McConnell Farms

The following articles were published from 2003 to 2005 in the Hendersonville Times-News.

By Jennie Jones Giles
Danny McConnell farms about 150 acres in the Dana community. Farming operations in North Carolina usually encompass thousands of acres.
Yet McConnell was the farmer selected as the North Carolina Farmer of the Year in 2005 by the Lancaster/Sunbelt Expo. Judging was conducted by the N.C. Farm Bureau.
Jimmy Cowan, area field representative for the N.C. Farm Bureau, nominated McConnell for the award.
McConnell was selected as the state winner because of his specialized farming operation and quality of his crops, said a spokesman with the Lancaster/Sunbelt Expo.
“Being small and specialized helps us with our main goal — quality,” McConnell said. “That’s where our main focus and emphasis is.”
McConnell Farms was started in the 1940s as a 70-acre dairy operation by McConnell’s father, Reid McConnell. His uncle, Charles McConnell, joined the operation in the 1950s. Later, his uncle left the operation and his father planted apple trees. Reid McConnell began growing row crops in Transylvania County while the apple trees grew, McConnell said.
In the 1970s, the apples began producing, he said.
McConnell received a horticulture degree from N.C. State University in 1986 and returned to the farm in Dana. He began to diversify his operation in the early 1990s, adding vegetables, a greenhouse and specialty crops such as strawberries.
Today, strawberries cover 13 acres. There are 45 acres of vegetables, including cucumbers, peppers and zucchini. There are eight acres of specialty vegetables, such as asparagus and rhubarb, and three acres of specialty fruits, including blackberries and raspberries.
Apples are still a part of the farm, covering about 16 acres. Strawberry plants and vegetable plants are also grown.
“The apples and vegetables are sold on the farm and to chain stores,” McConnell said.
Chain stores include Wal-Mart, Food Lion, Ingles, Kroger and Publix. Some of his apples were exported to Cuba. The strawberries are sold on the farm and specialty fruits and vegetables are sold retail and wholesale. The plants are sold to farmers throughout the Southeast.
“We are also proud of our processed food division,” McConnell said. “We produce apple butter, strawberry jams and jellies and butters that are sold on the farm as well as at festivals throughout the South.”
The processed food division is partnered with Carolyn Atkins of Saluda.
McConnell said he and his wife, Kathryn, still cannot believe they won the state award.
“Agriculture has changed so much in the last 10 years,” he said. “If you don’t keep up, you’ll fall behind and soon be forgotten.”

By Jennie Jones Giles
Combine fresh lettuce and greens, mix in leeks and radishes, and top off with some fresh tomatoes. If you think it is too early in the gardening season for a fresh, homegrown salad, think again.
Danny McConnell is trying to take advantage of the growing popularity of pre-packaged salads and is now growing all the ingredients in a greenhouse.
He even has tomatoes ripe for picking. They are small, salad tomatoes growing in a hanging basket.
Randy Gardner with the Mountain Horticultural and Research Center came up with the idea of propagating a tomato plant that will grow in a hanging basket and McConnell Farms has been selling them for a couple of years.
“One of the baskets had 300 tomatoes on it,” McConnell said. “Last fall during the floods, people with the hanging baskets still had fresh tomatoes picked off their decks.”
McConnell said the hanging baskets are also popular at retirement centers.
Inside the 30 by 50 foot greenhouse can be found all the ingredients to compliment the tomatoes.
McConnell used 5 inch white aluminum gutters, filled them with soil, put in a drip tape as used in tomato fields and planted seeds.
“White reflects heat better,” he said. “Using the drip tape for water, there is no mud or dirt splashing up on the plants and it keeps the leaves dry.”
The gutters are about 42 feet long and run in layers the length of the greenhouse.
Plantings were staggered, so fresh lettuce and greens are always ready to cut.
“The bigger plants shade the smaller ones,” he said. “When we snip off the larger plants, the smaller ones come out.”
On the top layers he is growing leeks and radishes.
“We have a mix of kale, lettuces, young spinach and rape,” he said. “It is just like the spring mix people buy in the grocery stores.”
Rape is an old green similar to mustard greens in flavor, he said.
There are eight different types of lettuces and greens in McConnell’s mix. The greens and lettuces have never been sprayed. No insecticides or fungicides have been used and they were never fertilized, he said.
“We do plant the seeds in commercial potting soil, so it is not certified organic,” he said.
“We will cut the greens and lettuces, put them in zip-lock bags and weigh them out,” McConnell said.
McConnell is also selling horseradish in pots. The horseradish was started in his greenhouses.
Fresh asparagus cut on the farm is ready.
“People love fresh asparagus,” he said.
His rhubarb should be ready this week, also. The rhubarb is later than usual because of the late cold snap and the weather in the fall. The Food TV Network was planning to film a segment on rhubarb at McConnell Farms this year, but the rhubarb was not ready for cutting in time.
“They had to go to Oregon,” he said.
McConnell had rhubarb growing in pots for sell for planting in yards.
“Rhubarb plants make excellent landscape plants,” he said.
His father-in-law, Fritz McCall, is selling ornamental plants, azaleas, rhododendrons and red maples.
People were also asking about the lupines growing in his mother’s flower garden, McConnell said. “Now we’ve got them,” he said.

By Jennie Jones Giles
By taking the knowledge developed by researchers, using the family’s experience in farming and horticulture, taking chances with new ideas and technology and paying attention to consumer trends, the McConnells have turned a former apple orchard into a successful, diversified farming venture.
When Danny McConnell’s father, Reid McConnell, took ownership of the property, there were 100 acres of apple trees on the farm in Dana.
“In the 1990s we started pushing out a few acres of apple trees every year,” said Danny McConnell. “Now we have about 15 acres in apple trees.”
The apple orchard is four different farms today — a retail strawberry farm, a retail farm and nursery, a wholesale greenhouse business and a wholesale vegetable farm and apple orchard.
From late winter to mid-June, McConnell is immersed in the retail end of the operation. In the summer and fall, the operation is primarily wholesale.
The McConnell’s grow retail and wholesale strawberries; retail bedding plants, ornamentals and hanging baskets; retail vegetables, such as asparagus; and wholesale vegetable plants, vegetables, apples and Indian corn. The greenhouses on the farm contain approximately $1 million of vegetable plants and another $1 million of strawberry plants, he said.
“In order to compete, you have got to keep up with what people want,” said McConnell.
The season has ended for the retail end of the strawberry farm. The retail barn where residents could buy freshly picked strawberries.
But the wholesale strawberry venture is in full swing.
“About 20 different strawberry farmers buy our plants up and down the East coast,” said McConnell.
The N.C. State University graduate grows certified insect- and disease-free Chandler and Bish strawberry plants.
Most Chandler strawberry plants are started in California, sold to plant growers in Canada, where they are grown in the summer, and sold to farmers in the fall, when the tip-rooted plants are set out.
McConnell is getting his plants from N.C. State University, where plant pathologists start the plants in test tubes with no genetic manipulation. The plants come from the original Chandler foundation plants developed in California. He grows the young plants in a mixture of perlite and vermcilite inside PVC pipe high off the ground in his greenhouse. The plants are watered four times a day and fertilized as needed. Samples are sent weekly to N.C. State, where specialists determine the weekly fertilizer needs of the plants.
“I can get 250 plants in February and by Nov. 1 turn them into one million plants,” he said.
The strawberry plants put out runners. The runners are cut, bagged according to size, placed in a cooler and then moved to other greenhouses, where they are grown.
The plants are raised in extremely strict greenhouse conditions. Employees can only enter the greenhouses after showering and changing clothes and shoes. No insecticides or fungicides are used. McConnell’s plants are free of the anthacnose fungal pathogen found recently in strawberry plants from Canada.
McConnell estimates there are only six strawberry plant growers in the state raising certified insect- and disease-free plants. Of these, he is the only farmer growing the plants in greenhouses.
“I’m now taking orders for the 2005 crop,” he said. “I sell my plants to strawberry farmers across the Southeast for fruit production.”
The Bish strawberry plant McConnell grows was developed at N.C. State University. The plant was named after a strawberry extension specialist at the university who was murdered a few years ago in Raleigh. McConnell said the Bish strawberry is somewhat resistant to the anthacnose fungus. This is the first year he is selling the new strawberry plant.
“I have a license to sell the Bish,” he said.
Some of McConnell’s strawberry plants are grown in 10 acres of fields on his farm for retail sales of fresh strawberries in the spring.
The family also sells in the spring bedding plants, ornamentals and hanging baskets grown in the greenhouses.
“I try to be different,” he said. “I’m always thinking of something new to do.”
McConnell sold at the retail barn about two acres of asparagus this spring.
He also sold tomatoes, developed by Randy Gardner, a researcher at the Mountain Horticultural Crop Research Station in Fletcher. The tomato plants are grown in hanging baskets.
“They have excellent flavor and color,” he said. “I sold around 250. They’ve been very popular.”
McConnell also sells Japanese maples and other trees and plants grown by his father-in-law, Fritz McCall, former horticulture teacher at East Henderson High School.
“We also sold rhubarb,” he said. “I pay attention to food trends and try to grow fruits and vegetables that appeal to Northerners and Southerners and different ethnic-type foods.”
In addition to the farm’s acreage, the McConnell’s lease about 40 acres of land on which several different crops are grown.
One popular crop is Indian corn.
“I have grown 40 acres of Indian corn,” he said. “I’m cutting way back this year because we are planting so late. We haven’t been able to get into the fields and plant because of the rain.”
The Indian corn is sold through a broker to stores such as Ingles, Food Lion and Bi-Lo.
“The biggest chore is the Indian corn,” he said. “The corn must be pulled and shucked by hand. Then the corn is wrapped into bundles of three, tied with a rubber band and dried in the dryer.”
The drier is a former tobacco-curing barn made of steel. There is a 400,000 BTU gas furnace in it, which heats to about 150 degrees.
“It kills the insects and dries the corn out to keep it from molding,” he said.
McConnell also grows about 12 acres of bell peppers, 25 acres of zucchini, cucumbers and different types of hot peppers.
The hot pepper plants are sold to a processing plant in Clayton, Ga., where the company grows the plants, harvests the peppers and makes hot sauce and salsa.
“In the last 10 years, hot sauce and salsa are outselling ketchup,” he said.
Some of the strawberry fields will be planted in zucchini to recycle the plastic.
“I specialize in zucchini,” he said. “People want different colors in their foods now.”
McConnell is also raising seedless watermelon plants.
“They are the most expensive vegetable seed there is,” he said. “I have to baby them. They are closely guarded for moisture and light.”
A grower in Gaffney, S.C., buys the plants and raises the seedless watermelons on about 75 acres.
In the fall, the McConnell’s will also be harvesting the 15 acres of apples, many of which will be sold to C.L. Henderson Produce, National Fruit and Knouse Foods.
“Three trailers of our apples went to Cuba,” said McConnell.
The McConnell’s still grow Golden Delicious and Romes, but they are also growing new varieties, such as Galas, Honey Crisp and Cameo.
“We used to be strictly wholesale, now there is a niche for retail,” he said. “We hope to eventually keep the retail shed open all the time.”
The farm employs two to three employees year round and during the wholesale season employs about 60 people, said McConnell.
“The 1990s were very good to us,” said McConnell, who also serves on the board of directors of the N.C. Farm Bureau. “We put a lot back into the farm.”
There is an underground irrigation system for all 10 acres of the strawberries and a 1,200 gallon main pump. Pipe is buried over about three miles of the farm for irrigation, he estimates.
The greenhouses have automatic watering systems also.
“If we weren’t diversified, we would have been out of business,” said McConnell. “There is no way we would have been in the apple business today.
“I like doing it and I like getting away from the mainstream,” he said.