A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

A colorful mural of a pickup truck brimming with tomatoes, peppers, and other produce makes Chestnutt Farms Produce Stand easy to spot among the surrounding fields. Originally constructed as a

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

A colorful mural of a pickup truck brimming with tomatoes, peppers, and other produce makes Chestnutt Farms Produce Stand easy to spot among the surrounding fields. Originally constructed as a

Farm to Table: A Guide to Agritourism in Duplin County

A colorful mural of a pickup truck brimming with tomatoes, peppers, and other produce makes Chestnutt Farms Produce Stand easy to spot among the surrounding fields. Originally constructed as a gas station in the 1920s, the sunny yellow building delivers summer’s best from nearby farms: corn, zucchini, peanuts, melons, Dixie Lee peas, and collard greens.

Sharlette and David Chestnutt. photograph by Alyssa Morgan Malone

Sharlette Chestnutt is on her feet, arranging zucchini, weighing a bag of green peanuts. “We just want everything local and fresh,” she says. Her mother, Gail Davis, and niece, Samantha Carper, greet a couple of Chestnutt Farms regulars, their arms full of ripe watermelons grown by Sharlette’s husband, David.

Farming has been a large part of family life and the economy in Duplin County for as long as anyone can remember. The generations-old tradition, with land and knowledge passed down through families, shows in the rows of corn that stretch from the highways to the trees bordering these fields.

If you’re hungry for a closer look at — and taste of — the bounty from this part of eastern North Carolina, you’re in luck. A 45-minute drive from Wilmington or Jacksonville will take you to Duplin County, and 15 or so more will get you there from Raleigh. Wherever you are in the state, read on for some of Duplin County locals’ favorite agritourism destinations.



 

Dark Branch Farms has been in owner Adam Grady’s family for more than two centuries. photograph by Alyssa Morgan Malone

Dark Branch Farms

In the summer, visitors to Dark Branch Farms fill their baskets with fresh strawberries. photograph by Alyssa Morgan Malone

As a parent and lifelong farmer, Adam Grady knows the lessons farm work can teach a child. “I was raised on a traditional eastern North Carolina tobacco farm, where I learned the ability, responsibility, and value of hard work,” Grady says. Dark Branch Farms, just outside Kenansville, has been in his family for more than 200 years.

When Grady started looking for a way to instill these same values into his children, strawberries seemed like the answer. With the advice and mentorship of Jack Smith, a retired 30-year strawberry farmer and father-in-law of a friend, Grady established a bountiful supply of berries to sell on his farm.

Their roadside stand is now a family affair. Kaden, 12, and Anna Kaye, 7, help out, while Grady’s wife, Brandy, promotes and oversees the stand’s operation. In addition to shopping for juicy, ripe strawberries, visitors fill their baskets with crisp cucumbers, sweet corn, and other seasonal produce grown steps from the stand.

 

Cottle Farms

Nearly 60 years ago, Ned Cottle planted his first field of strawberries in Faison. Fast forward to 2023, and Cottle Farms has grown into a sizeable grower and distributor of fresh produce. It’s also become the leading supplier of strawberry tips, plugs, and bare root plants for strawberry growers across the country. The family-owned business grows cantaloupes, muscadine grapes, blackberries, blueberries, and a selection of vegetables, as well.

During strawberry season, mid-March through mid-June, visit Cottle Farms produce stands at select cities and towns around the state, including Duplin County’s Wallace, where you can pick up a pint of ripe red berries for shortcake, cucumbers and grape tomatoes for salad, and zucchini to stir fry. You can also look for Cottle Farms at the Carolina Strawberry Festival in Wallace each May.

 

At Master Blend Family Farms, the Simmons raise prized pork. photograph by Alyssa Morgan Malone

Master Blend Family Farms

Pick up fresh pork products at the farm store. photograph by Alyssa Morgan Malone

A relative newcomer to farming, Ron Simmons isn’t afraid to try something new. When his father-in-law retired from growing field crops after nearly 50 years, Simmons asked him if he could give farming a try before the land was sold. When the answer was “yes,” he jumped into raising pigs, even though he’d never run a farm before.

To differentiate Master Blend Family Farms in a market saturated with swine, he decided to create a brand of premium pork. Instead of confining his herd in a commercial hog barn, his pigs roam the farm’s fields and forests, in the open air, free from antibiotics and growth hormones. The experiment was a success, and Ron’s juicy, succulent pork is now sought after by discerning chefs across the state.

But Master Blend Farms is more than prized piggies. A food truck overseen by Simmons’ wife, Laurita, and a general store draw shoppers and diners to the 70-acre property. In addition to hickory smoked sausage and other pork products, the store also sells grilling supplies—wood pellets, tongs, charcoal, seasonings, and sauces. Don’t miss the selection of North Carolina home decor products — or Aunt Shirley’s Ribs, hot from the food truck.

 

Enjoy muscadine wine along with your dinner at The Country Squire. photograph by Dave Wolding

The Country Squire Winery

Country Squire owner Iris Lennon was inspired by her native Scotland. photograph by Dave Wolding

If you’re puzzled when you notice the Scottish clan flags and portraits of bagpipe players at The Country Squire Winery in Warsaw, you may be surprised to learn that Scottish immigrants were among the early European settlers in this eastern North Carolina county. The owner of this one-of-a-kind establishment, Iris Lennon, also a native of Scotland, began adding reminders of her homeland when she bought the restaurant. Today, the Country Squire has evolved into a tartan-clad winery, restaurant, inn, and vineyard.

The winery, added in 2006 by Lennon’s daughter and son-in-law, offers tastings of aptly named Pride of Scotland Chardonnay, Sunken Garden Thistle, Highland Mary, and more. Settled in the rustic Tartan Tasting Room & Gift Shop, you’ll hear the stories behind the wines you sample.

In addition to sipping vino, you can stroll the vineyard beyond the tasting room. Rows of arbors heavy with muscadines surround a gazebo, which makes for great photos when it’s not in use for weddings.

 

Stomp on grapes — or simply sip in the vineyard — at Duplin Winery. Photography courtesy of Duplin Winery

Duplin Winery

Since the 1970s, the Fussell family has made wine from North Carolina native muscadine grapes in Duplin County. Venture to Duplin Winery to learn about their journey from struggling, small-scale grape growers to the largest muscadine wine producer in the world.

On Sycamore Street in Rose Hill, you’ll pull up to a building that looks like it was plucked out of the Old West and attached to a rustic, barn-like structure. The broad front porch casts shade on round, four-seat tables, with hanging ferns and vines that twine its support posts — a perfect place to relax and enjoy the winery’s Southern hospitality and its newest release, Muscadine Moscato.

Inside, take part in a tasting of 10 of Duplin’s 47 wines, with a selection that changes every few months, while staff guide you through the wines’ flavors and histories. While touring the wine-making facility, you’ll follow the process that turns muscadines into Duplin’s award-winning wines.

Around here, the hospitality is just as sweet as the produce. When it’s time to head home, the Fussells will sweeten your send-off with wine bottled during your visit — a tasty remembrance of your visit to the winery and your time in Duplin County.

This story was published on Sep 11, 2023

Lara Ivanitch

Lara Ivanitch is a freelance writer who resides in Raleigh.