Danny McConnell is an enterprising man. If his blackberries are blemished, he brews cider. If a bushel of apples is overripe, he bakes pie. And when a global pandemic threatens to cancel the North Carolina Apple Festival, as was the case in 2020, he brought the party to his bucolic, 150-acre Henderson County farm.
“If you don’t keep up with the times, you will fall behind and soon be forgotten,” says McConnell, who hosted thousands of masked patrons at McConnell Farms during Labor Day weekend last year. He’d also thought to plant more than five acres of you-pick sunflowers that bloomed just in time for the occasion. The shindig was, as a farm employee put it, “like trying to have the Super Bowl at East Henderson High School.” Translation: It was super busy.
But McConnell is no stranger to busyness. Though life may look slow and easy on the 80-year-old family farm, it is anything but. In late summer, when Bold Life spoke with McConnell, he was months deep in a fig project. As the county’s largest commercial producer and purveyor of figs, McConnell planted 1,000 fig trees this year. Those trees yielded dozens of varieties, including the Teramo, an early producer with remarkable yield, and more traditional types like the Black Mission.
McConnell, who graduated from North Carolina State University in 1986 with a degree in horticulture, plans to sell a portion of the fig plants to gardeners next year, once they are large enough to be replanted. The remaining trees will stay on the farm, producing fruit for both retail and wholesale markets. “There’s been very minimal university research conducted on which fig varieties grow best where,” he says. “So we have to do a little experimentation.”
But McConnell’s definition of “a little” is slightly skewed. From an outsider’s perspective, the farm does a lot for an operation with just eight full-time employees, especially when you consider that a typical harvest includes 31 varieties of apples and 20 varieties of peaches, plus cabbage, corn, tomatoes, green beans, ginger, and Asian pears. Armed with a retail bakery license, the farm also peddles jams and spreads, baked goods like donuts, and more than a dozen flavors of ice cream. And then there’s the Apple-lanche—a fried apple pie topped with apple ice cream and apple coulis.
“For the apple ice cream, we actually make apple pies, cut them up, and fold the pieces into homemade vanilla ice cream,” says McConnell, as though apple aficionados needed any more temptation.
Though the Apple-lanche can only be purchased and devoured on the farm, five bakers will be rising early this Labor Day weekend—4:30am at the latest—to whip up fried apple pies, apple cider donuts, and apple-caramel fudge for the 75th North Carolina Apple Festival. For those who prefer something even sweeter, McConnell Farms will be selling figs at their farm store this fall, as well.
“I am ashamed to say that I carry most of it around in my head,” McConnell says when asked how he manages the endless list of new and ongoing endeavors, from hanging baskets to fig R&D to cider concoctions. “But I just love it—I love growing specialty crops.”
The 75th North Carolina Apple Festival is slated for Friday, Sept. 3, through Monday, Sept. 6, in downtown Hendersonville and surrounding orchards and other locations. For more information, visit ncapplefestival.org. McConnell Farms (177 Old Dana Road, Hendersonville) is open Monday through Saturday, 9am-5pm, and Sunday, 1pm-5pm.