’t seem to get a word out. They don’t want to change their ways, but these days, a little change might be necessary to have a successful farm.”

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