photograph by Tim Robison

The Essential North Carolina Grocery List — Food feeds our memories: Hearty country breakfasts. Backyard cookouts. Sunday suppers. Regardless of the occasion, every feast, meal, and snack begins the same: with a grocery list and a trip to the market. To make a meal of these North Carolina favorites, you’d need to travel from the Mountains for Mills River Creamery milk, through the Piedmont for a few staples, to Wrightsville Beach for chicken salad from Roberts Grocery. Sure, the trip would take all day — at least — but it’d be so worth the time spent.

When Bradley Johnston walks onto his dairy farm in Mills River, 45 Jersey cows come to greet him, licking and nuzzling his hands in hopes of a pat on the head. “They’re just a bunch of pets is all they are,” he says. “It’s like having a herd of 45 dogs.”

These aren’t just any cows, though: When Johnston bought this farm in 2016, he hand-selected these dairy cows from the Biltmore herd; each was DNA tested for the A2 protein, which is more digestible for humans than the A1 protein found in most commercially produced milk. Even people who are lactose-intolerant can usually drink it.

Johnston’s family has been farming since his grandfather started a commercial dairy farm in 1917. Johnston grew up surrounded by cows and corn. “For people who grow up dairy farming and get an interest in it, it’s pretty hard to get out of your blood,” he says.

About four years ago, Johnston opened Mills River Creamery on the family farm. In 2016, he moved the dairy to his new farm, where he continues the tradition with his new herd of Jersey cows and his partner, Nancy Waycaster.

At his small storefront on the corner of Highway 280 and Haywood Road, customers pop in for scoops of silky ice cream. The inside of the store is like an old-fashioned soda fountain, with red vinyl stools surrounding retro, high-top tables. Fresh milk, cheese, and eggs fill the refrigerator shelves. The creamery uses as much local produce as possible in its products; strawberries, blueberries, and peaches for the ice cream all come from Mills River farmers. 

Johnston grew up here, and he has strong ties to people and organizations in the area. “The older you get, the more important it is where you came from,” he says. “You don’t think much about it when you’re 18 years old, but keeping deep roots planted in the community and doing what we do, it’s just a way of life.”

The Essential North Carolina Grocery List: Pimento Cheese

Mills River Creamery
4193 Haywood Road
Mills River, NC 28759
(828) 891-4007

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Katie King is the assistant editor at Our State.