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When he’s not tending to his acres of farmland on the outskirts of Hendersonville, Danny McConnell is likely inside the humble building where he dreams up the rich variety of

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

When he’s not tending to his acres of farmland on the outskirts of Hendersonville, Danny McConnell is likely inside the humble building where he dreams up the rich variety of

When he’s not tending to his acres of farmland on the outskirts of Hendersonville, Danny McConnell is likely inside the humble building where he dreams up the rich variety of flavor combinations for his homemade ice cream. Right now, he’s standing before tall shelves teetering with ingredients, running an index finger over the syrups, spices, nuts, and powders as if reading braille. He has a new pairing in mind: fig vinegar with strawberries.

To be sure, this blend is a far cry from the old-fashioned strawberry recipe that Danny and his wife, Kathryn, used when making their first batch of artisanal ice cream. But since then, they’ve unveiled a cornucopia of creative options — like burnt honey, ginger lavender, cherry fig, and blackberry chip, to name but a few.

The farm stand at McConnell Farms

Everything that Danny conceives at McConnell Farms is done with precision, from the flavors of his ice cream to the baskets that he makes to display flowers around his retail stand. photograph by Tim Robison

Outside, the sun nourishes the McConnells’ carefully curated orchards of apples and peaches, their fields of asparagus and blackberries; it warms their greenhouses and beehives, the events pavilion and retail shed adorned with handmade hanging baskets stuffed with Crayola-bright flowers. Despite the endless demands at his 130-acre farm, Danny gleefully loses himself in the act of ice cream creation.

“It feels really good to actually make it,” he says in a relaxed twang. “To pull up a chair and just sit here and think about flavors. I like the creativity.”

His probing index finger zips back to the vinegar. He taps the bottle thoughtfully, calculatingly — tap, tap, tap — then pulls it decisively from the overpopulated shelf. “I’ve never made strawberry-vinegar ice cream,” he says. “Until now.”

• • •

So begins another bold adventure at McConnell Farms — the kind of well-studied yet still improvisational flavor leap that lures hundreds of people to the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains every year to feast on doughnuts, cider, jams, and, above all, Danny’s delicious ice cream.

McConnell Farms did not originally include homemade ice cream on its menu of services rendered, although it did boast dairy cows. Danny’s grandfather John founded the enterprise during World War II. At first, the focus was typical. The family raised livestock and grew lots of tobacco, along with corn and wheat. A couple decades later, however, the farm largely pivoted to helping make one very finicky customer base happy: babies.

The old Gerber facility outside of Asheville

While Danny McConnell was growing up, the Gerber facility in south Asheville kept family business steady. Photography courtesy of BUNCOMBE COUNTY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, PACK MEMORIAL PUBLIC LIBRARY, ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA

Vintage Gerber baby food ad

From growing crops to make baby food to creating novel ice cream flavors, McConnell Farms has remained on the cutting edge of making little ones smile. Photography courtesy of BUNCOMBE COUNTY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, PACK MEMORIAL PUBLIC LIBRARY, ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA

In 1959, the Gerber company opened a 45-acre plant in south Asheville. Pumping out more than two million jars of baby food per day, the factory’s appetite for fruits and vegetables was nearly insatiable. Like many area farm families, the McConnells — with Danny’s dad, Reid, then taking point on the plow — turned to crops suited to Gerber’s tiny consumers: garden peas, apples, pumpkins, and peaches.

Business was steady, but to Danny’s way of thinking, it was too singularly focused. Early on, he’d exhibited a creative flair unique in the family. For years, he played drums and trained in Asheville with a retired jazz percussionist known for laying down rhythms behind the Desi Arnaz Orchestra. Danny dreamed not of jazz clubs but of performing ambitious symphonies with world-class orchestras. “To be up there on stage, to be in perfect sync with other musicians,” he recalls dreamily. “And if you don’t get it right, the audience will know.”

Danny’s attraction to precision and performance remains to this day, but his “audience” now consists of his customers at McConnell Farms. Danny eventually shelved the drums — though not his imaginative spirit — and headed to North Carolina State University, where he earned a degree in horticulture. Returning to the family farm, he used what he’d learned to diversify. Good thing, too. In 1998, the Gerber plant closed. But by then, McConnell Farms had branched out, expanding its vegetable rows to include cucumbers and rhubarb, installing new irrigation systems, and hammering up greenhouses to incubate peppers and tomato plants.

Danny McConnell, owner of McConnell Farms

Hendersonville farmer Danny McConnell began his handcrafted ice cream venture with a surplus of strawberries. photograph by Tim Robison

“Danny’s very open to new things that farmers who are more attached to the old ways might never try,” says Kathryn, a level-headed professional fundraiser in addition to being her husband’s partner in cream. “And that’s what has kept this farm going.”

In 2005, Danny’s diversification efforts prompted the Lancaster/Sunbelt Expo, a major agricultural convention, to crown him North Carolina Farmer of the Year, an honor usually reserved for operations that count acres by the thousands. Chef John Fleer, a James Beard Award finalist, stocks his renowned Asheville restaurant, Rhubarb, with Danny’s vegetables and fruits, especially the figs. “Everything he grows is of such high quality,” Fleer says. “The words ‘experimental’ and ‘curious’ certainly apply to him. He keeps us guessing. But he’s easygoing … very comfortable in his skin as a farmer.”

• • •

Around the turn of the millennium, Danny looked out over his rolling farmland and decided to add strawberries to the mix. At first, he sold them wholesale to regional grocers. But so many of the berries sprouted up that he started hawking boxloads of them out of the farm’s retail shed. As Danny gradually took over the farm’s management from his aging parents, a customer made a providential suggestion. He told Danny, “Hey, you ought to make ice cream with these strawberries.”

While ice cream may be synonymous with summer fun and escape, a first-rate homemade batch requires scoops of toil and trouble. The McConnells’ maiden dip involved a five-gallon, poplar-paneled churn made by an Amish craftsman and powered by an old motor that emitted pop after sputtering pop. The results weren’t bad, but they came very slowly.

Pint of strawberries, the ice cream flavors menu, figs growing on trees

The ice cream menu at McConnell Farms changes depending on available flavor combinations. But you’ll often find some variation on fig — and you’ll always find strawberry. photograph by Tim Robison

Not to be licked, the couple invested in a used Italian gelato machine, which allows less air into the mixing process than an ice cream maker. They also enrolled in classes — basically ice cream schools — throughout the Carolinas. As a dairy base, the McConnells settled on a mix high in butterfat, which, when run through the gelato machine, creates a dense, luxurious taste. Imagine a tidal wave of pleasure versus a mere whitecap.

The couple’s inaugural batch starred strawberries, of course, with the precise recipe coming courtesy of a dearly departed relative. “My grandmother Ada — everyone pronounced it Ay-dur — was a stern woman, but also famous for her strawberry pies,” Danny says. “So we used what she put into her filling — cinnamon, sugar, lemon juice — and I added nutmeg because I just love nutmeg.”

Bowl of various McConnell Farms ice cream flavors

Sample the flavors (clockwise from far left): mascarpone fig, strawberry, blue strawberry, burnt honey, Punkin Chunkin, and blueberry crumble. photograph by Craig Distl

Peach seemed a natural next choice given the fruit’s abundance on the farm. But peach ice cream proved difficult to make. “You could put an entire bushel into the mixer, and it still wouldn’t taste like anything but vanilla,” Danny recalls with lingering exasperation. The solution was twofold: First, flashing back to the Gerber days, the McConnells switched the kind of peach they employed from what you find in a grocery produce section to what manufacturers use to make baby food. Then, they baked the more pliable peaches down into a syrup to pour into the mixer.

In the outbuilding where the McConnells keep their machinery and towers of tongue-tingling ingredients, the couple began experimenting with novel flavors: sweet corn, plum sake, and mango chutney. “The joke around the house,” Kathryn says, “is that if Danny has an idea for a flavor and I say, ‘Oh, no!’ it will be a big seller.”

• • •

Moving around his work area, Danny pours the fig vinegar into a batch of radiant strawberries already churning in the old gelato machine. Minutes later, after eagerly slipping a spoonful into his mouth, he smacks his lips and pronounces the results … unsatisfactory. In goes a spoonful of sugar, followed by a splash more vinegar, followed by more churning.

He tastes the dusty-pink confection again, squints, and then smiles. “Now that’s got some tightness,” he says, beaming, then explains: “That’s my own language. When you can taste it on the back of your throat — like drinking liquor — I call that tightness.”

But Danny’s experiment isn’t over. Packed into a three-gallon drum, the batch goes into cold storage. “We’ll see how it tastes after it’s frozen,” he says. “Things can taste different after they’re frozen.”

Orchards at McConnell Farms

During the summer months, apples ripen in the orchards at McConnell Farms. photograph by Tim Robison

While the jury’s still out on whether Danny’s strawberry-vinegar concoction will make it onto McConnell Farms’ menu, there’s no doubt that it — as well as the couple’s other fabulous flavors — will not be found on store shelves. Scaling up a retail operation, the McConnells say, would inevitably compromise the quality of their ice cream.

Besides, the joy of it really happens right here, on the farm. Raising the ingredients from seedlings. Tinkering with a symphony of flavor combinations. Watching customers melt into the pleasure of having finished a masterpiece while the sun warms the nearby fields. “I’m always thinking about things that are new and funky,” Danny says. “Some work out and some don’t. I like the challenge.”

McConnell Farms
177 Old Dana Road
Hendersonville, NC 28792
(828) 692-2819

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This story was published on Jun 18, 2024

Billy Warden

Billy Warden is a Raleigh-based writer, TV producer, and marketing executive as well as two-time TEDx speaker and longtime singer with the glam rock band The Floating Children. His work has been recognized with a Muse Creative Arts award, Telly awards, and a regional Emmy nomination.